Five years ago, after becoming frustrated with my fruitless tendency to juggle multiple activities at once, I tried an experiment: for one week, I would not multitask and see what happened.
The experiment changed everything for the better. My relationships improved, my stress dissolved, and my productivity soared. There is zero downside to focusing on one thing at a time without distraction.
One of the side benefits of my focusing on one undistracted task at a time was a new and almost unbearable impatience for wasted time. In the past, if I was on a call that wasn’t going anywhere, I would do email or surf the web. In my post-multitasking world, staying focused on a dragging call was painful.
Which is how I stumbled on the single most life-changing, business-transforming revelation of my last five years:
First, though, a caveat. There are some things in my life — dinner with friends, writing, sleep, unstructured time with my family — that deserve to live in the spaciousness of stretched-out time.
But other things — like most meetings and tactical work — could benefit from compressed time.
Often we schedule one hour time slots. Why? How did an hour become our standard time allotment for so many meetings, phone calls, and appointments?
As my impatience with wasted time grew, I tried a new experiment: I cut the time I allot for many activities in half.
I started with something easy. I used to work out for an hour a day. Now it’s down to 30 minutes. My results — weight and conditioning — improved.
Here’s why: my intensity is higher (I know I only have 30 minutes), I eat better (I don’t rely on my workout to keep slim), I integrate movement more into my day (I don’t rely on my workout to take care of all my fitness), and I never miss a workout (I can always find 30 minutes).
If you have half the time to accomplish something, you become hyper-aware of how you’re using that time. And hyper-focused during it. Most of my phone calls are now 30 minutes or less. My podcast is 15 to 20 minutes. Even many of my conference calls, with multiple parties, are 30 minutes or less. People on the calls, aware of the time constraint, are more thoughtful about when they speak, and more careful not to follow tangents that aren’t useful.
People also listen better because, when things are moving faster, we tend to be more alert. We know that a single distracted moment will leave us behind. And, since that keeps us more engaged, we end up having more fun in the process.
Nowhere has this impact been more transformational — and more evident — than in the leadership coaching we do at Bregman Partners. For the past several years, all the coaching we do is accomplished in 30-minute sessions.
The obvious advantages are obvious: everyone saves time and money.
But here’s what’s less obvious: the coaching isn’t simply as powerful, it’s vastly more so. When the coach and the client both know they have only 30 minutes, they move into high gear.
- • Clients show up. Just as with my workouts, people are far less likely to skip a 30-minute session than they are an hour.
- • Everyone is on time. Every minute counts in a 30-minute conversation and they know it. The session gets started more quickly, as the relationship is built on doing good work, not small talk.
- • People are much more likely to come prepared. There’s no time wasted on tangents and going-nowhere conversations. Clients know what they want to cover and have put some thought into it beforehand.
- • The time pressure enhances focus and attention. People don’t focus on three issues; they tackle the single biggest opportunity or persistent, intractable obstacle. And they move on it. Focus leads to success.
- • Coaches are more willing to be courageous, and clients are more willing to be prodded. In a 30-minute session, coaches can’t waste time beating around the bush. They get to the point faster and earlier, interrupt more bravely, and ask more provocative questions.
- • Clients get more done in between coaching sessions. I’m not sure why this is. But here’s my hypothesis: Leaders at all levels need to be highly skilled at getting to the point quickly and efficiently. The compressed, focused coaching session hones the skill of getting to the point quickly, focusing on the most essential elements of a situation, and taking action.
The downside? I haven’t seen one yet.
Try it yourself. Transition some of your hour-long meetings to 30 minutes. As you do, consider these three steps as a way to make the 30 minutes most powerful:
- 1. Read what you need to beforehand and tell everyone else to do the same. Think about your questions and concerns. Decide what’s important to you and what you can let go of. Ask yourself the most important question: What outcome do you want?
- 2. Decide on the one thing that will make the biggest difference, and spend the 30 minutes on that issue, topic, or opportunity. Get started right on time, no matter who isn’t there, and be bold and disciplined at keeping the conversation on track. Let go of anything that is less critical. Make decisions quickly, even if they are imperfect. Getting traction on a single thing is far more useful than touching on many without forward momentum on any.
- 3. The sign of a great meeting isn’t the meeting itself. It’s what happens after that meeting. Save at least the last five minutes to summarize what you learned, articulate what was valuable, commit to what you are going to do as a result of the meeting, and clarify how you will assess the success of your next steps.
You will need these “get to the most critical point fast” skills — and the courage to use them — if you are going to make the most of your time. You need to be bold, and even provocative. You need to be willing to interrupt, thoughtfully and for the greater good of moving ambitiously towards what is most important. You need to let go of things that don’t really matter.
And you need to be fully present. No multi-tasking. No texting under the table. No distractions. Which is also the upside: you get to be fully present in what you are doing.
There is a cost. While it’s energizing, it also takes a lot of energy to be so focused, even for a short amount of time. It’s a sprinter’s tactic.
On the other hand, when you cut your meetings and other activities in half, you’ll have a lot more time to relax at dinner with friends, write, sleep, and spend unstructured time with people you love.
Peter- Excellent article. I agree with your point about one hour meetings – why is that the norm and who says we have to keep it that way? It is much easier to talk yourself, and others, into participating in a productive 30 minute activity vs a drawn-out, often unnecessarily long hour. Sometimes the simplest idea becomes the next aha! You may have one here.
A very good article and definitely much needed in this era where we all feel ‘time poor’ and spend our time running around trying to fit everything in.
Working in an agile environment, we have started implementing the first two steps mentioned above a bit earlier this year, but we still struggle with the time spend in meeting. Definitely need to be more bold in keeping to a shorter time and also focus on step 3.
Great article! I actually use an hourglass type timer for meetings that only has 30 minutes of sand in it. When my meetings start, I simply turn the timer over. When someone stays a bit from the topic, I just look down at the timer, then back at them — It lets them know they can talk about this if they want, but we will run out of time.
For phone calls, I use a five minute timer.
Phone calls (that are not scheduled meetings) are held to five minutes. As the sand runs out I either politely end the call, or I transition it to scheduling a 30 meeting/call.
“The sign of a great meeting isn’t the meeting itself. It’s what happens after that meeting.” Just like coaching! How different meetings would be with that approach. Love it!
Simple yet excellent idea…
Its true, somewhere we have assumed that business meetings need to last for an hour. Questioning this basis is novel & opens thinking. Thanks for it…
When I was working as a project manager in Zambia back in 2006, I used to have weekly 30 min. progress meetings with my senior team of 4 people at 4.30pm – 30 minutes before official end of the working day. It mostly worked well – and staging the meeting in the last 30 minutes of the day helped motivate us not to overrun! And, yes it did help focus attention on key matters.
Peter, great article. I fully agree with the idea of 30-minutes meetings. From my experience the 60-minutes meetings take 10 minutes for small talk, 20 to 30 minutes of constructive work or idea exchange and 20 minutes for counterproductive discussion, just to fill-in the scheduled time.
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In my coaching practice, I switched from 60-minute sessions to 45-minute sessions, and focus/attention for all parties improved and results are the same if not better!
I’ve also switched from my complimentary coaching sessions (for prospective clients) being 45 minutes, to a reduced 30 minutes. So far, the experiment works well. In almost all cases, we don’t run out of time.
I haven’t tried 30-minute sessions for my paying clients, but I do offer 15-minute “laser” calls for long-term clients and we accomplish a lot in 15 minutes.