Set a cap on how much time goes to meetings in a period
This article is part of a series called Less Meetings, More focused work.
Performance budget is a concept familiar to front-end developers. The idea is amazingly simple: to guarantee a great user experience, you:
Identify key time periods that matter to the user's experience.
Decide what is the maximum time limit for the user to experience those time periods. This will be our performance budget.
Optimize the code to stay within that budget and never go over budget because it will hurt the user experience. This means to add some computation, you may have to remove something else.
For example, if your user interface is animation heavy, you may decide to have a buttery smooth animation at 60 frames per second.
The amount of computation you can fit between two frames cannot take longer than 16.6 miliseconds because 1000 ÷ 60 = 16.6. That is the budget.
🔥A powerful processor can do a lot in that time but to guarantee a decent user experience for the average user, we need to test our code on an average processor. Now it’s a challenge!
For the average processor, we still want to guarantee 30 frames per second. This means on the average CPU we have 1000 ÷ 30 = 33 miliseconds.
We set different budgets for different classes of processors. Keep that in mind. We’ll get back to it. This clear metric makes the programmers optimize for efficiency and think about the trade-offs.
If this budget is violated, some frames are skipped, and the users experience janky animation. The more often the budget is violated, the worse it will hurt the user experience.
The same idea can be used to optimize the “animation” of an organization; its productivity and flow:
Identify key time periods: for example, a day or a week
Decide the max time spent in meetings
Set a policy and communicate it to the individuals to optimize their time. Normalize “Sorry it doesn’t fit into my meeting budget” without feeling guilty.
The goal is to shorten the time spent in meetings in favor of focused work.
I heard the term “meeting budget” just a few months ago but in retrospect, I recall exercising it a few companies ago. The idea came out of a team retrospective where we engineers were unhappy about the amount of time lost in meetings.
After long discussions, we decided to pilot the “meeting ratio”. The idea was simple and started with even a simpler question:
On a given period, how much time can we spend in meetings and still deliver the results we promised?
We picked 2-week sprint as the period, because at the end of the sprint, we had could assess our outcome. We didn’t want to hear “I lost too much time in meetings” anymore.
So how much time can we spend in meetings and still deliver? The answer depends on the job function. We all looked at our calendars for data about what a “good sprint” looked like.
If I recall correctly, we landed on something like this:
Engineers: 12 hours (or 15% of the 2-week sprint). That’s an average of 72 minutes per day.
PM: 40 hours (or 50%)
EM: 55 hours (or ~70%)
Out of 80 working hours in 2 weeks.
We did this experiment for 6 months before I found another job and had to leave the team. Last time I checked, an iteration of the idea was still running.
If you find this post insightful, why not subscribe to get the latest posts directly in your mailbox?
The meeting budget worked great for recurring meetings like stand-up, planning, demos, retros, 1:1’s etc. Not so great for unpredictable meetings that landed on short notice like a company all-hands, incident postmortems or a support call from an adjacent team. We ended up shortening the recurring meetings to open space for those unpredictable meetings.
Inside the team, it worked great and reduced our meetings. It even built habits like using async communication more effectively and reduced the meetings even below the budget. We were all more mindful about the meeting budget. “You become what you measure”, they say! 🗨️
Since it was a team-level policy (rather than a company-wide policy), we could not use it to repel or reduce the meetings that were scheduled by people outside our team. We could negotiate and introduce the concept, but it usually didn’t help.
Even though the team-level policy clearly set a max for the meetings, some team members spent more time on meetings. We did not control each individual and certainly didn’t measure the numbers scientifically. However, if someone complained that they lost too much time at meetings, we would ask them to check their calendar and give more insights about what could be done.
This policy did make us thrifty with the time spent on regular meetings. For example, our standup took N x 2 minutes where N was the number of participants. We had some funny sign language (hands up) when one member forgot their time limit. Same with retros. We shrunk the allocated time to 45 minutes to begin with, but also set a timer for each part of it to stay within the budget. Actually, now that I think about it, we heavily used timers! ⏲️
If I could retry the idea, I would say the biggest improvement is to pilot this policy at an organizational level so that everyone is mindful of the time spent on meetings.
But that requires buy-in from the management, and that’s exactly why I’m documenting this experience to help you motivate it at your job.
You don’t need to wait for the organization to adopt this idea. You can still gain some of the benefits at the personal level. Indeed many people do that.
These days, I still use that idea on a personal level. As a tech lead supporting a large organization, my calendar tends to be crammed with meetings very quickly. When I was just promoted, it was an overwhelming experience.
I ended up working after hours and the weekends to cover the time I lost in meetings. But it was hard to joggle being a dad of two and having my own personal growth plans with hobby projects, music, drawing, writing, and reading books.
Besides, how many hours can one spend in front of the computer before the body collapses?
In my case, the answer was “not too long”! 😔 3 months into the job and I lost sleep and had back pain. My mood gradually became bitter, and it started to negatively impact my work.
It’s only fair to get work done during paid working hours. I decided to set a limit on how much time I spend in meetings:
Max 4 hours/day
Max 10 hours/week
My calendar is open way in advance but as soon as a day is close to hit limit, I book the rest of the day with a meeting slot that reads:
Focus time: please don’t interrupt with meetings
I also booked my lunch break and before/after working hours so my colleagues from other time zones accidentally don’t book me.
Turnes out my colleagues are super nice and respect those limits. Occasionally I have to ask someone nicely to reschedule a meeting but overall, I’m much happier, have more energy and get more done. For me, in my current role, 4 hours is a good trade-off.