Collaboration sounds great, but it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. A recent cover story in Harvard Business Review looked at the topic of "collaborative overload" and the burnout that can result. According to the article by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant, "Over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more." In many organizations, they note, the proportion of time spent on meetings, responding to emails, and on the phone hovers at around 80%.
It raises the question: If you spend 80% of your time in meetings or in your inbox, when can you do the solo "deep work," as productivity writer Cal Newport calls it, that is often necessary to think about the big picture, solve thorny problems, or write your discoveries down?
In conversations with the meeting-crazed, a few strategies come up again and again.
For many people, it will not work to protect an open slot at the same time every single day. Things come up; travel schedules intervene. Instead, aim to do two to three slots at various points over the whole 168 hours that constitute a week.
If you work 50 hours a week and spend 80% in collaborative mode, this leaves 10 hours for other things. This is not a small chunk of time if it's used well. Make sure to keep the inbox closed and the phone off, and plan what you need to work on, so you don’t waste precious time dithering.
In general, people book meetings during certain slots that correspond with what are perceived as business hours. But the start of business hours does not need to be the start of the workday. If no one schedules meetings before 9 a.m., then 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. is a great time for deep work a few days per week. Come in and enjoy the office quiet while your brain is still fresh. If you think people will see you and start booking meetings with you, then work from home (or a coffee shop, if home is equally distracting) for this first shift.
There’s no rule that says you have to be available between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., even if that’s generally when people work in your office. Make yourself available from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. some days, or even from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., particularly if you know most people will not go for the 5 p.m. slot unless they are desperate. Less important meetings will just wind up getting moved further into the future (not always a bad thing).
This does not work in open offices where people can clearly see you are there and not meeting with anyone (though you can always put on a headset—which looks like a conference call not requiring much input). But if any open time on your calendar has a tendency to get taken, making time not look open is often key to protecting it for solo work.
A train commute—in the quiet car, if there is one—offers a great opportunity to crank things out. Don’t turn on the phone until you’re walking into your office building. Likewise, don’t use airplane Wi-Fi. Plot out your deep-work options instead. Tempting as it is to reward yourself for business travel with guilt-free movie watching, using this time to work instead may buy you more relaxed nights and weekends.
People who like the deep-work aspects of their job may not mind devoting weekend time to it. If your household doesn’t start moving until later on weekends, getting up at a reasonable time on either Saturday or Sunday morning (whichever is better for you) can buy you several hours for focused thinking. Alternately, trade off kid watching with your spouse, or use a block of time while they’re at friends’ homes or activities.
Of course, the best way to carve out time to think is to spend less time in meetings. The problem is that once a meeting is under way, it’s hard to stop it, and even if you see quickly that it’s pointless, you’ve already wasted the time and energy getting there. Get in the habit, perhaps on Friday afternoons, of triaging your calendar. Look at your meetings for the next week and see what looks marginal. Canceling or shortening something in advance is easier and more humane than doing it in the moment.
You can work to try to change the culture of collaborative overload, too. Often, too much collaboration is just buck passing in another guise. "I worked with a huge consumer products company where everyone had to get a consensus from everybody for everything they did," says Laura Stack, a productivity expert and author of Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time. "It took an inordinate amount of time to work out even minor details, because everyone had an opinion about the correct way forward. People became incredibly frustrated, as a project that should have taken four months to execute took 14 months."
So, she suggests, move from a culture where everyone has to say yes for something to happen to a culture where people have to say no to stop things. "If you say you have valid reasons why something cannot take place this way and needs to be done another way, that’s fine, but you’d better have very solid reasons."
In short, "Addressing this over-collaboration culture is one of the most challenging things a leader can do. We must stop cc'ing the world on every email and inviting three levels of people from the same department to every meeting because we’re afraid someone will get their feelings hurt if their opinion wasn’t taken into consideration," Stack says. "Perhaps that would free up some time on the calendar to think."