Avoid Being Sucked Into The Meeting Vortex

The meeting you just called must be important. I can tell. Because you invited 3 other people. For a 1-hour meeting.

Your meeting’s set up right. Or is it?

And because it’s important you have prepared well – an agenda sent to invitees before the meeting for their review, one person assigned to take meeting minutes, the will to defer any non-agenda related discussions to after the meeting (willing to interrupt your boss if he/she babbles on for minutes about nothing meeting related), meeting minutes finalised, agreed and distributed to attendees latest 2 days after the meeting.

There’s a solution – cancel the meeting.

Oh, you’re saying you haven’t prepared? Don’t worry. There’s a solution. Cancel the meeting.

Sounds too far fetched? Let’s do some calculations here.

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier-Hanson describe in their book “Rework” (a must read!), you’re not only wasting the one hour you attend. You’re wasting meeting duration x number of attendees.

You just invited 3 of your staff (including your boss). Your boss’ hourly rate is $100, you earn $50 per hour and 2 other staff earn $30 per hour. A one hour meeting costs your company $210. Not that  much you would say. That depends.

Meetings don’t produce…anything.

You spend $210 on nothing. By the nature of a meeting, you didn’t produce anything. Neither did any of the other attendees. No report, no product, no improvement to your services.

Meetings exist to agree on next actions. Meetings make decisions. Meetings steer you and staff into a certain direction. But don’t mistake meetings for being productive work. You don’t produce. Anything. Meetings by nature are not productive.

Meetings have their place, though.

You wouldn’t be holding meetings if they didn’t have their place. I agree. And it boils down to this: meetings are to make decisions on next actions that will increase your work’s productivity beyond the meeting. In other words: if the outcome of your meeting doesn’t improve your productivity beyond the meeting, your meeting is a waste of time. A few examples:

If you’re attending a meeting on quarterly sales but you’re the graphic designer for a new marketing campaign, you’re in the wrong room.

If you’re attending a project meeting as graphic designer on defining customer needs for an ad campaign, you might be in the right room.

If you’re attending a meeting on agreeing the final design for a Facebook ad, you’re in the right room.

You want to be in the right room. Otherwise you’re better off being somewhere else.

Always assume the meeting’s a waste of your valuable time.

Always. For years I’ve been swimming with the current – accepting every invitation I get. Everything else I prioritised.

Do I need to complete the report today or is it more important to arrange this shipment for our customers today? Do I need to spend 30 more minutes on the report design or is it more important to edit the executive summary as the report is going to the CEO tomorrow?

But when I received a meeting invitation, I accepted. No second thought. Why is that? Why do meetings have a magical place and are not part of my prioritisation process?

Only solution: turning it on its head. Prioritising work over meetings.

You should ask yourself: do I need to attend this meeting or should I take the time and complete the budget for Project A?

Include meetings in your prioritisation process.

How often have you asked yourself prior to accepting a meeting invite: do I need to be present? do I need to attend this meeting? Does attending your meeting increase your productivity beyond your attendance?

Does the information you gained from the meeting allow you to process subsequent tasks more productively?

Evaluate whether you’re better of declining the invite. Most of the times you’ll be.

If the answer is a confident yes to an invite, then by no means go and attend. But don’t be afraid to leave the meeting early if you find you were wrong and by all means it turns out to be a waste of time.

What really happens if you stop attending meetings

Nothing. Do I need to say more?

I tested this. In a project where project team meetings consisted of 6 or more attendees (any meeting with more than 5 attendees can by its nature no longer be productive) I consciously declined invitations to project meetings where either of the following wasn’t in place:

  • a defined agenda, distributed to attendees before the meeting
  • a clear indication (i.e. next actions assigned to me) that my input was required

What happened? Nothing. Well, actually, something happened. I had more time to get the important stuff done.

If everything fails and you are attending a meeting, make sure it’s worth your while

A few tips on giving purpose to meetings that you absolutely must attend:

#1 – Draft an agenda and distribute to attendees latest 3 days before the meeting

You provide structure and an opportunity to ask questions prior to the meeting. If you don’t provide this opportunity for questions upfront, you’ll get those questions in your face during the meeting. What a waste of time.

Also: you give reasons to prospective attendees to actually attend.

Your agenda must include your attendees, apologies and agenda items (discussions, decisions, next actions). Allocate your estimated time required to each agenda item. Assign due dates and responsibilities to next actions.

#2 – Run the meeting on time

Have your watch ready at all times. Start the meeting on time. Don’t wait for late comers. They’re late. You’re not. The meeting starts.

Go through each agenda item step by step as per allocated time. If you run out of time defer additional discussions to after the meeting. Avoid off topic discussions at all costs. This is not the place nor time for such discussions. If personal, defer to lunch time. If not agenda related, defer to after meeting. If related to another agenda item, defer to the time when actually discussing that agenda item.

This takes some practice. It made me feel uncomfortable pushing the agenda but it made me feel really good when you finish a 20 minute meeting at 19 minutes 55 seconds and people are grateful for being back at work on time.

#3 – Change your calendar’s default meeting time

The invites I receive are commonly 30 minutes or 1 hour long. Why is that? Because the inviter estimated this to be the duration he/she needs to get through agenda? Most likely not.

More likely his/her calendar app suggested a meeting time of 30 minutes (their default calendar time) or 60 minutes (the inviter’s default go-to meeting duration).

Parkinson’s law suggests that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If your allocated meeting time is 30 minutes, you’ll be filling those 30 minutes. Common sense will tell you that that’s not productive.

Why not chose one of the following for your meeting duration? 23 minutes, 32 minutes, 46 minutes, you get it. If your peers ridicule your 23 minute meeting duration, refer them to your estimated timings on your agenda (see #1). It’s science based (somewhat).

Attend only if you absolutely must. Then plan and deliver.

Meetings are one of the biggest time wasters. You didn’t need to read this article to know that. You know it from your own job and business. But what I believe is largely underestimated is the scale at which meetings waste time and the negligence of professionals acknowledging that scale.

Too many meetings are called without defining their why and how.

To get the important work done in your business, job, at home, you’ve got to be crystal clear on a meeting’s purpose. Then you must define a clear agenda to defend every valuable minute you’re investing in attending this meeting.