Picture the scene. You’re at work, at ten to nine in the morning, staring at your overflowing to-do list in silent panic, just as a rabbit might stare at the headlights of an approaching juggernaut. How will you ever get all this stuff done?
You switch to your calendar, hoping to find a soothing expanse of empty, productive time in which to cut that to-do list down to size. But what you actually see in Outlook resembles what might appear if you tried playing Tetris while suffering from a deep migraine.
(This looks quite sane compared to my real calendar)
Multiple meetings, scheduled simultaneously, are squashed into thin slivers, with scant space left to show what they’re actually about. Some are short: the “scrum calls”, the “stand-ups”, the “check-ins”. Others are of epic duration, spanning many hours, giving attendees time to ponder the world’s most profound and enduring mysteries at length—and quite possibly resolve them too. What they have in common is that they will all prevent you from completing any of your tasks.
You can’t attend them all but it’s fair to say that you won’t be seeing the outside of the meeting room before sunset. And as the fun is due to begin in ten minutes, you have just enough time to bump all those to-do list tasks from today to tomorrow.
Just as you start doing that, a new email arrives. Actually, it’s not an email at all – it’s a meeting request! For today! As if. With a rueful shake of the head, you click “decline” and – consummate professional that you are – type out a reason for your refusal to attend, suggesting they look at your calendar before inviting you to future meetings.
Before hitting send, however, you notice with horror that, in fact, they did look at your calendar. This you know because they chose the only half-hour section of the day not already jam-packed with meetings: they scheduled it in your lunch break.
If things like this happen to you regularly you’ll probably agree with me that our lunchtime is under threat and that we must take steps to save it.
I should admit that I’ve not always been the staunchest defender of the lunch break. Like many others, I was complacent during earlier assaults on this age-old workplace institution. As desk-based lunches became the norm, my increasingly rare trips beyond the nearest grim sandwich emporium started to feel cheekily transgressive, like white-collar truant.
While I didn’t mind that, I always assumed there would be respect for what remained: that half-hour break spent furtively eating a sandwich, indulging in recreational reading while fresh crumbs speckled the keyboard. I thought this vestige of personal time in the middle of the working day would be preserved, as biologists might protect a fragile microhabitat in a mountaintop rock pool. I thought we were safe: but now we have the lunchtime meeting requests.
This is our last stand. If we give in to this, and start accepting – or, heavens forbid, scheduling – lunchtime meetings, then our lunch breaks really will be a thing of the past. But how can we fight back? Declining a meeting invitation is a sensitive event in the world of office politics, and open arguments with meeting organisers about whether your lunch break takes priority over their scrum call or stand-up or check-in should be avoided at all costs.
Instead, the best bet is to fight fire with fire and transform your calendar from your zone of vulnerability into your key weapon of defence by inviting yourself to 1-hour meetings in the middle of the day. This means that, when they look at your calendar, meeting organisers see a 9-hour monolith of uninterrupted appointments and decide that their stand-up or check-in just might be able to wait for another day. Even if you end up using that time to sit at your desk and clear your to-do list while eating a sandwich, you’ll be much better off for it.