Are You Busy or Drunk?

There’s a difference between "having a lot to do" and "being busy". 

I almost always have a lot to do.  I have a long list of tasks and projects that I’m interested in doing and I can productively work on that list at the drop of a hat.  By the same token, I can usually stop what I’m doing and do something else if the need arises.  There are certainly some tasks that require uninterrupted time, but those are easily accomplished in the "off-hours" of early or late.  Most of the people that I enjoy working with structure their work similarly: they’re never "busy", but they are constantly making progress.

The people I least enjoy working with are the "busy" ones.  These are the folks who feel buried by their tasks and often when asked to do something (and almost always when asked why something didn’t get done), their response is "I’m very busy".  The worst part is that everyone seems to take being busy as a universal and unquestionable excuse instead of immediately responding, "Well how did you let yourself get into this predicament?".  My friend, and never-busy-colleague, Jimmy C once pointed out that being busy is a choice just like being drunk is a choice.  He likes to say, "Replace the word ‘busy’ with ‘drunk’ and see how much weight it carries". 

"Sorry, I can’t help you out, I’m too drunk" or "He’s a very drunk person" or "I didn’t get to it yet, I’m too drunk".

Really takes the teeth out of the statement doesn’t it? 

I’ve spent too much time over too many pints* trying to figure out why the busy people are the way they are.  Poor time management?  Unrealistic estimates?  A need to feel more important than they are?  Guilt over their bill rate?  I finally realized that answering the question wasn’t productive, so I stopped thinking about it since I have a lot to do.

So stay productive and don’t get too busy too often.

*I said it was a choice, not a sin.

Say Less and Mean More

If you work with a group of people, chances are there’s a peer whose words seem to carry extra weight due in large part to their scarcity.  There’s an air of, "If Bob’s talking, it must be important" or "When Bob speaks, it’s worth listening".  People value Bob’s words.

There are probably several people whose words seem to carry less weight due in large part to their abundance.  "There goes Sam rattling on again" or "When Sam stops talking we can get back to the real discussion".  People discount Sam’s words.

The Sams of the world seem to always be talking to anyone who will listen.  Even to those who won’t.  It’s not that they never say anything valuable, it’s just that so much of what they say is noise that their peers build up a filter that defaults to "ignore".  The Bobs of the world, however, seem to speak only when they have something to contribute: data, analysis, examples, solutions, etc.  If something Bob was going to say gets said by someone else, Bob checks it off his list and remains quiet.

In more concrete terms, think of it like this:  If you say 20 things in a meeting and 5 are meaningful and 15 are noise, then only 25% of what you say is meaningful.  If you cut out half of what you say (all noise) and only say 10 things, where 5 are meaningful and 5 are noise, you’ve now doubled your ratio and 50% of what you say is meaningful.  Guys like Bob may only say 5 or 6 things, but the value is between 80% and 100%.  With those kinds of odds, it pays to listen to Bob.

Learn to Run a Meeting

"Plan your work, work your plan"

In the last post I talked about attending meetings.  The flip side to that is running a meeting.  Sometimes you’ll go to a meeting and it turns out to be a waste of time.  Minimizing that is an admirable goal, but you can’t always tell if it’s going to be a waste until it’s almost over.  There should be no reason, however, to call a meeting that turns out to be a waste of time.  If you call the meeting, you need to run the meeting.

Running a meeting well starts in advance of the actual meeting.  You need to know what you want to get out of the gathering and then put a plan together that can get you there.  The short version is Goal + Plan = Agenda.  If you don’t have an agenda, you are overlooking one or both of its parts.

Next is the attendee list.  With agenda in hand, this should be a breeze: it’s the list of people who need to approve of or execute your plan.  As you look at each attendee on the list, you should know what it is you want them to do post-meeting.  This should then be conveyed and committed to during the meeting.  If you don’t know what you want someone to do post-meeting, then (once again) you’re lacking clarity in either your goal or your plan . . . or that person doesn’t need to be invited.

Now that the "plan your work" phase is over, the next part is easy: "work your plan".  The actual meeting should be a breeze: work your way through the agenda, record any newly revealed information, ensure that everyone is clear on what’s next, and get commitment on all of the planned tasks.  Keeping things on track is a lot easier when everyone knows where the track is.

If I had to guess, I’d say that anyone reading this has been to the type of meeting I’ve just described.  I’d also guess that it represents a small percentage of the meetings you’ve attended.  Further, you probably didn’t walk out of one of these thinking, "Wow, that was a great meeting!".  Instead, you most likely forgot about it because it seemed to be a logical extension of your work.  Contrast that to the "other" meetings – the ones the represent the majority that you’ve attended.  There’s a good chance that you walked out thinking, "That was a waste of time".

Don’t be the one who wastes other’s time.  Plan your work and work your plan or, as a very real but seldom used option, don’t call a meeting.

Learn to Attend a Meeting

Like any other part of your job, going to a meeting is worth doing well.  The key is not so much what you do, it’s what you don’t do:

1. Don’t take the meeting off track.  Even if you’re every bit as funny as you think you are, save it for later.
2. Don’t work on your laptop.  If you don’t need to be at the meeting, don’t go.  If you need to be there, but lose interest in what’s going on, bring things to a close.
3. Don’t start side conversations.  Even one of these can distract everyone else.  More than one and no one can hear anything.
4. Don’t yawn, close our eyes, roll your eyes, snicker, or any of the other passive aggressive favorites.

Okay, after 4 "don’ts", things are sounding pretty negative.  Here’s a "do" and a parting thought:

1. Make it worthwhile for everyone (yourself included) to have you in the room.

Once again, like every other part of your job, the time you spend in a meeting is time out of your life.  Time you won’t get back.  Make it count, or spend your time some other way.