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Crap! I have to leave that phone/laptop off more often..

I've generally not been a fan of the hard no-laptop (or no-phone) meeting rule (quora answer from a while ago). My view comes from what a professor of mine once said "You're all adults.... Its up to you how you now choose to spend your time and money." 

That's been my view for a long time. When I'm not distracting others or if there's not a guest/external speaker, I should be able to, and trusted to, manage my own attention. 

As someone who is in a lot of meetings - particularly in some meetings which have a lot of people in them and when I'm not running them - I've recognized when I can listen in the background and do or think of other things - dialing back in when necessary.

To the standard objections I hear when I tell people this:

  • Yes, I still need to be at the meeting even if its for only part of it or to prevent certain outcomes. I benefit sometimes from getting a sense of what's going on even if I'm fully engaged for only part of the meeting.
  • Yes, it is suboptimal for the meeting sometimes but I do think it can be optimal for the team overall (i.e. its more efficient for me and others in the meeting) to be multi-tasking.
I've liked to think that I'm good at managing this particularly with my laptop - I know when I and the meeting are better served when I keep it shut. In fact the physical act of shutting the laptop makes me focus on the discussion more and works as a signal to others. But when I'm behind on email or someone is messaging me I've noticed I become guilty of sometimes asking people to repeat themselves. And I always, always keep glancing at my phone every few minutes.

However, an interesting thing happened a couple of months - on 2 consecutive days I left my laptop at my desk just before a meeting and my phone was out of charge (battery on my Android phone is pretty terrible right now!), so I literally had no distractions going into these meetings.... and these were amongst the best meetings I had in a while.
  • The first turned into a long brainstorming session - and left me excited for days afterwards
  • The second was a review in which in I had to participate only briefly - but the fact that I could do little else forced to me to pay more attention to the speakers and made me carefully evaluate all the points made and think of extensions to what was being discussed. I left a lot smarter on the topic than I suspect I would have under usual circumstances.
Some of this (particularly the first meeting) was co-incidental, but I suspect if I'd been distracted with my phone then it wouldn't have been as inspiring. This isn't surprising - there's tons of evidence that confirms humans are terrible at multi-tasking, but I'd assumed the hit from switching context was worth the fact that I just got more done.

So I've tried not looking at my phone/laptop and being more present in meetings for the last couple of weeks - it's had mixed results and I lapsed a lot particularly since I've been traveling, but overall it does seem like my meetings are more productive and I end up feeling better about them too when I'm able to stay fully focussed.

I also felt like the phone-habit is far worse for productivity than opening my laptop (and for me was much harder to control as well), so keeping that away was actually a much bigger win. 

So here's to being better at managing my attention... 

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