Having Meetings With Yourself

Meetings often feel like a waste of time because they’re used for orientation. If you’re already oriented, it’s painful to sit there and hear something you already know.

Orientation is required for projects with an endpoint. Everyone needs to be pushing in the same direction for any progress to happen. However, as the project progresses you learn things, requirements change, and the world moves on. Suddenly your plan of attack is out of date. Reorientation is required. Time for a meeting.

The need for this is obvious in large teams. The larger the team, the more people have to get oriented, the more meetings you have to have.

Counterintuitively, the need for reorientation doesn’t go away when you work alone. Projects still change, time still moves forward. In the end, despite there being no one else you have to orient, you often need to orient yourself. This can be hard to do since the concept of having a meeting with yourself sounds pretty stupid.

A way I would describe the feeling when you need to orient yourself is stumbling. You’re getting things done but after every little task you have to pick your head up and go “so…what was the point of that again?” You’re forced into micro-orientations on a low abstraction level. Since the abstraction level is so low, the tasks don’t flow together towards some succinct higher level goal. Working like this has a tempo of stuttering to it.

So how do you have a meeting with yourself? My current attempts at it involve sitting quietly with some pen and paper. Often the whole reason orientation is required is that you need to have thoughts that don’t fit into a short timeframe. They’ve been repeatedly postponed by smaller work and have piled up. Some thinking requires more space to crystallize. There are trains of thought that can’t be chopped in half.

The problem with large trains of thought is that sometimes your brain doesn’t have enough space to hold it in its entirety. The pen and paper is there to help externalize that data so you can see how it fits together.

While you’re thinking, move up and down abstraction layers for the project. From the highest level “what is the purpose of this project?” (or if you’re feeling bold the even higher level of “what do I want to do with my life?”), down to the mid-level “how has the project changed over the last days/weeks/months” to low-level “what do I need to do the next few days?”

Time and progress shift the state of a project. What you don’t want to do is operate from some past version of the project that existed in your head and some previous version of the world. You need to sync up with change. Things that used to seem important will drop away, and there will be new aspects to the project that have only recently revealed themselves.

Sometimes you’ll wander away from thinking exclusively about the project. That’s fine — your goal is to unwind all the crap that’s built up. Reorientation isn’t a clean process — it’s clearing out a back buffer that’s been building up. Sometimes that back buffer includes things not strictly related to the project.

This is something that I’ve done accidentally in the past, but am starting to do it intentionally. Working by yourself may mean you can avoid meetings as you typically think of them. Orientation, however, is unavoidable. And sometimes the best way to orient yourself is to have a meeting with yourself.


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