Anxiety’s a goat. Won­der­ful episode of Back to Work about stress and anx­i­ety. Also one of my new favorite quotes: anx­i­ety is an emo­tional stem cell.

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:

Merlin Mann on service

Your whole def­i­n­i­tion of how well that expe­ri­ence went is how lit­tle you had to deal with them.

Mer­lin Mann talk­ing about cus­tomer expe­ri­ences in the ser­vice indus­try in Back to Work #8.