Closing your laptop in meetings

About a year ago, a friend of mine introduced me to a weekly podcast from Manager-Tools. In each cast, Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman share some of the lessons they’ve learned about how to be a more effective manager. These are actionable techniques rather than purely theoretical concepts. I regularly listen to one of their podcasts while I’m driving to visit a client. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say, most of it is spot on. It’s good stuff.

My laptop, my security blanket

Recently, I listened to a cast about how to make your meetings more effective by leaving your laptop at your desk. “That’s just crazy; that’s pure nonsense!” I thought as I listened. “What will they suggest next? Adding cursors to your stored procedures to improve performance?”

Like most professionals, I’ve sat through more meetings than I care to remember. Some are very productive. Others, not so much. They seem to go on and on like a bad movie. How could one make it through such meetings without a laptop with which to multi-task?

Having a laptop with you is like having a security blanket. When a meeting takes a non-productive detour, you can turn to your trusty laptop and get some things done. At least you’ll stay productive.

I’ve been to some meetings where I was able to reach inbox zero while others belabored a really inconsequential point way past reason. And I’m not alone. I remember in one all-day meeting, I received a flurry of emails from several others sitting in the same room. Many of those emails were in response to questions I’d sent to them days or weeks earlier.

If at first you don’t succeed…

But as crazy as Mark and Michael’s advice sounded to me, they have a proven track record of offering good advice. Could this really be true? It sounded so foreign to me.

So I decided to conduct an experiment. For the next couple of weeks I’d leave my laptop closed during meetings and devote my entire attention to the meeting. No more emails. No more remoting into a client’s system to check something. Just the meeting at hand.

At first it was tough, really tough. When a meeting seemed to take a nonproductive tangent, I instinctively reached for my laptop. Argh! It was missing in action! What had I done? Stupid, stupid, stupid!

But over the next several meetings I persisted. I stubbornly stuck to my experiment as hard as it was.

The Payoff

I found that it got easier over time. Not having the laptop in which to seek refuge forced me to mentally stay in the meeting. I was more engaged. I paid attention. I contributed more.

Soon I noticed that the meetings were better as a result. I realized that I didn’t have to sit back and allow the meeting to go astray. I could do something about it. I could subtly step in and redirect the meeting back on track by suggesting we take that point off-line. I could even do this in meetings that I didn’t run. It wasn’t very difficult; most people were buried in their laptop and not paying attention.

I also realized that what Mark and Michael had said was true. While I felt that having a laptop made me more productive, the meeting is not all about me. It’s about the group and making good decisions. If I’m being more effective as an individual, it’s detracting from the meeting and thus making the meeting less productive. That wastes a lot of other people’s time and costs the company.

When I closed my laptop, I was able to influence the meeting and the outcome for the better. I wish I’d learned this lesson years ago.

Excuses

I know what you must be thinking right about now. “Joe, you’ve spent too much time in the server room. Your brain has frostbite.” I know. I thought that at first, too. But give it a try. I think you’ll agree.

Mark and Michael talk about some excuses that people may have when you, as the leader of a meeting, decide to banish the portable computers from your meetings. I won’t recount those here. But I will give you some that immediately came to my mind along with my current thoughts on them.

  • “I really need my laptop to take notes.” That really is an excuse. Almost everyone claims to need a laptop to take meeting notes, but very few actually do take notes with it. The temptation to do other work is too great. If you really want to take notes, and I encourage you to take notes, use pen and paper. If you must have them electronically, transcribe them later.
  • “I need to be able to look up the latest figures at the meeting.” That may be, but reporting the latest figures to the group can probably easily be an action item that you take away from the meeting. Taking time during the meeting to look them up is not the best use of everyone’s time.
  • “I need to have my calendar available.” Again, coordinating a future meeting can be done after this meeting ends. Spending an extra five minutes trying to schedule another meeting takes up valuable time during this meeting. Besides, if everyone was fully engaged in this meeting and decisions could be made, perhaps another meeting wouldn’t even be necessary.

For every rule there is an exception

Like the guys from Manager-Tools, I’ve found that not having my laptop open in meetings has made the meetings more productive. I think that’ll be the norm from now on. I’m even going to add this suggestion to the How to Conduct Effective Meetings Lunch and Learn that give to companies.

There are, of course, some exceptions to this general rule. But I’m beginning to think that those are few and far between.

So what do you think? Do you take your laptop to meetings? Have you tried leaving it closed during the meetings? What has your experience been?

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8 Responses to Closing your laptop in meetings

  1. You’re my HERO! I find the exact same thing to be true. I’ve always made an effort to keep my laptop closed. It’s interesting to look around the room and see how many laptops are open and where people’s attention is. Long live pen and paper!

  2. Joe says:

    Awesome. If I’ve gone off the deep end, at least I’m in good company. ;)

  3. akrasheninnikov says:

    Yeah, that’s a good point. But I’d specify: leave your personal laptops and only use a shared wireless KVM (keyboard/mouse, wall projector) to adopt things like IBIS during the meetings and not lose time retyping the pen-and-paper notes. See cleverworkarounds.com for more on that topic. I think that would make the meetings even more productive.

  4. Kevin Kline says:

    I’m with you 100%, Joe. You can tell by looking at my laptop whether I’m invested in the meeting. If I care about it, the laptop is always closed and I’ll use pen & paper for notes.

    A key element of a successful meeting is understanding the purpose of the meeting. So many times, meetings are a huge waste of time because the organizer doesn’t even know the purpose of the meeting. Sometimes the reason for some meetings is only that “we always meet at Thursdays at 10:00 am”. What a huge waste of time. Meetings to be for a reason, like “we’re here to prioritize our current bug fix requests” or “we’re here to set UI guidelines for the new project”.

    And, if everyone is invested and productive in the meeting, you can even adjourn early when you achieve the goal of the meeting. That only ever happens when the organizer has explained what the goal of the meeting is all about.

    Great tip, Joe!

  5. hey nice tip, thank for your article. it really help to increase my productivity

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