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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Why Too Many Meetings Leaves You Feeling Stupid

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Last week I was on the phone with an executive coaching client who, like many of the people I work with, was lamenting the insanity of her schedule. It was Friday and she was finishing up a week of back-to-back meetings every day, all day. (To her credit, she kept her coaching call with me.)

In talking about her schedule, she described the impact in a way that I had never heard before. She told me that, “Having so many meetings makes me feel stupid.” She is most assuredly not stupid so I asked her to explain what she meant. She talked about how running from meeting to meeting with literally no time to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom in between had overloaded her brain. All of the input and all of the gear shifting between topics left her mentally depleted.

And then, as if reliving an awesome dream, she told me about “last Wednesday. I had a daylong meeting that was scheduled and then cancelled that morning. I had the entire day to myself to catch up, think and actually get ahead of things. It was wonderful!”

We both agreed that full days that suddenly become clear are awesome but rare. I asked her, “How much time would you need on a regular basis to not feel stupid?” She thought for a few moments and said it was more than an hour but didn’t need to be a full day. A couple of hours of uninterrupted time on a regular basis would be great, she thought. So I suggested we figure out some small steps she could take to get some two-hour blocks of time for herself in the coming week.

Here’s what we came up with (and by we, I mean her, because she did most of the work. My job was to ask questions and give her some space to think out loud.)

No objectives, no attendance. As she thought about it, my client realized how many meetings she attends in a week that don’t have any stated objectives. As they say, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Meetings with no stated objectives end up wasting time. She intends to ask her assistant to insist on stated objectives for any meeting that my client is asked to attend. The deal is no objectives, no attendance. That should definitely help create some additional space for her to think. We agreed that it also provides some good role modeling for colleagues who reflexively schedule meetings without being clear about what they’re trying to accomplish.

The 20 percent reduction. A few months ago my client was in a leadership workshop I conducted where I talked about an executive I interviewed for Overworked and Overwhelmed who has a weekly calendar reduction ritual with her assistant. Every Friday, they take a look at the calendar for the next two weeks with the goal of eliminating at least 20 percent of the scheduled appointments. They’re looking for meetings that can be cancelled, shortened, pushed out or delegated to someone else. When they find their 20 percent, they have reclaimed at least eight hours in a given week. That creates a lot of opportunities for two-hour blocks of uninterrupted think time. My client has resolved to take up the same practice.

Do what only you can do. Reflecting back on the workshop from earlier this summer, my client remembered how much insight she got from asking herself one of my favorite questions. What is it, given the unique leadership role that you’re in, that only you can do? For most executives, that’s a relatively short, but very high impact, list. Without taking some time to be mindful in answering that question on a regular basis, it’s easy to get sucked into meetings that don’t require your input or expertise. With the goal of getting more time for higher value added activities, my client intends to use that question as a screen to determine what she will and won’t agree to do.

So, those are three simple things my client plans to do to create enough space in her week to actually feel as smart as she is. She’s not stupid and neither are you, but jamming your calendar back-to-back with no breaks can make you feel that way. How much time do you need to not feel stupid? It’s probably not as much as you think. What do you want to do this week to start reclaiming it?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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