The True Cost of That 2-Hour Meeting

Last Updated Oct 14, 2011 9:39 AM EDT

Lately, I've had a lot of conversations with people whose office cultures equate "meeting" with "working." Days feel full and exhausting because they are packed from 8AM to 5PM with one appointment after another. When I suggested to one woman that she build in a break in the middle, she said she couldn't mark the time as open on her calendar, because if she did, someone would just fill it. Especially in companies that have experienced a lot of layoffs lately, packed schedules become evidence that everyone is in demand and working hard.
The problem, though, with running from one thing to the next is that we seldom ask if that 2-hour meeting is the absolute best use of your time, both in service of your organization and your overall life. Indeed, a well-used 2-hour block of time could actually change your life if you wanted it to. That 2-hour meeting, or 2-hour block of anything, really, from laundry to watching a movie you don't actually enjoy, can have a very high opportunity cost.

I was reminded of this recently when I got a note from a woman named Calee Lee. This mom of two young kids had read a lot of my writing, including my musings on why we shouldn't spend much time on laundry. My point is that time is limited, and excess time spent on chores (or pointless meetings) is time stolen from our highest value professional work, our families, and ourselves. On March 30, Lee posted on Twitter saying "I have 2 (unplanned for) hours until the kids come home. I know @lvanderkam would not approve, but I'm considering doing laundry."

I saw that tweet, but didn't figure out what happened next until recently. It turned out she elected not to use that two hours to do laundry. Instead, she finally wrote down a children's story she'd been telling for a while -- a tale of St. Helena, Emperor Constantine's mother, and how she brought cats to Cyprus to save the churches from snakes. Lee had been meaning to write the story for ages, but kept telling herself she had no time. But if she skipped the laundry, she did. Now the story existed on paper. Once it did, she was inspired to use other blocks of babysitting time to team up with an illustrator, publish the book called The Queen and the Cats, and start a publishing company called Xist, which has signed several other authors to write children's books about women in the Bible and church history, to be marketed as "princess alternative" literature.

You probably aren't planning to write a children's book, or start a small publishing company, but I'm sure there's some other creative and meaningful project you've put off in your professional life because the meetings are always going to be more urgent -- much as a pile of laundry simply begs to be done. Going to a meeting and finishing the laundry are small wins. But they often crowd out time for the bigger ones. In two hours, Lee managed to start on the journey of creating a new professional identity for herself.

So what could you do in a 2-hour block of time? If you had a blank slate, and a blank calendar, what would you want to do? Time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else, and it's always worth asking what else that block of time could enable if you were willing to do things differently.

What big, meaningful project could you start in two hours?

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Photo courtesy flickr user graymalkn

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