Colin Dean


Why I stopped bringing my laptop to meetings

I’m a workaholic. I don’t stop thinking about the tasks at hand, especially when there’s code involved. I am compelled by my own desire to create useful things and accomplish the tasks asked of me. Sometimes, though, this “gotta keep coding” mentality gets in the way. I disappear into my own world and emerge with something, hopefully something useful or clever, even if it’s 100 ways not to do something.

Suddenly remembering that I’m in a meeting and should be listening is jarring, like suddenly awakening from a dream or a hearing an obviously stuck valve during a concerto. I’ve engaged to my fullest in neither the meeting nor my coding task. I’ve come away with parts of two things instead of a whole of one.

Meetings are not a time for distractions. Meetings are a time to focus, learn, and decide. Having materials or things to do other than what is directly required or relevant to the present meeting actively detracts from that meeting because I’m not fully devoted to the meeting. My attention could be stolen by a new email, a new message, a new thought on how to address an unsolved problem, a new tweet, or a host of other things.

Distracting me from the task at hand, the meeting, might not be offensive to the meeting stakeholders. However, by not concentrating on the meeting, I’m not getting its full value and probably should not be involved in it if my full attention and engagement is not required for the full duration of the meeting. Unfortunately, the Law of Two Feet is ill-advised for work meetings.

Is it OK to be distracted during a meeting in which you have a minor role? I say no. If your role was minor and you walked away with nothing actionable, there was probably a better way for your interest to be represented in the meeting.

Meetings are for decisions. Status belongs in email.

I don’t remember when I was first introduced to this concept, or who introduced it to me (probably Joe Kramer), but it’s been a guiding light for my own meeting scheduling habits. These days, most of the meetings I schedule have one participant: me, and they’re to block off my calendar so I can work uninterrupted on something. I’ve gotten pretty good at only scheduling meetings when I want a decision out of people. My meetings are quick, to the point, and nearly always end with action items assigned to participants.

“What about standups, Colin?” Standups are a little different kind of meeting, because they are deliberately scheduled and conducted to be fast. Any subject not requiring the full attention of the members of the standup must be quickly called out and relegated to a parking lot discussion to follow the meeting. I’ve not yet sewn together my throwable, plush parking cones, but my threat of making them is real!

“What about weekly cadence calls?” Everyone knows that I hate these, but acknowledge that some projects grow to a size that oral status works. Meetings like this frequently have a dedicated note-taker and the notes are published afterwards. In reality, nothing discussed at these meetings should be a surprise unless something happened literally minutes before the meeting to change what the known status is. The primary purpose seems to be to coordinate across large organizations that smaller status updates would render Inbox Zero an even more Sisyphean task. There is a decision to be made: decide a course of action if a report affects other teams.

“What about retrospective meetings?” Retros are decisive by design. The whole point is to examine the team’s processes since the last retro and decide to adjust or not to adjust based on consensus. Some retros allow some leakage of status into the agenda. Discussion of that status must be kept to a minimum just like the cadence calls in order to ensure that the majority content of the meeting is decisive.

My feelings on meetings are evolving over time. I generally have a negative view on meetings because it’s far too easy to spend more time meeting than getting things done.

By not bringing my laptop to a meeting, instead bringing a notepad or sticky notes or both, I walk in prepared with what I need already written, so that I might remember it myself, and walk out with little discardable slips of paper that adhere to everything, symbolizing the things I need to do based on the decisions of that meeting.

I do of course bring my laptop if I know I’m going to need to show off something, or bring it but keep it closed if I think I might have to show off something. As much as I’d prefer it, I can’t whiteboard everything!

So, what’s the takeaway here? I rambled a bit.

  1. I default to “no computer” at meetings so that I can focus on the meeting and be fully engaged. I’m also still working on this, so don’t call me out on it if I bring my computer!
  2. If I needed not be fully engaged, I will question whether or not my presence in the meeting was necessary.
  3. You should only invite the people who are necessary to make the decision central to the meeting.
  4. You should heed the posters that are spread around the Pittsburgh office’s conference rooms. They have some great reminders that can minimize the negative impact of unnecessary meetings.

Update: It’s now been several months since I stopped bringing my laptop to most meetings. I don’t regret it at all. I’m more engaged than I’ve ever been. This engagement has oftentimes ultimately led to shorter meetings as I am able to keep people on task and myself be more decisive in those meetings. I hereby recommend this behavior to everyone.

This post and its update are based on two that originally appeared on my personal blog internal to my then-employer. I have now been generally laptop-less at meetings for a couple of years now.

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