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Why you need a meeting sabbatical

Table of Contents
I.The burnout problem 
II.The Meeting Sabbatical Solution 
2. 0. 1.What is a Meeting Sabbatical? 
2. 0. 2.Why this solution?
III.Planning My Meeting Sabbatical
3. 0. 1.Organizing ahead of time
IV.How it went (daily log) 
V.A summary of my learnings 
5. 0. 1.I got both physical and mental health benefits:
VI.Going forward

The burnout problem 

I have a problem. It’s an internal one that I’m working on. I’m what has become known as a “yes” person. When I hear about a cool new idea, I say yes to it. The same goes for when someone asks a favor or has a request. I like this about my personality, but it comes with some drawbacks. 
About every 3 months, I find that I am working on way too many things. Suddenly, my official responsibilities outlined for my role as Head of Growth go from 80% of my time to 20% of my time. The rest is spent in meetings, responding to Slack messages and emails, and coordinating different team members. 
In my head, when I agree to a project, I’m agreeing to x hours of building time. In reality, I’m agreeing to x hours of building + y hours of meetings + z hours of coordination. At my core, I am a builder and creator. I’m also extremely introverted, and calls drain my energy. So every few months, I find myself approaching burnout from being drained. 
My burnout was caused not by overwork per se (I still work roughly the same 50 hour weeks I typically have). The result was more from what I was spending my time doing. I loved what I was working on, but I was working on too many things, resulting in too little execution time. 
The results were clear and discouraging. I became more irritable at meetings. My creativity and productivity plummeted. I started to feel bad at what I do, even though the goals were on target. I became convinced we were hitting our numbers in spite of my efforts, not because of them.
I approached our CEO and requested something new – a meeting sabbatical

The Meeting Sabbatical Solution 

What is a Meeting Sabbatical? 

What I pitched to my CEO with was this: for the next week, I would not attend any meetings besides what was absolutely essential. I would skip all team meetings, all check-ins and all one on ones. I declined any one-off meeting requests that came through, and in turn, didn’t get any new projects. 
Instead of attending these meetings (which amounted to around 15-20 hours of extra free time in the week), I would focus solely on the projects I was working on. Things that I myself were building. I also allotted time for planning and reflection, something I hadn’t focused on in months. 

Why this solution?

The first instinct when I approached my friends with my burnout problem was to take a holiday. True, I had not done this in a while. I do in fact believe in the importance of vacation (I’m taking a real one soon), but it’s a poor solution for burnout. 
Why? It’s likely to make it worse. Think about it: I was overwhelmed with too many things to do. A vacation not only puts this on hold, but forces you to come back with a larger to-do list. So while it may have eliminated my burnout symptoms for a week, it was likely to compound the underlying cause. This is the reason burnout is such a serious problem: there is not an easy fix. You’ll need something systematic. 
My week would be spent not bringing my productivity to zero, but cranking it to a 10. This is the perfect solution for me, because, as I mentioned, I enjoy spending my time making new things. It’s what I love doing. So not only would this solution allow me to rapidly cut through my task list, but I’d have lots of fun doing it! 
NOTE: This would be a horrible solution if you don’t actually enjoy what you are doing. If that’s the case, you have a problem bigger than burnout. You’ll need an entire career shift. 

Planning My Meeting Sabbatical

Before the week began, I outlined everything that I wanted to accomplish. And the list was large. It was ambitious. But I think this was important. It helped put me in a “flow” state of mind vs. a relaxed state of mind (another key difference from a vacation). 
Here is a list of what I wanted to accomplish:

Organizing ahead of time

When you have too many meetings, it’s almost impossible to organize your daily tasks outside of them into any sort of timeline. I thrive off of uninterrupted periods of focus. I used to love Pomodoros, but I haven’t been able to do them for quite a while. 
Since I didn’t have any meetings this week, I realized I could plan out my day exactly how I wanted it to be. That means I could come pretty close to estimating exactly what I could accomplish in each day. I took each task I wanted to get done and assigned it a day. 
I front-loaded tasks at the beginning of the week and left time at the end for two reasons: 
  1. I assumed that inevitably I’d have to bump things to the next day (road blocked, unforeseen challenges, etc.) 
  2. I wanted to spend some time at the end of the week brainstorming and planning. For some reason, I always enjoy doing this after my “not so fun” tasks are over. It frees my head I suppose. 
I did in fact have several meetings. You’ll notice before I said “non-essential meetings”. I decided to classify non-essential meetings as those which didn’t accomplish anything meaningful and measurable. 
For example: ❌ weekly updates  ❌ 1:1 meetings  ❌ team meetings of any kind  ❌ recurring meetings of any kind ✅ project kickoff call  ✅ feedback/iteration session  ✅ idea discussion 
What qualifies as a yes or no meeting will differ from one person to the next. I think it’s important to be brutally honest and only take the meetings that feel unavoidable. 

How it went (daily log) 

Monday When I woke up and started my workday on Monday, I was concerned for two reasons: 
  1. The Monday morning meeting was still taking place, and it felt weird knowing everyone was on it. This is a personal FOMO problem I need to deal with. 
  2. My to-do list was ENORMOUS which gave me the normal jolt of anxiety 
The difference is in what happened next. Usually, this Monday anxiety grows because I look at my to-do list, and then can do one or two things until my meetings start. This means as my day goes on, the list grows instead of shrinks. This is a terrible feeling. Today, the opposite happened. I started immediately hammering away at my list.  
This was incredibly energizing. I soon realized that my schedule went forward with the exact cadence I had planned. I was able to do Pomodoros again. I felt like my old productive self.
Tuesday On the second day, I decided to wake up early to go for a bike ride before starting work. This is something that I absolutely would not have been able to do if I had morning meetings. Being able to get outside and exercise made a huge amount of difference in my day. Probably the most enjoyable workday I've had so far in 2021. I have never been much of a morning exercise person, but getting outside produced an insane happiness increase right at the start of the day. 
Without meetings, I continued noticing that I was able to plan out and execute on my tasks with wild accuracy. Each day, I was accomplishing what I would in almost a week’s worth of time otherwise. As someone who considers himself a creator, this was heaven. I was also able to finish work on time to go out to eat on a weekday with my girlfriend. This is something I had not yet been able to achieve in a while. She also noted that I was more present at dinner than I had been in a while. 
Wednesday Today I had the rare urge to take a rest day (physically, from biking and the gym). This was because I wanted to run some errands and work on some personal things later in the day. Recently I haven’t had the energy for these things. As I mentioned, I consider myself severely introverted, meaning any kind of call just drains my energy (especially if I have more than 5 hours of them in a day). 
By Wednesday, I also started noticing several positive psychological effects after the days of no meetings:
  • WAY lower stress and anxiety. Maybe 20% of what it was the week prior
  • Big boost in creativity. I've had more new ideas this week than I had the last month combined
  • Clear thinking - instead of a gut 'panic' or 'stress' response, problems actually feel solvable in a fun way
I should note that I did keep 2 meetings on this day, both of which crossed off to-do items. I must admit it felt like a disruption to have them, but at least they were actioned and I must admit they were fairly needed. 
Thursday By this point, I began getting noticeably more sleep each night. The previous night I had a concerning stomach problem, but was able to relax and go to sleep at an early time and sleep in a little extra in the morning. I woke up feeling near 100%, which was an amazing luxury. I realized that I was subconsciously allocating more time for my health. 
As I moved through each day accomplishing what I expected and seeing how many major items were being ticked off, an unexpected result started happening. An immense sense of pride and accomplishment in my work started to build. For the first time in many months, I felt exceptional at what I was doing. I did not expect this as a result of the experiment. 
By this point, several meeting requests came in that I politely turned down. The learning was that either a) I didn't need to be on the meeting in the first place, or b) the entire meeting could/should have been done async. Everyone was very understanding, and this helped me realize that I was being defaulted into many meetings that I didn’t need to be on. After all, you can argue that pretty much anything happening in a startup can relate to growth. Therefore you can justify having that person on almost every call. That doesn’t mean they need or should be there, however. 
I've also had several people reach out on their own account saying how great they think the idea of a meeting sabbatical is, and how much they'd like to do it as well. This is a huge reason for the in-depth write-up.
Friday Today I got a bit frustrated due to being roadblocked on some things. I paused and asked the question: is this a by-product of not having meetings? My answer was no. I didn't have any meetings scheduled this week that would have helped unblock these things. For some of the issues, even having a meeting scheduled with the right person wouldn’t have helped. So I tried to take this as a lesson that sometimes things are just out of your control. 
On this day, I focused a lot on things I've wanted to for months but haven't been able to:
  • Flesh out some work ideas
  • Brainstorm and long term planning
  • Start the writing club (in which I’m writing this now) 
  • Reflect on what I want out of my own career path.
Perhaps more than anything I did during the week, this was one of the most valuable. The reason is because this meeting sabbatical was to calm symptoms, not cure a larger issue. For that, I would need a more systematic approach to my burnout. 

A summary of my learnings 

If you are an introvert or just feel burnt out from meetings, this will 100% help you. I make the comment on introversion because I understand that many extroverts struggle with feeling isolated with remote work. I have never felt this. My preferred working environment is isolation, solitude and silence. I think for many people, they might actually hate having a week of no meetings.
A meeting sabbatical will only be fun for you if you enjoy your core work.
This should be obvious but I’m guessing for some it is not. If you don’t enjoy the tasks you have to complete, you obviously will not enjoy your meeting sabbatical. I’m a creator who loves creating things. My meeting sabbatical week was 80% creating and 20% brainstorming. It was basically my ideal work week. If you hate your job, this will not help you. 

I got both physical and mental health benefits:

During the week, I: 
  1. Got more sleep
  2. Got more exercise (outside)
  3. Ate better 
  4. Had lower stress levels
  5. Had higher levels of confidence
To be honest, I expected all of these except for #5. Coming to that realization was such a pleasant surprise and I expect it to have more lasting effects than the others. 
It produced both higher levels of productivity and mental clarity
If you are feeling foggy or hazy with regards to what you should be spending your time doing, this will absolutely help you. Half of the productivity is just knowing what exactly you should be working on at any given moment. The initial planning phase of my week solved that. 
I also walked away knowing exactly what direction I wanted my career to go in. In the end, I thought, “Wow, that was one of the most fun work weeks I’ve ever had”. I learned that I am a builder and a creator, not a manager. I do better creating new and useful things for growth, not coordinating a whole growth and marketing team.

Going forward

I shared this learning with our CEO, and like any good leader, he listened and accepted the discovery with enthusiasm. No company leader wants their team to go in a career direction they don’t want. For this reason, my meeting sabbatical is having really meaningful and lasting effects. 
I’m back in with many meetings, but I’m hard at work on a plan to relieve this. It involves mainly personal improvements (saying no more, asking for things to be done async, stepping away from projects I don’t have time for, etc.), but also some hiring and role defining. I’m excited to get these into place, and it feels amazing to be making progress in designing my dream work life. ✌️

💡 If you found the idea of a meeting sabbatical interesting, you should follow me on Twitter. I share many of these experiments with regard to remote work and happiness.

About the author

Sam Claassen

Head of Growth
SafetyWing
Sam Claassen is the Head of Growth at SafetyWing and a serial advocate for remote work. A longtime nomad himself, he has been to 65 countries while doing growth and remote work consulting for startups and accelerators. Through his work at SafetyWing, he is working with a team to create BuildingRemotely.com – a podcast, online resource and soon to be book on building a thriving remote company.