You know that data is power. In business, we regularly measure, analyse and forecast metrics to inform our actions. But what about our time – arguably the most important resource of all?

Once again, Google’s here to help. Google Workspace users will have seen the new Time Insights feature pop into their calendar in late September. This sidebar presents stats on your time in meetings (how many of your meetings are 1:1s, on Tuesdays, or with Sam from finance?). We can also expect functionality to schedule and track individual focus time with the next release.

Time Insights is a great starting point for those wanting to take control of their schedules; research shows poor time awareness reduces individual productivity. But data is only power if it informs meaningful action.

Here’s how to use your data to actually spend less time in unproductive meetings.

Get some context

Time Insights may tell you your daily average time in meetings is 5.1 hours, but how do you judge that number? You’ll establish your own context over time if you’re reviewing the data regularly. But to help you get started here’s a data set to compare:

From 2006 to 2018, Harvard Business School asked its New CEOs Program participants to track their time for 13 weeks. Adjusting for the pandemic’s impact on our schedules, here’s what the average new CEO’s Time Insights would have looked like:

  • Workday length: 10.5 hours
  • Total time in meetings: 6.7 hours
  • 1:1 meetings: 2.8 hours
  • 3+ guests: 3.9 hours
  • Remaining (unscheduled) time: 3.8 hours

Set time goals

The new CEOs’ data is one reference point, but how does it compare to your situation? Spending 72% of your work time in meetings isn’t a goal to blindly pursue.

First, consider whether you’re a manager or maker. The average CEO’s Time Insights illustrates the manager’s schedule, where the day is scheduled based on 1-hour blocks available either for meetings or independent work. Deep focus work can be achieved by combining blocks, though in my experience, many leaders struggle to prioritise this time in their schedules.

In contrast, a maker generally requires long focus periods to gain the flow necessary to produce their best work. That means minimising meetings, or at least scheduling them for the end of their workday. If you’re an ex-maker in leadership, holding onto that maker’s schedule where possible will help you achieve the deep focus time that many executives crave.

Next, look at your current Time Insights metrics and choose which direction you’d like to see them shift. Your goal for each metric should be an achievable increment from your current stats (even small wins can have great motivational power).

Goal setting is an iterative process, and best viewed as a series of mini experiments. There’s no pressure to get your numbers ‘right’ on the first go.

Take action

Meetings serve an important purpose for collaboration and relationship building. Unfortunately, they are often the go-to format for information sharing that could more efficiently be achieved asynchronously. Take these steps to shift your time towards your goal:

  1. Before accepting any more meetings, make sure you’ve blocked out your focused work periods in your calendar, considering the time of day that works best for you. If you don’t prioritise that time, it can easily be taken from you.
  2. Consider what justifies a meeting, as opposed to a written update that team members can review, consider and action in their own time.
  3. Talk about it with your team and develop a system for vetting whether a meeting should be scheduled, or an invite should be accepted (I like the Purpose-Outcome-Agenda approach).
  4. When you receive an invitation, prompt for any missing agenda or background information. If it’s unclear how your attendance will contribute to a meeting objective, ask the host to justify it. If they can’t, you’re free to decline.
  5. Role model positive behaviours during the meeting. Offer to keep time, flag unhelpful tangents, or take notes and circulate actions.

Reflect

After a fortnight of action, check in on your Insights over that period. Ask yourself:

  • How did your metrics change?
  • What actions contributed to your progress, and why? How can you extend and expand positive changes to help them stick long-term?
  • Which actions were unhelpful?
  • What have you learnt to inform the next mini-experiment?

Then, start the cycle again. Your findings provide new context. Adjust your goals as necessary, take some more action, and reflect. You’ll see meaningful changes to your productivity, proven by your Time Insights. Thanks Google!