Coffee Meetings

I usually have no more than three meetings -- or rather calls -- a day; on some days, I don’t even have a meeting. People often wonder why I don’t do more meetings, and question how I can’t find the time to meet with other people. The truth is that I have the time to meet with other people, I just choose not to in most situations. I am busy all of the time and I always want to be working or doing something productive. I have written before about how I don’t plan too far in advance, and so in each moment I am usually working on the most impactful thing that I could be doing at that time. But even though I could make the time for meetings, I often choose not to do so. I have too much things to do that are more pressing and important to me.

My goal at the end of each day is to be able to effectively answer “What good did I do this day?” This question is based on Benjamin Franklin’s daily self-reflection routine, where each evening he would contemplate his impact on the world and how much he had accomplished. In order for me to be able to render a good answer to that question, I need to be doing something productive — something meaningful — that adds a lot of value to my life or the someone else’s life. Most meetings would not allow me to effectively answer that question because most meetings are unproductive.

I have one rule about meetings which helps me keep a free calendar: only schedule a call with someone who I believe will be able to help me or someone who I can help with something in specific. I don’t like to make time for meetings where there is no clear output for either parties in advance, because oftentimes we will end up going off on tangents and having a relatively scattered discussion. In order for me to accept a meeting, there must be clear intention behind the meeting, and I must firmly believe that some value can be derived through the meeting.

Schedule Few Meetings

I work very hard to reduce the amount of meetings I have. If someone reaches out for a call, I will often ask whether they can send a list of questions instead. Sometimes I will even suggest that we keep our discussion in Twitter — that way is more effective. Most meetings that people have do not actually need to be meetings — they have been scheduled because the parties involved want to appear productive. I have previously had meetings where people have had a few questions that could have easily been written into an email, and it would likely have been better for them if they had a written response to refer back to in the future. When I do schedule calls, I want to keep them short and on-topic. I want to get straight to the point as quickly as possible so that we can spend all of our time discussing what is important, rather than everything else that may come up.

It used to be very difficult for me to turn down meetings. I used to see meetings as a sign of productivity: “I had four meetings today” sounds like you have been busy. But I have since realized that the number of meetings you have in a day is not a reflection of success. I would argue that in most cases, the more meetings you have, the less productive you have actually been — what tangible things do you have to take away from your day? Therefore, I have started to be more active in moving over to emails rather than calls. I no longer feel bad about not scheduling calls because I think that if I am not going to get anything out of a call, it is very unlikely that the other person will be able to get a lot out of it either. If there is a specific purpose for our call, however, then I am usually more willing to schedule a call.

Meetings Take A Lot of Time

The thing that a lot of people forget about coffee meetings is that they do not just take up the amount of time you have scheduled. Let’s say that you have scheduled a 30 minute meeting with me. Indeed, on your calendar it may appear as if you have taken 30 minutes of my time. But on my end, I usually spend around 20 minutes or so preparing for a call. I will take down notes about what I want to bring up and I will also prepare any resources that I may need to cite during the call. After the call, I will usually spend around 20 minutes reflecting on the meeting, categorizing my notes, thinking about what I need to take action on, and preparing any future tasks that I may need to complete. So, therefore, you are not actually taking up 30 minutes of my time — you are taking up around an hour, or perhaps more. There is a significant context shift required when you do meetings as well, so even if you don’t prepare as much as I do, you still need to let your mind adjust to your attending a call, which takes time.

I am always willing to meet with people who can clearly outline why we need to meet. If someone reaches out and says “I saw your essay on X, I work for Y, I have a few questions about your line of thinking in X for an upcoming research paper, could we hop on a call?” then I am more likely to want to schedule a call. If a meeting is useful to them and they have demonstrated the value of hopping on a call, then I am happy to do so. The people who meet with me are often those who have done some form of work and have something interesting to share with me. They are making a career decision and want some guidance, or they have worked on a certain article or product and want to chat. If someone has proof they have done something meaningful, I am more likely to want to meet with them.

Make Time for Deep Work

As I wrote before, having more calls does not mean that you have been more productive. Indeed, networking is important when you are starting in your career or in a new job and you want to build more connections. But for the most part, calls are not a sign of productivity: they are a burden. Having a lot of calls to attend makes it difficult for you to actually do meaningful — deep — work. You are always focused on preparing for, attending, and reflecting on meetings that you don’t have the time you need to work on what matters to you. I have certain periods in my calendar where I will not schedule a meeting unless the person with whom I want to speak does not have any other times available. These are my periods of deep work: the times when I am focused solely on writing, researching, and working. I need to stay uninterrupted in these periods so that I can be my most creative self and produce higher quality work. Therefore, I avoid meetings at all costs so that I can remain focused. To become successful, you need to have free time to actually work and create — meetings are a major interruption.

Best Practices in Scheduling

I have a few other quick notes to discuss around “coffee” meetings. The first is that you should always be sure to schedule the right amount of time with the other person. I have had dozens of meetings over the last few months where they have run on by at least 30 minutes. In many cases, I am free to have meetings run-on — those meetings can often be very insightful. However, I would prefer if people scheduled the right amount of time in the first place so that I can better prepare for my day. If you think a meeting will run on for an hour, schedule an hour. If you think it will only last 30 minutes, then do so state. Secondly, I also appreciate the people who follow-up after calls to say thank you for taking the time. I have recently tried to do this for my meetings, and I find that it is valuable to take a minute to write a thank you email and also share a list of some of the resources we discussed in our call. This not only serves as a way to practice gratitude, but will also help you stay in touch with the other person and cultivate a closer relationship with them.

In sum, “coffee” meetings can be effective, but most of the time I prefer to email or to just do my work. Indeed, some meetings can be very productive — I have had many this year which have had a great impact on the quality of my work. Most meetings, however, are not productive, even if we think we are. The context shift required to transition from work to a meeting makes me even more cautious around scheduling calls — a 30 minute call does not just take 30 minutes. This essay should not serve as my discouraging you from reaching out to hop on a call — I am always happy to chat with people, for the record — but rather it should make you rethink your approach to calls. Consider the burden of both parties involved of scheduling a call, then evaluate whether one is really necessary.

Keep your meetings to a minimum. Consider the value of the other person’s time. Calls are not always productive. Make time for deep work.

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