Think back through the haze of the past couple of years and try to remember what work life was like in February 2020. Remember bumping into colleagues on your way to get a coffee or leaning over someone's shoulder to talk through a problem? Remember when Zoom was just an occasional tool rather than a way of life?
Now picture your work life these days. While some of you may be heading back to the office, chances are many of those serendipitous pre-pandemic real-life encounters have moved online for good. The result is your schedule is even more jam-packed than before the pandemic (when most of us were already complaining about meeting bloat).
What's this shift toward ever more meetings doing to your calendar and your productivity? A new report from "smart calendar" startup Reclaim.ai analyzing data from 15,000 professionals paints an alarming picture.
Over half our workweeks are now spent in meetings
According to Reclaim.ai's numbers, the average worker spent 14.2 hours in meetings before the pandemic. Now they spend 21.5 hours. That's a pretty big leap, but the numbers look even grimmer when you zoom in on the sort of one-to-one check-ins that have replaced the random office encounters and quick drop-in visits of our pre-Covid past.
"One-on-one meetings have been driving this pandemic meeting inflation, accounting for 79.6 percent of new meetings," Protocol reports, summing up the Reclaim.ai findings. "Last month, the average professional had 5.6 one-on-one meetings per week, up from 0.9 in February 2020. Every week, many of us now have 4.7 more one-on-ones than before the pandemic. That's a more than 500 percent increase -- leading one-on-ones to eat up 8.9 percent of the typical professional's calendar."
The only good news among these alarming statistics is that Reclaim.ai found the length of each one-on-one meeting is decreasing as workers learn to jump on quick calls rather than schedule hefty half-hour or greater time slots. And, according to Reclaim.ai co-founder Patrick Lightbody, these less formal one-on-ones can actually be quite useful.
"These unprompted, unscheduled, five- [or] 10-minute calls where you work through something and just casually catch up -- that's helped a lot," he told Protocol.
The psychological roots of meeting bloat
But that's a small silver lining to an overall pretty grim picture. With meetings eating up more than half of a traditional 40-hour workweek and the average professional slogging through 25 meetings a week, it's incredible we manage to get anything substantive accomplished at all. What's to be done?
Lightfoot offers the usual sensible advice about auditing your calendar for zombie meetings that no longer need to be there and ensuring you schedule only the time you need. Does that check-in need to be every week, for instance, or could be every 10 days? Could you squeeze everything you need to say into 10 minutes rather than 30?
You've probably heard all those tips before, though, and still struggle to rein in your meetings. Why? Because the real issue isn't lack of knowledge or the wrong tools, it's human psychology, Which is why I point readers struggling to tame their overstuffed calendars toward this fascinating HBR article.
Written by a Harvard business professor and a pair of founders building a new online tool for better meetings, the piece digs into the psychological roots of meeting bloat, identifying six reasons we fill up our calendars with pointless get-togethers, including:
Meeting FOMO. This one is pretty self-explanatory.
Meetings as commitment devices. We use meetings as tools to nudge people to follow through on their promises by giving them a date they'll have to fill their boss in on their progress. "The meeting itself is often unnecessary, with people simply reporting on how they did or didn't achieve the agreed-upon target," the HBR authors note.
The mere urgency effect. "When we are stressed, completing seemingly urgent (yet actually unimportant) tasks can provide some relief," the authors explain. "Scheduling and attending meetings can make us feel like we've accomplished something, and so we're often loath to decline or cancel them, even if they are objectively not as important as our other work."
Once you understand these deeper causes of your metastasizing meeting schedule, you'll be in a far better position to prune it back. Read more about specific strategies here.