Inefficiency in Meetings Revisited

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Over at his Study Hacks blog, Cal Newport introduces the idea of the reverse meeting as a means of countering the proliferation of meetings many remote workers have experienced during the pandemic -- meetings that, as the meme says, could have been emails.

The idea basically boils down to adapting the academic practice of holding office hours as a means of taking care of small issues that do not really require full-blown meetings to resolve. Incidentally, Newport champions this same tactic as a part of a larger strategy that would also obviate the need for much work-related email and eliminate having to monitor communications channels like email or Slack.

What I found interesting was how he justifies this method:

In case you wondered, Meet 'Til You Die is NOT an alternate title for A World Without Email. (Image by Christina @, via Unsplash, license.)
The attention economics of reverse meetings can be much more favorable than our current standard. Consider, for example, a hypothetical scenario where I need to make a decision on a new marketing campaign and need feedback from five of my coworkers. The easy solution is to schedule a meeting to discuss. Let's say it takes about an hour. This eliminates six people hours -- 360 total minutes -- of potential attention.

In a reverse meeting scenario, by contrast, I might take only 10 minutes from each colleague, taking up 50 minutes total of my time, and 50 minutes total of their time, for an overall demand of 100 minutes of attention, which is 3.6 times less cost.

As an added bonus, the reverse meeting also reverses the asymmetric consequences of these gatherings. It is now significantly more costly to initiate a meeting than it is to attend. The result? Less meetings are convened in the first place.
The reasoning mirrors that of someone I once pointed to who explained how much time gets wasted by people who show up late for meetings:
10 people kept waiting in a meeting for 20 minutes, while some selfish [sic] prat who idles his way via the coffee shop, is actually 20 minutes times 10, which is 200 minutes wasted -- while you keep us waiting because you did not catch the earlier bus. That is over 3 hours wasted. By you! How much has that cost the business? Shall I send you an invoice? [minor edits]
It's the same principle, only it is now people defaulting to scheduling meetings who are wasting time, albeit of a different type.

I may be repeating myself, but I sure hope Newport's way of thinking about time catches on: Too many people waste too much of it through inertia and commonly-accepted practices that are in need of an overhaul.

-- CAV

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