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Meetings, emails, Slacks... have we prioritized talk over making something that matters?

Last year, I worked for a company where 90% of your workday would get filled with meetings, easily. I remember looking at other people’s calendars and asking myself ‘When do they actually get work done?’.

Different types of work = different time management

Sure, productivity and time management are strongly dependent on the type of work that you do. If you are just doing lots of email, and are functioning as a coordinator, you can have this type of calendar. But if you have to do serious cognitive work and produce high quality output that is meant to tangibly impact the business, you can’t.

In my case, I was the sole owner of a big and important project for the company that I was supposed to build from the ground up, working with cross-functional teams, and being the central point of contact for this project.

The tension between producing information and sharing it

Naturally in a position like that, you get a lot of questions on a daily basis, as you are the single source of full information on it. In fact, you are the one producing that information when you are creating something from scratch.

So on my first day of work, I blocked my mornings for deep work and set up automated replies that ask people to schedule a meeting with me in the afternoon.

Nonetheless, I soon found myself struggling to balance between producing results and communicating with others. The latter took more and more time out of my day, thereby negatively impacting my core responsibility.

This tension led me to put a No-Meetings-Thursday in my calendar, in order to establish a day of interrupted focus time where I could do strategy and ensure the outcomes I was responsible for.

Individual productivity tactics vs. company-wide systems

My first No-Meetings-Thursday got filled with five ‘urgent’ meetings, similar to the mornings that always got flooded with slack messages requiring prompt responses.

A colleague suggested that I remove focus time from my calendar, as ‘this type of thing doesn’t work here anyway’.

That’s when I realized that individual productivity tactics were no solution in a culture that lacks a results-oriented work ethic. A basic understanding of this principle had to be part of the company’s DNA and reflected in the organization of work processes. It takes certain rules and tools to enable productivity and high quality output on a company-wide level, and it is what moves the needle.

Ensuring quality and productivity while growing

Truth be told, as a company grows and scales, this becomes a make-or-break challenge to tackle. The larger the team, the more communication is needed to keep everyone in sync and working in the same direction. Growth adds complexity, and complexity hinders execution.

"The more team members you have, the geometrically harder it is to share what is currently going on with everyone, as well as have everyone be emotionally bought in to the decisions being made. Do not underestimate this cost." —  Matt Mochary, The Great CEO Within

When pursuing product-led growth, an obsession with quality is imperative. To ensure quality while growing, establishing an efficient management system is fundamental.

Quality output requires not only focus, but also a natural pace of work that allows for thinking time, error and a varied speed of work.

As much as I aimed for unwavering intensity in my few hours of focus mode, it became apparent to me that it was an unrealistic expectation to have. Strategy and product development are not the same type of activity as email. You need time to fully enter a complex subject matter, develop full focus, and start coming up with different solutions. Anytime you shift your attention to something else (e.g. replying to urgent requests), you need additional time to refocus.

One solution to many problems

One simple solution to the multiple challenges I experienced and described above is implementing asynchronous co-working & communication.

Asynchronous co-working allows you to manage your workflow independently, focusing on tasks without interruptions from real-time communication. This allows for deeper concentration and increased productivity for certain types of work.

Asynchronous communication eliminates the instant gratification that motivates you to immediately ask questions and send messages. Knowing that you won’t get an immediate response creates time for you to reflect on whether to ask a question, as well as to provide thoughtful input when answering.

The power of tracking and reflection

It also allows you to batch communication and dedicate one full hour to answering all messages and emails, instead of spending 10, 20 or 30 minutes in real time chats multiple times a day. Tracking time and doing the math makes these types of blind spots very obvious and easy to address.

You can make time, enhance productivity and boost quality all while reducing complexity and enabling sustainable growth. Sometimes, you only need to build in reflection time, and look at things from a distance to see what needs to be improved. It might feel impossible at times when you are caught up in a high-speed day-to-day, but you don’t want to miss the forest for the trees, right?

It’s the one recurring meeting that should be on everyone’s calendar: ‘reflection time’.