How No Meeting Days Will Help You Get Deep Work Done

Updated: 14 Apr, 2022 | Bill Peatman

A Harvard Business Review study of how executives spend their time revealed some alarming statistics: each week, they work 62.5 hours and attend 37 meetings. 37 meetings a week!

Then, it is little wonder that Asana CEO launched a company policy called "No Meeting Wednesdays" (NMW) in 2013. "The high-level goal of NMW is to ensure that everyone gets a large block of time each week to do focused, heads-down work," CEO Dustin Moskovitz said.

The policy has two objectives:

  • It gives what he (quoting a famous Paul Graham article, more on that later) calls "makers" --in this case, software developers—the dedicated time they need to focus on making.
  • It prevents schedule-driven "managers' (Graham's term) from interrupting their day at least one day a week.

Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule 

Moskowitz refers to an influential 2005 article by Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator. This startup incubator launched some of the world's most successful software companies, from Airbnb to Zapier. Graham authored an influential article in 2009 called "Maker’s Schedule, Manager's Schedule." He pointed out that managers work in hour-long increments while makers need large blocks of uninterrupted time to do their work.

"There are two types of schedules, which I will call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule," Graham said. "The manager's schedule is for bosses. It is embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default, you change what you are doing every hour."

"But there is another way of using time common among people who make things, like programmers and writers," he said. "They prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You cannot write or program well in units of an hour. That is barely enough time to get started."

Makers do not always control their schedules, so NMW protects them from those that can schedule meetings with them.

More Businesses Adopt Meeting Free Days 

As MIT Sloan discovered since Asana launched NMW other companies have followed suit. Examples include:

  • Atlassian—calling the no meeting day "Get SH*t Done Day."
  • Shopify—theirs is on Fridays.
  • Wilderness—it is "Deep Work Day" for this company.
  • Govmates—plain old NMW there.
  • Facebook—the social media giant will roll out NMW when employees return to offices.

Interestingly, the no meetings day phenomenon gained steam during the pandemic when, as Govmates co-founder Stephanie Alexander put it, "I felt like all we did was spend time on meetings and that nothing felt like it was getting accomplished."

"Even before the pandemic, 71 percent of managers thought meetings were costly and unproductive," MIT Sloan Business School reported. "Since many companies have shifted to remote and hybrid workplace models, meetings have steadily increased in frequency and length to compensate for the loss of in-person interactions."

Meeting-free days are so effective that many companies expand the number of days without meetings. Sloane MIT studied 70 companies with at least one No Meeting Day (NMD) and found that:

  • 47 percent reduced meetings by 40 percent by introducing two NMDs per week.
  • 35 percent instituted three NMDs per week.
  • 11 percent implemented four NMDs per week.
  • 7 percent eradicated all meetings.

Create Your Own No Meeting Day 

The No Meeting Day (NMD) is not just for big companies. The trend is spreading to individual executives, startup leaders, and business owners that have the authority to block off their schedules. Executives routinely complain that they are bogged down not just with meetings but with administrative tasks that prevent them from spending large blocks of time on strategy and planning.

The toughest part of establishing a NMD into your business can be getting buy-in from the rest of your team. Here is how to do it.

1. Communicate about it with your team 

Even if you are the boss, and you tell everyone they cannot schedule meetings with you on a specific day each week, the policy can cause confusion and even resentment at worst. You should be able to:

  • Explain why you are implementing the policy in person in a meeting or zoom. It is easy to misinterpret written announcements. Explain the work that you cannot do without this time and the value it brings to the company and employees.
  • Leave time for questions.
  • Decide in advance if you will allow others to join you. There might be some resentment if you do not allow others to implement NMDs.

2. Pick the day 

Selecting a day for NMDs is more complicated than you might think. Review your meeting schedule—especially weekly meetings. Can they be rescheduled? With larger gatherings, rescheduling might be tricky. Better yet, review whether you need to attend or not. Rescheduling regular customer meetings can also be tough as you do not want your customers to feel like they are not a priority.

3. Do a trial period 

Who knows? You may not like NMDs, so there is little to be gained by creating the assumption that this will be a permanent practice. Allow yourself to learn. Start with a one-to-three-month pilot.

4. Block off your entire day for the pilot period 

Blocking your calendar may seem obvious, but you cannot assume that internal employees will a) remember your NMD and b) respect it as much as you hoped they would. Close your office door (if you have an office with a door, neither of which can be assumed now!). Maybe even get a No Meeting Day sign for the door to prevent walk-ins.

5. Empower your assistant to reschedule meetings

If coworkers continue to book time on your NMD, if you have an assistant empower them to reschedule meetings that sneak onto your calendar. This can save you the time of constantly rejiggering your schedule and relieve the stress of rejecting meeting invitations.

6. Turn off instant messaging and email

You can create a NMD status emoji on your instant messaging inbox. But you also want to turn off alerts and notifications. Create an automated email response to let people know that you will not respond until the next day or the end of your NMD. Remember that switching time, the time it takes to shift your attention (and computer) from one task to another, takes 20-25 minutes.

Are You Ready for NMDs? 

The seven percent of companies that eliminated all meetings are no doubt thrilled. You may not be able to avoid all appointments, and that may not even be your goal. But you might be able to boost your productivity by blocking off an entire day each week for executive-level work. This simple (sort of) time management practice can also help your entire business be more intentional about scheduling meetings.

About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.

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