How to spend less time in meetings as a programmer

How to replace meetings with collaboratively written documentation

A bunch of people in an open-space office, talking or looking at screens.
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

It is hard to imagine someone who likes spending the entire day in the meetings. Even people who schedule a full day of meetings don't like it.

Can we do something instead of emails? We often hear, "This meeting could be an email!" Could it? Would using email solve our problem?

You Wouldn't Read the Email

How many emails have you received today? 100? 1000? How many of them have you read? We can't replace meetings with emails. That wouldn't work.

What can we do about it? If 99.9% of emails I received weren't spam or automated notifications, I would pay more attention to them. We may try increasing the signal-to-noise ratio by setting up email filters. I will probably read the important messages if I have an inbox with three important emails and a separate inbox for all the notifications.

It's not going to happen. Is it? We need something else...

Slack, Teams, and Others

Slack (and other chat-based tools) is where information comes to die. Chats aren't a replacement for emails or meetings.

Even if you pay for the tool and have complete chat history, good luck looking for the past messages when you need them.

Culture of Asynchronous Communication

We need something better. We need a culture of written communication. It doesn't mean we will write lots of emails. We won't. People don't read them anyway.

Instead of email, we'll use collaborative writing tools to create and update documentation. We need living documents that get constantly updated.

The meetings that could be emails will turn into meetings where we update the documentation. Those meetings won't be as long as status update meetings, and fewer people will get invited. Everyone else gets a link to the updated document.

What do we need to build such a culture? Two things: willingness to do it and writing skills. Improving writing skills sounds like an enormous task, but all we need is writing. A lot. After a few months of practice, you may also take a look at books like "On Writing Well" or "Elements of Style."

Willingness to try something new may be challenging to produce. People may be scared of writing. After all, it is easy to schedule an hour-long meeting for twenty people. It is easy to spend the entire meeting thinking about what you want to say as you speak. Try spending that hour alone writing. You will notice two problems.

First, it is hard. It is even harder when you constantly go back and change what you have already written. You should do editing at the end. We all know it, and we all tend to edit while writing. Don't worry. After some time, you will learn to trust yourself and know that you will edit it later. You can postpone editing. Just write.

The second problem is... you don't have as much to say as you thought you had. You could be speaking for one hour, rumbling about the same thing over and over multiple times. When you write it down without sidetracks and needless repetition, you may see half a page of text.

You may think it is a problem. It is not. It will be a problem if you schedule an expansive meeting for twenty people because you need one hour to tell them the information that fits in six sentences.

Building the Culture

I assume you can't write an email to the entire company and ban the meetings. If you can, please do it.

How can you persuade others to write instead of having meetings?

Don't try to take notes during the meetings and send them to others! Don't! You won't achieve the goal. All you'll achieve is becoming a permanent volunteer in a position of the meeting transcriber. You don't want that, do you?

You may insist on getting the meeting notes from the person who scheduled the meeting. This won't work either. Guess how you will be perceived when you suggest it? Does anything positive come to your mind?

What is the point? You can't do it from the bottom up. You need to persuade one person in power to impose the idea upon others. It's not going to be easy, but I don't see a better option. Do you?