The Great Discontent: Merlin Mann:

When we mythol­o­gize our­selves, we tend to amplify the things that turned out okay and try to turn the fail­ures or lack of suc­cess into some­thing we learned from. You can do any­thing to make your life look really grand. It’s a shame that so many peo­ple find it dif­fi­cult to do the things they’d like to do because they feel cowed by seem­ingly suc­cess­ful peo­ple who appear to never do any­thing wrong, or always learn from their mis­takes. That just rings as a lot of B.S. and self-mythology to me.

Notes from Back to Work #115

I’m the weird kind of nerd who lis­tens to pod­casts on Saturday nights and tonight I was catch­ing up on some episodes of Back to Work. Episode 115 was about meet­ings and I fig­ured I’d jot some notes down. I’m glad I did, it was a good show. All insight goes to Merlin and Dan, I just took the notes so I’d remem­ber it.

The show stems from a talk Merlin Mann did at Twitter in September of 2010. If you haven’t seen it before it’s well worth the time to sit down and watch it.

Merlin started the episode by rec­om­mend­ing Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. It’s a great read from a few years ago and helps con­struct the ques­tion, what’s the default time chunk you think in? Do you build your day around half-day chunks or is your cal­en­dar full of 30 minute inter­rup­tions? This is part of why mid­dle of the morn­ing meet­ings feel like death. If you sched­ule some­thing at 10am or 10:30am you’ve sud­denly dis­rupted everyone’s flow for the first half of the day.

Before div­ing in to the meet­ing specifics Merlin also riffed on lead­er­ship and cred­i­bil­ity. As he put it, cred­i­bil­ity is when you say some­thing and you do it. Over and over again. There’s a big dif­fer­ence between man­age­ment and lead­er­ship. Leadership is when you do stuff so well that peo­ple trust your judge­ment and respect the posi­tions you take.

We have to take meet­ings more seri­ously, Merlin argues, because too many of them cur­rently feel unpro­duc­tive and self­ish. Meetings are where we aren’t doing our pri­mary work. That’s work­able but it requires a meet­ing to be well-run and to make progress. As Merlin said later on in the episode, meet­ings are when the right peo­ple are in a room to talk about the right prob­lem in order to fig­ure what they have to do to get back to work.

As with many things, no one thinks their own meet­ings suck. It’s only until you ask around that you find out your meet­ings are actu­ally the ones every­one dreads. It’s so rare that any of us have the humil­ity to admit that our meet­ings are the ones which suck.

Part of the under­ly­ing prob­lem with meet­ings is that we tend to seek out only the prob­lems we under­stand. The other prob­lems we assume belong to some­one else. Since meet­ings are a com­plex beast involv­ing com­pany cul­ture, people’s sched­ules, and more they are com­plex prob­lems to solve. There’s no sil­ver bul­let to things but there is a buf­fet of ideas to pick from.

The main goal with improv­ing meet­ings is find­ing what works for your com­pany and its cul­ture. The only way to know what works is to ask around. Have you ever asked some­one on your team how the meet­ings are going? Why not?!

Great meet­ing man­agers find a way to be lead­ers and decision-makers, they’re not just bean coun­ters get­ting peo­ple in a room together so that they can pawn off any tough deci­sion on the group’s vote. The pow­er­ful per­son in a com­pany is not the one who says “no” but the one who is allowed to say “yes.”

The buf­fet of ideas that Merlin intro­duced was ten­fold. The purely ideal meeting:

  1. Has a purpose
  2. Has an agenda
  3. Defines a graz­ing policy
  4. Sets hard edges for time
  5. Schedules guests
  6. Designates a timekeeper
  7. Prevents ratholes
  8. Has a focus
  9. Creates follow-up
  10. Has con­sis­tency

Before any meet­ing starts you need to answer the ques­tion of, “How shall I pre­pare for that meet­ing?” for every­one on your team. That’s where the first 2 steps come in.

The pur­pose of a meet­ing sets the tone for what will be cov­ered. One way to approach it is to come up with a topic sen­tence; this pro­vides focus and helps cen­ter you. As the leader of a meet­ing the pur­pose is where you have the oppor­tu­nity to show that you have thought this through.

An agenda gets in to the nitty gritty of the pur­pose. It’s a list­ing of what will be cov­ered in order to get to the pur­pose or goal. Bonus points for assign­ing time esti­mates to each indi­vid­ual section.

The key aspect about both the pur­pose and agenda is that they have to be set ahead of time. If they aren’t in place and in the hands of those attend­ing before the meet­ing starts then they serve no pur­pose. Without them you’re wast­ing the time and atten­tion of others.

Dan asked Merlin why peo­ple are typ­i­cally so resis­tant to these two, rel­a­tively sim­ple, aspects of meet­ings. The blunt answer is that a lot of peo­ple don’t think they need to respect the time and atten­tion of oth­ers. They really need to, though. No one is so busy that they can avoid post­ing these things ahead of time.

If you’re not good at illus­trat­ing the value of a meet­ing through it’s pur­pose and agenda then don’t be sur­prised when peo­ple sit there glass-eyed. The Ritz-Carlton appar­ently has an inter­nal say­ing of, “We’re ladies and gen­tle­men serv­ing ladies and gen­tle­men.” It’s a short­hand for the fact that every­one deserves respect.

The graz­ing pol­icy Merlin dis­cussed is, essen­tially, set­ting a clear expec­ta­tion as to what’s kosher to do dur­ing the meet­ing. Can you play on your phone? Have a lap­top open? There’s no right or wrong answer to those, there just needs to be a clearly defined answer.

A pro­duc­tive meet­ing also sets hard edges for time. In some com­pa­nies it’s tough to be in con­trol of when your meet­ing starts; peo­ple may come late, have prior meet­ings that run over, etc. What you can con­trol at a min­i­mum, though, is end­ing your meet­ing on time. By doing that you can let peo­ple get back to their day and have a clear under­stand­ing of when they’ll be done.

The sched­ul­ing guests bit was an inter­est­ing idea, I thought. The gist is that in a lot of meet­ings there are long stretches of time when no more than a hand­ful of peo­ple need to be there. Scheduling guests allows you to ensure that you bring peo­ple in for just the amount of time they need to be there. It also gen­er­ates a cer­tain propul­sive nature to your meet­ing. Things move for­ward as each new guest comes in.

The idea of a des­ig­nated time­keeper isn’t sur­pris­ing. Basically set some­one who is not the leader of the meet­ing to take notes and keep time. This lets the leader focus on the content.

An effec­tive meet­ing pre­vents ratholes. Intense imple­men­ta­tion argu­ments go offline and out­side of the entire group. Hash it out with­out involv­ing everyone.

Merlin used the term “park­ing lot” to describe where good ideas that don’t meet the meeting’s focus go. In a lot of com­pa­nies these good ideas are just look­ing for some­one to own them and make hap­pen. But if they’re out­side the scope of the cur­rent meet­ing they should be brought up at another time.

Every meet­ing should cre­ate follow-up. Task lists and actions are what ensure the meet­ing is actu­ally get­ting things done. They’re also a huge cred­i­bil­ity builder as you keep things mov­ing for­ward. Before end­ing a meet­ing Merlin’s tip was to wind it down by say­ing, “Let’s wrap up, here’s what I’ve got for…” Then, before every­one leaves the room email the task list your note and time­keeper has com­piled to every­one. Finally, start the next meet­ing with those fol­low up items. What got done? What didn’t get done? If you have an action that’s com­ing up at every meet­ing then you have a problem.

Finally, a meet­ing should have con­sis­tency. It’s not about mak­ing all 9 of those things above hap­pen, it’s just about being con­sis­tent with them.

The four things Merlin sug­gested try­ing at your com­pany are: set­ting an agenda, defin­ing hard edges, set­ting a graz­ing pol­icy, and mak­ing sure you hit the follow-up.

David Allen & Merlin Mann

It’s almost 7 years old now but through the show notes of a Back to Work episode I ran across this inter­view Merlin Mann did with David Allen in 2006. It’s a com­pi­la­tion of 8 short con­ver­sa­tions they had about every­thing from pro­cras­ti­na­tion to pri­or­i­ties. 1

Something David said about work in gen­eral really struck me as interesting:

Most peo­ple haven’t acknowl­edged that their process is as much their work as any­thing else.

He also makes an inter­est­ing point about pro­cras­ti­na­tion. We gen­er­ally take pro­cras­ti­na­tion to mean plainly not doing some­thing. As David put it, though:

Procrastination isn’t just about not doing. It’s about not doing and feel­ing bad about it.

The point is that if you’re putting some­thing off because you have more impor­tant and mean­ing full tasks to do in the mean­time then it’s not pro­cras­ti­na­tion, it’s life. The gut feel­ing of “Oh man, I should really get to this…tomorrow” is the issue as it’s your brain acknowl­edg­ing that you should start on a task but you’re just not. Frequently that’s because you haven’t con­cretely defined the next step.

One of the con­cepts of GTD is ubiq­ui­tous cap­ture. Basically the idea that you com­mit every note, idea, and task to paper or dig­i­tal tools. As David put it later in the inter­view, “The mind is for hav­ing ideas, not for hold­ing them.” The prob­lem is that truly cap­tur­ing every­thing is hard. So most peo­ple assume a buffet-style mid­dle ground will work. To para­phrase how David Allen dis­cussed this: Either your head is where you keep things or its not. There is no in-between or mid­dle ground. Do all of GTD or none of it. Otherwise the process and tools won’t do you any good.

There was a por­tion toward the end, too, where David riffs on the role of atten­tion and your mind:

What has your attention?…If you don’t pay atten­tion to what has your atten­tion it will take more of your atten­tion than it deserves.

Really great series of inter­views that are well worth a listen.


  1. If you haven’t also read David Allen’s Getting Things Done I’d highly rec­om­mend it.

Continuing in the style of last week I spent most of today read­ing my Instapaper back­log and lis­ten­ing to pod­casts. Good day. Here are the highlights:

This is why I say pri­or­i­ties can only be observed. In my book, a pri­or­ity is not sim­ply a good idea; it’s a con­di­tion of real­ity that, when observed, causes you to reject every other thing in the uni­verse — real, imag­ined, or prospec­tive — in order to ensure that things related to the pri­or­ity stay alive.

Merlin Mann — Mud Rooms, Red Letters, and Real Priorities.