Project management for freelancers

How Freelancers Can Minimize Meetings

By Brennan Dunn

I hate, hate, hate wasting time.

And at the top of my kill list of things that waste my time are meetings. I’m not against the act of meeting — there are plenty of times where meetings are the best way to communicate (like, collaborating over wireframes or brainstorming a new feature.)

What really bothers me about meetings are that they occupy my schedule. The time leading up to a meeting — generally spent aimlessly clicking, waiting for the clock to give me permission to hit the big, green call button in Skype — is nothing short of dead time. Likewise, I can’t just switch back to what I was doing. Context switching takes time and mental energy, and it can usually take 15 minutes to an hour to get back “in flow” (realistically, however, I can’t get back in flow — the rest of the day is shot.)

I first started thinking about the true cost of meetings a few years back after reading 37signal’s “Getting Real.” In it, I think they say that distractions cost at a minimum of 15 minutes of lost productivity. And a meeting is a very, very long distraction.

Since then, my wife, mom, dad, peers, and clients have all heard me and my thoughts on distractions; they know that I value “distraction-free work” as sacrosanct.

I’m not here to tell you to stop meeting with your clients or ask you to delegate everything to email. In fact, I think that would probably really hurt your career. (After all, selling your services more than likely requires some live face time from you.)

What I would like to get you to walk away with, though, is that not all meetings are created equal.

And that you’re probably involved in meetings — maybe you even have one today — that doesn’t require a meeting of two or more people to pass around information.

After I launched Planscope, I soon learned that what I was really trying to build was a lot more than task management software. It was me railing against the endless hum of status meetings; it was the thousands of hours of time I’ll never get back that were sacrificed to synchronous communication.

I wanted my software to be less about letting people add tasks to a software’s database, and more about focusing on growing my customers’ businesses.

So I added a feature that would email clients at the end of each day with a list of what got done and what they need to test ([x] The Daily Status Meeting).

I also made it easy to chat about a requirement ([x] Phone calls relaying what color the button should be, what the label should say, etc.)

But this isn’t about me or Planscope, which I’ve since sold, by the way. This about you and your business and the changes you can introduce that will allow you to stay focused and work without interruption.

Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that help me stay focused:

There’s urgent, and then there’s important. Let’s face it: Your clients are excited. They really, really want to see their project succeed, and they really want it to succeed right now. This can easily result in a permanent state of immediacy — e.g., New feature ideas need to be talked about RIGHT NOW.

Educating your client about the distinction between something urgent (a task you’re charged with that needs to be done before an inflexible date) and something important (a task that is important to the business that needs to get done.)

Clients often label important work as urgent, so it’s important to help them understand the nuanced difference between “OMG this needs to get done now or X will explode” and something that’s of general importance for their business.

Keep clients in the loop, without keeping you on the line. There are two reasons your client might demand frequent status meetings:

  • The client doesn’t trust that things are getting done right. So they turn to micromanaging and prodding as a way to ensure things are progressing.
  • The client is just super excited about the project, and wants to be a fly on the wall. They’re spending their hard-earned money on you — can you blame them?

The good news is that both of these reasons can be satisfied without the need to hop on a phone call. At the end of each workday, write a short little email:

“Dear $CLIENT, today I worked on X, Y, and Z. I have a lot of questions related to P that I need to be answered ASAP. Additionally, Z is ready for you to review on our staging server. I billed 6 hours today, which will be included on your next invoice on Monday.”

Create an environment conducive to getting things done. Get rid of shiny, distracting things… this means, keep email, Twitter, and your phone from buzzing or beeping whenever something happens. Or go a step further and remove anything social from your work computer. The awesome part about being focused on your work is that the product will be better (and yay, the client will love that!) AND you’ll be happier at the end of the day. You might also want to keep a work journal that details what you did each day. There’s a lot of benefit in being able to look back on months of work and thinking to yourself, “Job well done.”

This wraps up my mini-series on project management. I like to think I’ve covered the four biggies: estimation, expectations, communication, and staying focused by minimizing interruptions.

However, there’s plenty more to be said on the subject.