Meetings and emails aren’t work – in fact, they often get in the way of work

Jeff Elder
3 min readOct 9, 2019

You glance at your work calendar — oh no, you have to go be a hostage in a meeting for an hour. On your way to the meeting a new email thread pops up on your phone — another interruption to your work day.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

Forty-four percent of professionals say poorly organized meetings mean “I don’t have enough time to do the rest of my work.”

Bloomberg actually put a framed New Yorker cartoon by Kaamran Hafeez in every conference room in its New York headquarters that reads: “I know we didn’t accomplish anything, but that’s what meetings are for.”

Email can feel just as pointless. The average full-time worker in America spends 2.6 hours a day reading and answering email.

That’s just work life, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be.

Meetings and email may be what we do at work, but they are not work itself. In fact, the completion of tasks and assignments and products often requires pulling away from meetings and emails.

Many workers come into the office early or on weekends because they find it easier to get things done without distraction. That’s not theoretical. It’s proven.

Sophie Leroy, an assistant professor in the UW Bothell School of Business, found that when workers are asked to leave one incomplete task in order to work on something new, they need time to make that switch. “I don’t have the cognitive capacity to process those two tasks at the same time and do a perfect job on both tasks,” she said. “It’s not cognitively possible.” Each interruption can take around 20 minutes to recover from.

We switch tasks at work all day – every three minutes, one researcher found. “We don’t have work days – we have work minutes that last all day,” said Gloria Mark, a professor of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine.

Meetings and emails are tactical – they adjust behaviors, they do not inspire them or allow them to be completed. Rising above the daily churn of meetings and email requires strategy and delegated authority. We need to understand the big picture and have the time and space to get there.

More than anything else, the freedom to accomplish things requires trust. Emails and meetings often seek consensus and reassurance, but in doing so they prevent exploration and progress.

“MEETINGS: None of us are as dumb as all of us,” reads one of the acerbic posters of Constant check-ins pull us back to an often-fractious base camp.

Stand-up meetings and chat apps like Slack can be less intrusive than sit-down meetings and emails, but only if used sparingly. We have to ween ourselves off the need to control and seek approval. When we trust our colleagues and ourselves, the progress we make apart adds up to much more together.



Jeff Elder

Former WSJ reporter and syndicated columnist now writing crypto and cybersecurity. The Paris Review praised my Johnny Cash post.