Tired of People Wasting Your Time?

Rita J. King
December 4, 2014

Meetings are sapping your focus. Why neuroscience supports a "makers" schedule, not a "managers" schedule.

The complaint is a common one: I'm in meetings all day. I can't get anything done.

A manager's schedule involves lots of meetings, every hour on the hour. A maker's schedule requires longer blocks of time for completing focused tasks.

(This post by Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, is helpful in making distinctions between the two and also navigating a compromise when managers need to meet with makers).

The problem is, managers are often tasked with strategic thinking, which requires maker's hours. Strategy isn't a physical good--something that gets "made," but neither are many of the products of the new economy. Strategy, when it's actionable, is as tangible as code or data analytics.

An hour isn't enough time to get absorbed in a task, so makers who know they are going to be interrupted are less likely to start a task that requires focus, and managers who have their time blocked out into small increments are less likely to think strategically. What can we do about it? The Real Neuroscience of Creativity by Barry Scott Kauffman in Scientific American lends some very valuable insight into how our brains work. He references a paper called The Brain's Default Network that is absolutely necessary reading.

The main idea is that our brains have three networks:

Executive Attention Network: involves full absorption in an external process, whether it's coding or listening to a colleague speak about a problem without getting distracted.

Salience Network: a process of baton-passing between the outer world and the inner landscape of the mind. As soon as you start to think, the phone rings. An email needs a response. A colleague pops in. A meeting is on your calendar and you have no idea why you've been invited.

Imagination Network: the interior landscape, where strategic thinking and future scenario planning take place. Like the Executive Attention Network, it requires concentration.

We very rarely have time to concentrate fully on either the outer world or inner landscape. Salience dominates our professional lives. Masters of the Salience Network constantly scan the outer world for challenges and opportunities, minimizing unnecessary distractions. But what about when we really need to concentrate? How can we find the time?

When you feel like others are wasting your time, you have a couple of options. First, refuse any meeting that doesn't come with a clear agenda or purpose. Ask why you've been invited, and what contribution your presence might make. If there's no value in attending, then you're allowing your own time to be wasted. Is it out of fear of missing something? Fear that you'll be perceived as problematic by your peers?

And then ask yourself two more important questions:

  • When you do find yourself in possession of uninterrupted time, what do you do with it?
  • How are you wasting other people's time?

Read next

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Back to Insights