Why I don’t bring my laptop to meetings and neither should you

(Yet another post from my old amazon internal blog.)

Imagine a sports coach choosing drills for an upcoming practice. One drill has the team split up into pairs, and each pair practices a certain move, switching roles each try. In another drill, the team lines up and each member practices a move alone while the others watch and wait their turn. Which drill is a better use of limited practice time?

As meetings grow, they tend toward the latter drill; at any given time, most of the participants aren’t engaged. Whatever is being discussed simply isn’t relevant or even vaguely interesting to them. I propose a general metric for meeting quality: engaged-person-minutes divided by total-person-minutes. To the extent that this ratio is near one the meeting is making effective use of its participant’s time.

At the next meeting you attend with more than a handful of attendees, look around from time to time and compute the instantaneous value of my metric. I’d be willing to bet that the more people there are in the room, the lower the average engagement.

Which brings me to why I don’t bring my laptop to meetings. It’s because I trust that meeting organizers value my time and require my focused attention. To bring my laptop would be to rudely suggest that they are being careless with my time. It would be like bringing your own food to a dinner party.

There are obvious exceptions to my rule. Using the computer as a tool for note taking or problem solving, for example. But if you find yourself spending meeting time in Outlook, on your CrackBerry, or just daydreaming, you might consider accepting fewer meeting requests. There is almost certainly some more effective use of your time.

If you organize meetings where people are disengaged or have their noses buried in email, you might reexamine your goals and ask whether there is a better way to accomplish them.

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