because writing is clarifying

because writing is clarifying

Subbu Allamaraju’s Journal

Accept | Tentative ✓ | Decline

I’m done with the excuse of not being in charge of my time. Over the last two months, I started taking a few steps to deliberately simplify my calendar. I now manage extended blocks of work time on most working days. With the exception of a few, most of my meetings are recurring meetings. I skip meetings where I’m not required to help make decisions. I try to combine ad hoc meetings into other scheduled meetings.

The early results are positive. I’m more productive, less stressful, calmer and more focused than before. I’m still looking for patterns and refining my techniques. and I’ve ways to go.

I know I’m not alone when I admit that great chunks of our work time are spent in meetings. There were weeks where I spent 70–90% of my work time in meetings. Even during those weeks when this percentage was low, my free time consisted of 30 or 60 minute slivers spread throughout the work day. These fragments were clearly not sufficient for any deep work. I tried to catchup and get focused work done in the evenings and weekends. It worked, but only for a while.

Few Lessons

Like most others, I too took meeting overload as a consequence of increased collaboration, scope of work, and responsibilities. I thought that I just needed to master the art of multi-tasking and being effective despite frequent interruptions and context switching. A few resources helped me realize that this notion is just a fallacy.

First, thanks to Susan Cain’s Quiet, I learned that excessive meetings and frequent context switching over-stimulate my mind, and that each of us “need very different levels of stimulations to function at (our) best”. On any given day, the more think time I take the less stressful I’m. The more time I spend in meetings and context switching, the more tired I become at the end of the day.

To further quote from Quiet,

What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.

Say no more to multi-tasking.

Second, thanks to an external speaker series at Expedia, I had a chance to listen first hand to Eduardo Briceño talk about growth mindset, and “learning and performance zones”. The gist of his talk was that, as we spend years in our careers, we get stuck in the performing zone, and spend little, if any, in the learning zone. In the performing zone, we repeat and practice what we already know. We continue to demonstrate the same set of capabilities intent on minimizing mistakes and being effective.

Learning zone, on the other hand, is where we “engage in activities designed for improvement, fully concentrated on what (we) haven’t mastered yet, and expecting to make mistakes from which (we) can learn”.

To quote from Eduardo’s TED talk How to get better at the things you care about,

The reason many of us don’t improve much despite our hard work is that we tend to spend almost all of our time in the performance zone. This hinders our growth, and ironically, over the long term, also our performance.

However, time for learning zone does not create by itself. I needed to explicitly carve out time to be in the learning zone. The simplest way to carve out time for learning is to limit the number of meetings where I’m expected to be just in the performing zone.

The third source that is helping calibrate my time in meetings is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. Cal describes Deep Work and Shallow Work as follows.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.

Though being in the performing zone does not necessarily mean shallow work, deep work does require long durations of distraction free work time.

So, what’s the most important work I do at the end of every work week? It is curating next week’s calendar.

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