Meetings remain a frequent challenge for most knowledge workers. While common advice and prior research often focuses on making meetings more effective or reducing the time we spend in them, there is another critical aspect rarely taken into account: the way we schedule and arrange our meetings on a daily basis. Scheduling can, however, aid or impede our energy and productivity at work, and thus warrants a closer look.
In our research, we investigate the impact of knowledge workers’ daily meeting scheduling, including how certain strategies may seem smart but can, in fact, unintentionally drain our own energy. Let’s consider two examples.
Taylor, a senior data specialist who leads a team of junior analysts, notices two meetings on his Thursday calendar — one with a vendor liaison and another with senior specialists from other departments. Then he realizes that he also needs to arrange some check-ins with his junior analysts. Should he squeeze in those extra meetings on Thursday alongside the existing two, or should he schedule them for Friday instead? He is tempted to stack the meetings on Thursday, so that he can save time and keep his Friday schedule “clean” to focus on his own portion of a project report.
In another context, Minli, a seasoned software engineer and manager of a development team, faces two upcoming meetings this week. On Tuesday, she is scheduled to present to the strategic committee, a critical meeting with potential budget implications. The next day, she is tasked with an orientation session for new interns — a familiar and relatively easy duty. Alongside these meetings, Minli must also tackle her own technical work on two projects: one encountering some serious challenges, and the other nearly complete, needing only a few final touches. Should she work on the difficult project on Tuesday and handle the easier one on Wednesday, or reverse the plan? Minli leans towards the first option. By addressing the most demanding challenges on Tuesday, both in her meetings and her individual work, she anticipates a less stressful remainder of the week.
Taylor and Minli’s approaches are common: compacting meeting schedules to save time, or pairing critical meetings with intense individual tasks on the same day to finish them as soon as possible. However, our research findings reveal that these strategies come with their own drawbacks, particularly when considering their impact on workday energy.
We conducted two studies in which we tracked the daily work activities of over 400 full-time knowledge workers, some from technology companies and others from diverse industries involving intellectual work. Throughout the workweek, workers were surveyed at the middle and the end of each workday about their meetings, individual tasks, and other activities during the morning and the afternoon, as well as their energy levels at the end of each half-day period. Additionally, we drew insights into their work performance, including task performance and creativity, from their supervisors.
We made two important discoveries. First, what impacts knowledge workers’ energy is not the sheer amount of time they spend in meetings, but the relative proportion of meeting time compared to what they spend on individual tasks. We found that, on a given day, the more time knowledge workers dedicate to meetings relative to their own individual tasks, the less they engage in small break activities (e.g., a short walk, casual conversations, brief fun reading) to restore their energy during that day. The absence of such break activities, which are crucial for periodic replenishment, harms their workday energy. The impaired energy in turn has a negative impact on the knowledge workers’ task performance, creativity, and job satisfaction at work.
Further, we discovered that, when structured appropriately, meetings and individual tasks can create what we call a “pressure complementarity effect” during the workday. Two complementary configurations — high-pressure individual tasks accompanied by a low-pressure meeting, or conversely, low-pressure individual tasks accompanied by a high-pressure meeting—can benefit a person’s energy. For instance, on a day when a data specialist breezes through routine paperwork, she may find a high-stakes meeting where she pitches a new initiative energizing; conversely, on a day when she is wrestling with a high-pressure report, a low-pressure update meeting about the company’s IT system can offer a needed respite for her energy. We found that this complementary effect is most pronounced when a knowledge worker has not yet been consumed by the day’s demands, specifically during the morning rather than the afternoon.
These research findings shed light on how Taylor and Minli’s scheduling approaches might inadvertently undermine their workday energy, and they also reveal pathways for potential improvements. Taylor’s decision to stack meetings on a single day creates a substantial imbalance in time between meetings and individual work on that day, which will likely reduce his engagement in short break activities crucial for his energy replenishment. Despite aiming to optimize his schedule, this approach may instead lead to energy depletion and reduced performance. A more balanced spread of meetings and individual tasks across the two days may enhance his energy and effectiveness.
In Minli’s situation, her plan to tackle a difficult project and a critical meeting both on Tuesday could create undue pressure without sufficient opportunity for relief and restoration. Conversely, her Wednesday, filled with a low-pressure meeting and an easier project, may lack stimulation. If, instead, Minli can pair the more demanding individual tasks with the less taxing meeting on one day, and vice versa on the other day, she is more likely to sustain her energy throughout both days.
So, when faced with the challenge of scheduling your workday, particularly arranging meetings alongside individual tasks, consider the following:
Focus on the relative proportion of meeting time to individual work time on a specific day, not just the total hours spent in meetings.
A reasonable balance between meetings and individual tasks allows for essential breaks and energy replenishment throughout the workday. This approach requires not overloading a single day with many meetings, even if it may sometimes seem like a time-saving strategy. Managing the proportion of meeting time relative to individual work on a daily basis can enhance energy levels at work, thereby contributing to improved performance, creativity, and job satisfaction.
Design your workday to create complements between meetings and individual tasks.
Recognize the benefits of pairing high-pressure meetings with low-pressure individual tasks, or vice versa. Rather than clustering activities of the same pressure level into a single period, distribute challenging tasks and meetings across different days or different time segments of the day. This approach fosters proper pressure complementarity, thereby enhancing workday energy to facilitate better performance.
Adopt a more holistic approach to workday scheduling.
Rather than simply fitting a meeting or individual task into the calendar for its own convenience, consider the broader implications for your workday structure. Be mindful of how a scheduling decision may alter the arrangement pattern of your workday, potentially influencing your energy and productivity.
The following questions might be useful in your planning process:
- How will this scheduling decision impact the balance between my meetings and individual work time on this specific day?
- Will adding this meeting to this specific segment of the day compress my individual work time too much, sacrificing essential breaks and replenishment?
- Will this schedule lead to back-to-back high-pressure meetings and tasks in a single day? How can that be avoided?
- Is there a better spot in my schedule to place this meeting or task, facilitating a more effective mix of high-pressure and low-pressure work throughout the day?
For knowledge workers, managing meetings is not merely about increasing effectiveness and time efficiency; it also calls for a strategic approach to everyday scheduling. This means considering daily meetings alongside individual tasks, both in terms of time allocation and how much pressure they will put on you. Being mindful of these aspects can help you steer clear of subtle scheduling traps and prevent unexpected drains on your energy and productivity. Indeed, by embracing a more holistic approach to meeting scheduling, you may transform the way you approach your workday, leading to a more balanced and fruitful arrangement of daily responsibilities.