This post is a part of Made @ HubSpot, an internal thought leadership series through which we extract lessons from experiments conducted by our very own HubSpotters.
A few months ago, I came to a startling realization: My job is meetings.
Maybe you can relate. From morning to night, I spend my time jumping from Zoom call to Zoom call. I race to grab a snack in the two minutes I'm afforded in-between calls, and I'm mentally exhausted by the end of the day. It's a struggle to decompress before spending time with friends and family.
And, equally challenging, the amount of meetings I have takes away from my ability to get my work done.
I'm Chris Saly — an Engineering Lead at HubSpot.
As an engineer, my day job was code. Sure, we needed meetings to discuss things and stay updated as a team, but the main mechanism and value of my job was the quality and reliability of the code I produced.
Now, the primary value of my job is talking to others. Whether it's as a mentor, being involved in tactical decisions, or helping set a strategic vision, most of these goals are communicated through meetings.
However, there are some very real consequences to my role as an EL. Among other things, my meeting-heavy life was taking its toll on my mental health, relationships, and workplace productivity.
I knew something had to change. Here, I'll show you how I incorporated a framework into my calendar planning to reduce meetings, and take back control of my time.
My Job is Meetings
As an engineering lead, I manage the 12 engineers in my group and provide a strategic vision for the pillar in collaboration with my project management, business system analysts, and design peers.
We build internal tools and systems that support the HubSpot Sales, Success, Support, Marketing, and Operations teams to do their jobs day-to-day.
As a result, in additional to the typical duties of an EL at HubSpot, there is also a healthy dose of stakeholder management thrown in, as well.
The nature of my role means that meetings cover a wide range of topics. I might go from one meeting talking about the three year vision for HubSpot's Sales team, to a systems design discussion on something we're building right now, to a mentoring conversation with a Tech Lead and then into a critsit retrospective.
What I've realized is that my job is now meetings.
What prompted this?
I noticed a a number of days over the last several months where despite finishing work at 5 or 6, closing the laptop and entirely disconnecting from work, I was still amped up and my brain was in 'work mode' at 9 PM.
I was struggling to decompress. And considering nearly half of professionals report a high degree of exhaustion after numerous daily video calls, I'm willing to bet most of you understand this frustration.
My calendar on Oct 28th last year is a fair example of what a typical day would look like before Christmas:
- Start my day with a 1-1 with a Tech Lead to discuss mentorship and team health.
- Followed by a conversation across multiple product groups on the technical feasibility of a specific suggestion for a 2021 compass item.
- Then a kickoff meeting for our pillar that is partially selling the vision and partially a social chat.
- After a quick break we're onto an in-depth technical overview of a system we need to start using as engineers.
- Capping off the day with a meeting with ELs+Director in Flywheel that, depending on the day, might cover people management, technical visioning, or our groups strategy.
So … What's The Problem?
While I was feeling overwhelmed, I didn't really understand why, so I took a couple of steps to figure out where things were going wrong.
First, I made a table of all of my meetings, categorized by their purpose, and calculated the amount of time I spent on them on a weekly basis (see below for more details on this)
I also did some soul-searching to see how I was feeling about my meetings. Whether there were days I dreaded, or days I really enjoyed, and tried to get in touch with why I felt that way.
This gave me a couple of realizations. First, I realized the ratio of time spent on supporting teams that report to me, working with peers, and staying abreast of things happening in the company felt right to me.
However, the sheer volume of meetings had crept up on me. Over the course of the previous six months, my group had doubled in size and meetings had passed a threshold without me noticing.
I also realized my meeting load on a weekly basis varied depending on when all my recurring meetings happened to fall.
And, perhaps most challenging of all, I realized there were no themes or focus to my meeting days. One meeting might be deep in the weeds, and the next would be a 30,000 foot view. Changing contexts throughout the day like that is hard, and takes unnecessary mental energy.
Plus, as I'm sure most can relate, the pandemic made my life outside of work Zoom-heavy, as well, with remote birthdays and happy hours. All of which is to say: I was tired of all the screen time.
When I thought about how this all affected me, I came up with the following list:
- I sometimes end the day not being able to turn of my brain and spend time with family & friends.
- It's a mentally taxing thing to change contexts all day long time and it has an outsized effect on how much energy I have for myself at the end of the day.
- I often feel like I'm running in place trying to take notes, digest information, grab a snack, and use the bathroom as I go from one meeting to the next.
- I struggle to make time for things like AMAs, All Hands, Science Fair, Tech Talk & Hub Talks. After Christmas I had a 12 week tech talk backlog because I just didn't have the time or capacity to watch them.
If this list resonates with you, don't despair and keep reading. Fortunately, I came up with a solution to my meetings-heavy job.
A New Framework for Meetings
If my job is meetings, I needed a framework for those meetings to live in — which included boundaries and rules to keep my sanity, as the old ad-hoc approach clearly wasn't cutting it any more.
First, here are the boundaries I set in regards to my mental health:
- No more than 90 minutes of meetings in one go: There's only so long I can pay attention and go without a bathroom break.
- Scheduled 15/30 minute breaks before and after any 60 minute block: I book these in as 'meeting gap' meetings on my calendar to stop people booking over them.
- No more than 2.5 hours of meetings in the periods before or after lunch: If I go beyond this I can't decompress in the evenings.
- Hard stop of meetings at 5 PM: I need at least 15 mins to wrap up my thoughts for the day, send a few slacks and take notes for tomorrow. Trying to send a message at 6pm when hangry isn't a good idea.
- Friday has no meetings, and certainly no meetings after 3 PM on Friday: I use Friday as a catchup and focus day so keeping it free of meetings is key to that. I also need time to wind down from the week and if I'm leaving stuff undone it really affects my weekend
Obviously, these aren't set in stone, and I'm willing to make exceptions to these if there is a genuine need e.g. If there's a critsit or a big business impact.
But for regular day-to-day meetings, I've found there are very few meetings that can't wait a couple of days. I've also realized meetings rarely need to be more than 90 minutes.
If I need exceptions to these boundaries more than once or twice a month, my spidey sense starts tingling.
Once I set those mental health boundaries, I took it a step further by creating a table to organize my meetings and discover patterns.
First, I put all my meetings into a spreadsheet, tagged each with some relevant tags, and used that as my basis for both analyzing and changing my meeting schedule. It allowed me to play with meeting cadences, and see how it would affect the overall picture.
It also gave me a some data I could analyze to answer the following questions:
- How much time was I spending with teams in my pillar versus my peers and the pillar structure versus the larger Revenue Product Group?
- How much time on broader company alignment like tech talk, AMA, science fair, company talks, etc?
- Was I over-indexing on supporting any particular group and did the overall balance feel right?
- Were there any low priority meetings that were too frequent?
- Was the meeting volume per week roughly the same? And is that what I wanted?
Let's dive into some of the features of this table now.
1. Color Coding
I've been color coding my calendar for over a year now and it's been really useful, but it's been ad hoc and I often forget or change what the colors mean without thinking about it. This time I wrote it down to keep myself honest, and so I can refer back to it if I need to.
Color coding my calendar makes it easy to see at a glance what my day and week looks like. If there are too many yellows or reds (meaning medium or high priority) on my calendar I know I need to reschedule or skip some meetings. If I have a day that looks like a rainbow, that probably means I'll be changing contexts all the time and should try to move things. If I have a solid block of color with no grey in it, I have no 'me time' and will be fried by the end of the day. Any of these things are enough to get my spidey senses tingly.
Here's how to change colors in Google calendar.
2. Meeting Frequency
My meetings had a jumble of recurrences that had grown organically and could be on any schedule, which led to a pretty messy and inconsistent calendar. To help make things clearer and more regular I've categorized them into buckets with default recurrences:
- Weekly: High value, high impact. Things that require regular and high volume communication e.g. Direct reports/mentorship, an active project that is close to going live.
- Twice a Month: Things that require ongoing close alignment e.g. same level peers and high stakes projects.
- Monthly: Important topics that don't change all that rapidly e.g. skip-level 1-1s, project updates.
- Every two months: Just keeping in touch e.g social and connection keeping, interesting projects but doesn't need active involvement.
- Quarterly: Alignment and planning e.g. product group meetings, OKRs, etc.
Using this rubric has a few benefits:
- It made me think about the purpose of meetings and decide what the appropriate cadence is
- It gave me a common benchmark to compare meetings so I have comparably valuable meetings on similar cadences
- With most meetings now happening once or twice a month, I can often pair similar meetings on the same day which means less context switching.
3. 'Week in Month' Meetings
Before I started this my recurring meetings were generally on an 'every X week' basis — as in all of my meetings recurred every 2, 3, 4 weeks.
The change I've made here is to move all meetings to a 'week in month' basis. This means that instead of meeting with someone every four weeks, I'll meet with them every 3rd Thursday, or instead of every two weeks, it's every 2nd and 4th Tuesday.
This approach has a number of benefits:
- It combines with 'meeting frequency' above to allow me to theme days and weeks so I'm not changing contexts all the time
- It gives a certain cadence to the month e.g. it's the middle of the month so I know I'm talking to team X this week
- There are 12 months in the year but 13 blocks of 4 weeks, so it inherently slightly decreases the number of meetings
- It frees up the 29th, 30th & 31st as mostly meeting-free days
- Aspects of our business and lives often run on a monthly cadence and tying meetings to that same cadence can be a really useful tool. (Examples of this might include Irish public Holidays, which typically fall on the first Friday of the month and people often take the Thursday or Monday to make it a long weekend; performance reviews and ACR often happen at the beginning of the month; and sales have end-of-month targets, which leads to more pressure on the systems in the last few days of the month.)
All of this color coordination and categorization is well and good — but I'm betting you're thinking, Well … did it work?
Let's dive into results now.
So ... Is It Working?
I've been making these changes since the beginning of the year and I've had great results so far.
My mental health has improved and I have more time and energy for myself each day after work. I've drastically decreased the amount of days that I struggle to decompress when the work day is done.
I've caught up on all the tech talks and I'm following up on action items from meetings more reliably and quickly. I also have more time to get non-meeting work done, and generally feel much more productive.
This was a fairly typical way for my calendar to look before:
And this is a typical week now:
Ultimately, what worked for me might not work for you.
But I encourage anyone who feels overwhelmed by their schedule to take the time to proactively assess and diagnose for redundancies, wasted time, or time that could be better spent re-charging. Simply taking the time to analyze my calendar enabled me to create a more efficient schedule that worked for me.
So maybe that's really the lesson here: Figure out how your job can work for you, not the other way around. Each person is unique with specific preferences, and if you don't fight for your calendar to look the way you need it to … who will?