I sighed with resignation as I looked at my completely packed calendar. “Quality” work delivered between meetings or after work, juggling email and slack responses while doing so. I had become a highly paid email and task traffic handler — routing tasks than doing them. Anything that took a reasonable amount of thinking got done in weeks if not months.
Seems like I am not alone with this problem. A Google query on “too many meetings” returns 400M links. Zoom has made matters worse because you now hop out and into the next meeting without the mandatory 5min walk to the next meeting. So much for a reset!
There has got to be a better way!
The answer is what I call Get Shit Done days. Get Shit Done days are days where you don’t have any scheduled meetings.
Delivering quality through deep work
I came across the book Deep Work by Cal Newport a few years ago and a number of his arguments spoke to my challenges. Specifically, the work of the economist Sherwin Rosen who is behind the theory of the “winner-take-all” markets:
“Hearing a succession of mediocre singers does not add up to a single outstanding performance…There’s a premium to being the best. Therefore, if you’re in a marketplace where the consumer has access to all performers… the consumer will choose the very best.” — Cal Newport, Deep Work (pp. 25–26)
Newport mentions that one of the key abilities to thrive in the new economy is the ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed. The closest example I came across in software (my world) is the “State of DevOps” report that states elite teams can deploy software 208x more often than others. No wonder they run ahead and capture it all.
He makes the argument that to deliver at an elite level, you need deep work.
“Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” — Cal Newport
Clearly, a jam-packed calendar schedule isn’t the answer.
Bringing deep work into the office through Get Shit Done days
The idea is really simple. Clear the calendar and hunker down to produce meaningful output. Here are some key tips on making no meeting days happen.
1. Fix a duration: a day to a few days
Newport mentions that the smallest unit is a day. In my experience, a 3–6 hour time slot is where the mind becomes truly engaged to deeply think and produce something original and of compelling value.
At Launchable, we call the no meeting days Get Shit Done days (inspired by Atlassian). We started with one day a week, found the practice compelling, and moved to three days/week. We now have no meeting days on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. There is no hard mandate NOT to meet especially when there is something urgent. That said, pushing meetings to Tuesdays/Thursdays is greatly appreciated.
2. Get organizational buy-in: all hands in
The idea quickly breaks down if implemented at the individual level. You can’t just call a “no meeting day” when your team still has group meetings scheduled. You need organizational buy-in.
There needs to be a critical mass for the idea to take hold. Thus, no meeting days have to be implemented at a team, department, or company level. Also, it really helps when the leadership walks the talk.
3. Choose projects to work on and do meaningful work
What an individual focuses on is really up to the individual and her role. That said, two high-level paths are about doing meaningful work and engaging with other’s work.
Doing meaningful work — Analyze problems and seek insights on what you are learning. Spend time knocking out a project. Ideas tend to crystalize on no meeting days. Real progress can be made on projects. When you regularly engage in meaningful work this can really help your team be nimble and react quickly (versus doing work in an ad-hoc manner).
Engaging with others’ work — Deeply insightful work tends to be produced on no meeting days. Consuming engaging with this work helps team members push their ideas forward. This may mean taking time to comment on a co-worker’s document, doing a code review, or commenting on wireframes. Whatever makes sense for your team.
4. Adoption of Get Shit Done days across teams
Certain roles and functions are suited more to this way of thinking than others and here is why:
Engineering: Learning new topics, designing, and producing code require deep thinking. Engineers love no meeting days!
Design: Designers can sometimes struggle to find time to get work done between meetings. Having dedicated time to think about how to solve problems can really unlock productivity.
Product: Charting the course forward for product requires research into the customer, market, and problems at hand. Too often product people are pulled into meetings with various parts of the company where they end up reacting versus leading. The time to introspect and produce hypothesis is appreciated.
Marketing: Producing collateral requires thinking and planning and suited for deep work. An example is this particular blog — I blocked out a 1/2 day to think about and write this post.
Sales: The sales function is an interesting one because it is centered around outreach which naturally requires meetings with potential customers. That said, what we have found is that there is a healthy level of thinking required to build the hypothesis on engaging the right prospect and the right way to engage these prospects. Thus, no meeting days tend to be shorter for sales but they now have the luxury to produce, monitor, and measure experiments.
Generally, I have been amazed at the quantity and quality of work that gets done at Launchable. Granted, we are a startup and startups tend to move much faster, but not everything can be chalked up to the “startup mojo.” Things that took past teams weeks if not months are deliver are done in days. I’m even working with some of the same people so it can’t be due to the quality of people I’m working with. Rather, it’s an indication that we lacked quality time to do deep work.
I started this blog with my personal challenge on the disappointment of a packed calendar with very little time to deliver meaningful things. That dynamic has flipped. Walking in on Monday morning and writing this article is immensely satisfying. Delivering meaty work regularly is now the “Launchable culture.” I can’t comprehend going back to the old way of working!