First off, this is not a political post, or a commentary of any sort on Donald Trump's run for the U.S. presidency. I live in Portland, Oregon, and I'll just leave it at that. However, I recently learned something about the Donald’s work-style that unexpectedly resonated with me, and maps to my own professional experience.
On vacation last week, I found myself traveling throughout Southern Africa with a conservative Republican couple from California. Striving to understand all they can about their party's presidential nominee, they had brought along and were reading Trump's first book, The Art of the Deal, written in 1987. Relaxing in the sun one afternoon, the husband of the pair, Frank, read aloud an excerpt from the first page of the book.
"Most people are surprised by the way I work. I play it very loose. I don't carry a briefcase. I try not to schedule too many meetings. I leave my door open. You can't be imaginative or entrepreneurial if you've got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and see what develops."
- Donald Trump
What gets lost when you're overscheduled
I've been working for more than twenty-five years (or more depressingly, a quarter of a century). And like so many of us, I have spent years running to and from back-to-back meetings. My Outlook calendar looked like a Tetris game. I was so often double- and triple-booked, I took to adding notes ("Please do not schedule over this meeting") to my meeting invitations. If a meeting got cancelled, freeing up an hour (Sweet! Desk time!), it was often booked over within 15 minutes.
I had no time to calibrate (Is this an urgent meeting? A necessary meeting?), prepare (Oh god, there's a brief. I haven't seen it, or read it, and I'm late). I found myself sitting in meetings I didn't need to be in. I longed for desk time, to get my job done. Worst of all, I attended meetings daily that could have—should have—actually been five-minute conversations.
And it wasn't just me. Everyone around me was just as over-booked. We migrated, shoulder to shoulder, constantly running five minutes late, from meeting to meeting to meeting. We didn't stress about dialing into a client call a few minutes late, because our clients were going through the exact same thing. They were coming from other meetings themselves.
All that changed a year ago, when I left a job I'd loved after five years and started my own company, a collective-based marketing agency called Jute Creative. As expected, clients were not lined up outside our door the day we hung our shingle. So, in those first months, I found I had a bit of time on my hands. To think. To dream. To plan. To be thoughtful. To ideate. To sketch. To read. To study. To research.
While we have exceeded our growth goals in this first year, and we're busier—much busier—than we were a year ago, I attribute much of that growth to the time I spent just being "imaginative and entrepreneurial." I don’t agree with Donald Trump, but I understood what he meant here. I will value above all else the gaps in time we create to allow our minds to wander, to ponder, to be curious, to percolate ideas. That's where the good stuff comes out.
How to create space in your day
KNOW YOUR ROLE
In those back-to-back meeting days, I noticed many attendees showed up to meetings not knowing why they'd been invited or what their role in the meeting was. (It's like being invited to someone's birthday party you don't know—it’s hard to know what gift to bring.) Make it a practice to ask the meeting organizer what your role is in the meeting and on the project. Understanding others’ expectations will affect how you show up in the meeting, help others understand their roles and avoid confusion.
PROMOTE A SHIFT IN CULTURE
Be the change you want to see. Actively promote a shift toward fewer meetings and more creative time. Start a dialog with your colleagues, company leadership, your staff and your boss about your desire to attend fewer meetings. Likely others will agree with you and start talking about it as well. Next thing you know, you’ll see fewer meetings scheduled and more organic, productive conversations happening.
Don’t be afraid to ask if a meeting is absolutely necessary. If you are wondering, then it’s likely that others are too, and your colleagues will appreciate you for taking the initiative. Pick up the phone and call the meeting organizer. Ask, does this need to be a meeting? Can it be a quick conversation instead? And if yes, can we talk now? Are you at your desk? I’ll come right over.
REJECT THE BUSY TRAP
Do you always have more to do than you have time to do it? Are you consistently tapped beyond your limits, time-wise? Do you find yourself talking about how busy you are more than once a day? Of course, you are legitimately busy. I know, I’ve been there. But giving voice to your busyness makes space for it, and can actually make you feel even more tapped out. Instead, look at what’s on your plate and find ways to create space.
What if you had five hours a week of unstructured, unplanned time dedicated 100% to sparking creative ideas? What might come up for you in that time?
Where would your mind go? What problems might you solve if you gave yourself time to ponder?
If this concept initially feels uncomfortable, try this. Schedule one hour of time with yourself in the next 72 hours. Put it on your calendar. Don’t think too much about it, but when the time comes, simply grab a notebook and duck into a conference room or find an empty table in the break room. Somewhere quiet, preferably. Now sit there, just you and your pen and your blank notebook. Channel your inner creative person, let your mind wander a bit, and see what shows up. It’s just that easy.