If you have a hard time saying “no” to meetings, let software do it for you

Timing trouble?
Timing trouble?
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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I probably have a number of bad time-management habits, but I’m painfully aware of only one: a glaring tendency to overcommit to events and meetings, even ones I suspect won’t be that fruitful.

A recent New York Times article diagnosed this behavior as a consequence of having an “anxious preoccupied” attachment style at work, which leads the afflicted to develop a “severe allergy” to setting boundaries because they’re so concerned about offending others. “The idea of saying no may terrify you,” Elizabeth Grace Saunders, an author and time-management coach, wrote in the Times.

But that’s not the only reason people say yes to meetings. They might work for a company that hasn’t bothered to assess its meeting norms, and has too many of them. They might feel pressure to network outside the office, or they’ve misgauged the value of a particular meeting that’s offered to them. Or perhaps they simply haven’t lived long enough to start feeling more possessive of the time they have.

Whatever the cause, people with this tick often end up using their evenings and weekends for focused, quiet work, while quietly berating themselves for resorting to this.

Unquestionably, the best way to deal with this reflex would be to spend some time on the proverbial couch, looking into the deeper issues and acknowledging how your habit might affect other relationships in your life. Perhaps you will want to reconsider your concept of time or your definition of being productive.

While you do that, however, there’s a quicker fix you might want to test out: outsourcing the job of setting boundaries to software.

The next wave of productivity tools analyze your behavior

One option is to strategically and manually block off time in your calendar, which will inform co-workers of your preferences and availability, if you work in an office where people share calendars. Several apps, like Toggle, can help you learn the art of time blocking for yourself, too, and many will give you granular data on how you’re spending your time. But neither of these will necessarily stop people from filling up their schedules by accepting invitations outside of those time blocks. So Microsoft has added a new feature to its My Analytics productivity tool that does one better: When you start cluttering your schedule with meetings, a notification pops up to make you’re aware of what you’re doing and to ask if you’d like to block off some time for focused work.

The software is actually analyzing the decisions you make, says Mary Czerwinski, cognitive scientist and research manager at Microsoft. And it will allow you to follow through without leaving the task (or app) at hand, since research has shown how easily that can lead to further distractions, and a longer delay in getting back to whatever you were doing.

Increasingly, thanks to advancements in artificial intelligence, the content of these messages will be personalized to respond to your cognitive bent and time-management blind spots. Though it can already stop you from booking too many appointments, or emailing your colleagues in the evenings, My Analytics may one day detect that you’re the kind of highly conscientious employee who actually needs reminders to take breaks, so that you’ll go home less drained, says Czerwinski, citing research she conducted with peer scientists. She can see a day when the bots even cater to our specific chronotypes, and know when to suggest a meeting based on when you’ll be in a creative or analytical frame of mind, or they’ll know how engaged you are in a task by observing your behavior, and adjust the notifications accordingly.

Back to that question of boundaries

Though Microsoft says its goal is to reduce employee stress, anxiety, and cognitive load in a world where many of us feel time-pressed and overstimulated, the company of course also wants to aid business customers in keeping employees and teams productive. Naturally, we will have different comfort levels with new data-driven tools designed to optimize the way people collaborate. And some of us will be more appreciative than others for the nudges technology can provide. For instance, with software like the Nudge Engine from Humu, the company founded by former Google HR executive Laszlo Bock, a new manager may be nudged when they ought to send a thank-you note to a direct report or draw out an opinion from a reserved team member in a meeting.

It’s fair to ask whether we shouldn’t be building up the muscles to notice the large and small decisions we make, without the help of polite robots. Maybe it’s foolhardy to allow the same companies that led us into this over-connected, hyper-pingified mess to get us out of it by allowing their software to closely study our individual quirks.

Or maybe it’s on us to be more mindful as these tools inevitably come online, and to distinguish between those that serve our productivity needs and those that merely make us lazy. Or maybe it’s time the overcommitted among us simply learn how to say no, regardless of whether technology has aided us in the decision to keep our schedules manageable.