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⌛🔬 How much of Sam’s attention do I have? A guide

My professional goal at work is to ship software that solves customer problems. My personal goal is to avoid internal meetings. I believe the two are related.

That’s not to say we should give up on teamwork! We can instead evolve to rely more on written communication that helps with time zones, learning styles, and retention of information. Give me a written summary of a problem statement any day over a meeting to talk about it.

However, some meetings do create real value. I like these meetings. This list is illustrative but not comprehensive:

  • Customer meetings and conversations with prospective customers
  • 1-1 check ins with team members
  • Live demos of a product or new feature where the goal is to gather feedback
  • A conversation to review a topic after everyone read and contributed to the materials distributed prior to the discussion

Despite my best efforts, though, I still wind up finding myself in meetings that fail to qualify in the bullet-point list above. This happens because I am too polite. I struggle to say no to people.

I wish I had the courage to say “I understand that you want me in this fourteen-person meeting to prepare for the prep meeting ahead of that event. Writing down the context and decision options would be better but it is easier for you to set up this meeting. Still, even though I am virtually present, I will struggle to stay focused in this conversation and I am sorry about that.”

I know this sounds rude. I am sorry. I lack the willpower to stay focused in meetings in that second category. I am writing down this guide so that you can gauge how focused I am for yourself. You are welcome to use it to call me out.

The percentage is the amount of attention I can summon. Rough estimates. All of these assume the meeting is virtual.

10% - We are in a recurring group meeting with a loose agenda

I have about 2 or 3 standing group meetings on my calendar each week that lack a rigid agenda. These force me to evaluate my soul and come to the realization that I am weak. If the group is talking about a topic that does not interest me, and people are just filling the silence by throwing out ideas, I am going to send emails and read other things. I am sorry. I promise I want to get better but the real answer is probably to excuse myself from these kinds of meetings.

20% - I asked for clarification in a group meeting

If you ever hear me say “could you repeat that?” then I did not hear the question the first time because I was doing something else. I will try to scramble and buy time, as well as context, by feigning audio issues. I have probably had real audio issues twice in the last 15 years. I am a dirtbag, I know.

30% - We are in a meeting that prepares for another meeting

I understand the proposition. We are about to do something and we need to confirm that everyone is on the same page. I just think we’re solving the wrong problem. Our need to talk through a future event stems from either the lack of written materials about that event or, if those exist, the failure of others to read through them.

40% - I am presenting something routine

This feels counterintuitive. I’m presenting! However, I run into a trap of knowing my script too well and instead my mind wanders as I yammer. This only happens when I’m asked to be the slideware emcee and to stick to a script. When I can share a real demo or have a conversation, I am 100% engaged.

50% - You asked me a question

I love being asked questions. I am vain in this way. If you ask me questions about a topic that interests me, some part of my brain lights up and I cannot stop talking.

60% - We all agreed to have this meeting to solve something

We tried to write it out. We attempted to get the tickets together. We distributed pre-read materials. We made every effort to not have this meeting and relented because we’re trying to solve a problem together.

70% - I am walking my dogs while we talk

I live near the ocean in Portugal which is probably the most ideal climate on the planet. I also have two large dogs. Like them, I enjoy long walks. If we’re chatting and I’m in audio-only mode while walking my dogs (or just walking in general) you’ve got me.

First, I cannot look at the screen and be bombarded with email and chat notifications. Second, I find myself expanding on ideas and becoming more creative when physically moving outdoors. Third, I cannot look at myself - something I vainly do in many video calls. I bet if you tracked my eye movement during the call you’d find that I spend more time looking at the little box that has my video in it. I don’t do this because I think I am pretty and love myself. I do this because I am convinced that I look very awkward in almost all video calls and so I constantly watch my own reflection to try and edit my innate goofiness in real time.

The downside to this format? I get real chatty. This is a great meeting setup if you want me to really elaborate on a topic but a terrible meeting setup if my primary goal is to listen.

80% - I told you “I need to run to the restroom” and now I’m back

If I ever tell you this, then you are Jonathan Spies, the VP of Engineering for Cloudflare One and my single, continuous engineering partner for over five years. Jonathan is the only person with whom I have a level of trust and camaraderie enough to say “hey, let me call you right back - I have to go to the bathroom immediately because I have been trying to introduce more fiber into my diet and that has consequences at exactly 2:30PM each day.”

When I return, I do not feel any shame - I only do this to Jonathan - but I do generally find myself to be more alert and focused. And when I talk to Jonathan I am almost always completely engaged.

This is also the highest compliment I can give someone because it means you have worked together with me daily for the better part of a decade and I trust you enough to be slightly vulnerable. I find being vulnerable so difficult that the most transparent I can be is to tell my closest colleague that I, a mortal, poop.

90% - Someone said something shocking

I read TMZ every day. I believe that it is the Great American Novel. I think that is who we are as a people. I bring that lust for mild but overly expressive commentary to my meeting life. If you roll up to a work meeting and drop a bomb, keep an eye on my tile because you’re going to see me perk up.

100% - I am ironing

If you see me ironing clothes while we are meeting, standing a few feet from my webcam while using my AirPods, you have my absolute complete and undivided attention. I could not be more focused on you. When I am ironing shirts or folding laundry while we are talking, the following things are true:

  • I cannot be using any other digital device. Both of my hands are occupied.
  • You have visible evidence of this.
  • The repetitive and calming nature of laundry has turned off the parts of my brain that wander during conversations.

Published Oct 23, 2023

Austinite in Lisbon. VP of Product at Cloudflare.