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Schedule Meeting Margins

April 15th, 2016 · 25 comments

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Margin Matters

Sometimes it’s the simplest productivity hacks that end up returning the greatest benefits over time. Here’s one such strategy I’ve been toying with recently:

The Meeting Margin Method
Assume you have to schedule a meeting that lasts X minutes. Instead of blocking off X minutes on your calendar, block off (1.5)*X minutes.

For example, if you agree to attend a 30 minute meeting starting at 2:00 pm, try to block out 2:00 to 2:45 on your calendar. Similarly, if it was a 60 minute meeting, try to block out 2:00 to 3:30. And so on.

The key is that you’re not extending the time of the meeting itself. That is, you still attend the meeting for the originally proposed time. The extra 50% on your calendar is a meeting margin protected for your own personal use.

In particular, the margin can be used for the following purposes:

  1. To process the meeting: clarify any new obligations that were discussed and make sure they’re in your system. Perhaps execute some of the smaller tasks right away. The goal here is to close all open loops related to the meeting so that it releases its hold on your mental energy moving forward in the day.
  2. To catch up on anything missed while in the meeting: check your inboxes to handle anything urgent (if you’re in the type of job were such urgent communication is common and cannot be ignored). The goal here is to eliminate the need for you to rudely and uncomfortably split your attention during the meeting itself by constantly checking your inbox. If you know you have time right after to check in, you can confidently concentrate while in the meeting.
  3. To make progress on real work: if the margin is large enough, make progress on things you know need to get done. The goal here is to stave off that feeling that everyone but you has control over your time and attention.
  4. To take a break: take a breather to allow attention residue to fade and your mental energy to recharge (c.f., Tony Schwartz). The goal here is to reduce the cortisol-spiking sense of urgency created by tightly packed calendars.

There are few experiences more stressful than a day in which your schedule is so fractured with appointments to talk about work that you have no time to act on the results of all this discussion — leading, instead, to the awful sense of a growing stack of obligations, all being juggled in your head, that you have no idea how to define or handle.

The meeting margin can help.

It’s a simple strategy, and, importantly, can be implemented covertly; that is, no one needs to know that you’re adding these extra margins as you fill in your calendar.

But it systematically injects enough breathing room into you schedule to ensure that even if your job heavily depends on discussions about work you’ll maintain your ability to actually get real work done.

(Photo by Long Road Photography)

25 thoughts on “Schedule Meeting Margins

  1. Irene Fenswick says:

    Your tips are very useful in time management. Thank you for posting this article.

  2. Anna says:

    Great advice; thanks!
    It reminds me of what my late mother, chronically rushed but remarkably efficient, often said about any important task whose time requirements were uncertain: “Always allow a margin.” Her organizational systems, if they could be called that, consisted of miscellaneous lists and various papers sorted into a pocket folder. Had she lived to see the age of Franklin planners, let alone electronic devices, she would have truly thought she’d died and gone to heaven.

  3. Anne says:

    I like this idea a lot. In my position, the meetings often come with quite a few people raising issues that need to be solved. This idea of being able to quickly take care of solutions right after the meeting, provide information to people who need it, take care of other people’s dependencies quickly, could be an effective tool. I often have the most energy and motivation to do such work right after the meeting anyway so the tasks could quickly be dispatched.

  4. Frank says:

    I’ve been trying to leave 30 minutes after meetings to crank out any immediate action items. Besides looking good, using this buffer time to take care of action items changes your experience with this type of group work. Instead of having action items hanging over your head (guilt and self loathing percolating until a deadline looms), you’ve already dealt with the quick things, delegated items best done by others, or put items on your calendar to do at a different (appropriate) time. Additionally, for those in academia, this is a great way to minimize (or more accurately account for) your service effort.

  5. Really good thought!

    I really appreciate that meeting scheduling software, such as Calendly, makes it easy to make these sorts of rules around meeting scheduling.

    I don’t go for 1.5xtime but my preference is to have at least 15 minutes between meetings. This reduces the chance of running late for the next meeting, the stress when things are getting close to the end by a few minutes, gives you time for a bathroom/water break, and allows for the wrap up like you were mentioning.

    This is especially important for individuals who have in-person meetings where they need to go to different places for each meeting.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  6. Jessica says:

    Sounds really great. Any tips to accomplish this using outlook?

    1. Bill says:

      Jessica I used to schedule in 15 mins pre-event and 15 mins post event in Outlook, I think I colour coded them too so I new what was prep time and what actual event time. This all meant that, in extreme times, I knew I could flex the times… hope that helps, though I’m no PhD! 🙂

      1. Liz Rolle says:

        In a different direction – I’ve been looking for a calendar system that will allow color-coding? Should I look at Outlook? I wasn’t aware of that capability.

  7. Bill says:

    This is a great idea and one I implemented back in the early 90s. I had an A4 sheet of paper with rules like this including travel time to external meetings, prep time before presentations etc. Mostly to give me a greater visibility on how much time I really had available – which then helped with the Yes v No when taking on requests. Time to reimplement I think … 🙂

  8. Great advice again, Cal! Very useful tip when it comes to managing my time. I run a blog so time management is a very important piece of the equation.

  9. K. Starbird says:

    Super idea! Especially the suggestions on how to use that slack time: process the meeting, add to-dos, or knock off any quick action items, etc. Seems like an easy way to be more productive because it doesn’t require a change in mindset and focuses on getting the top of mind actions done and out of the way. Going to make this a matter of habit. Thanks!

  10. Sam says:

    I have to admit that my first thought, before I got to your list of possible uses for such a margin, was, “Oh why haven’t I thought to do this before? Leaving room for the inevitability that meetings always run over time makes so much sense.”

    :-/

    Yep. Because 9 times out of 10, meetings always go over the allotted time. It’s as though people think you have no other meetings or anywhere else to be. *sigh*
    In order to have the freedom to employ some of your ideas, I believe I would have to block out X*2.

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