Simple Tricks to Make Your Meetings Useful So You Can Stop Wasting Everyone’s Time

Today I Googled the word “meetings” and just as I would expect, the first few articles that popped up addressed the fact that meetings are problematic. There was an article from Entrepreneur about why “Meetings Are the Worst Rituals. Ever.”

Another one gave tips on how to survive them. Why do we have to learn how to survive meetings? When I think of the word “survive,” I imagine homesteaders in Alaska hunting for deer on horseback, or a naked couple shivering in a cave on some Discovery show, not a meeting at work.

Meetings are an inevitable part of the work day, so why not learn how to run them more efficiently rather trying to survive them?

Why meetings suck

When’s the last time you sat through a meeting and walked out feeling more knowledgeable about your role in the project than before the meeting started? My guess is, rarely, or probably never.

In my career, 90 percent of meetings I’ve sat in weren’t necessary. Whether I worked for a big corporation or small startup, it was all the same, in one way or another. Big corporations have policies and procedures put in place, meaningless trainings, forums, discussions and so forth. Informal startups are more conducive to last-minute meetings, often to address a crisis.

Meetings are also unfocused, without an actual agenda or goal. They also never start on time and loop in unnecessary people just so they could “listen in.” As much as these secondary folks are thrilled to be a part of the discussion, if they aren’t a core part of the team or project, it’s a big waste of time for them. Keep them out of the discussion until they are actually needed.

According to a CareerBuilder Study, meetings were among the top 10 primary productivity stoppers in the workplace. Meetings, tied with email, took the #7 spot on the list, and when employers were asked if they implemented any solutions, only 12 percent said they actually did something about it. Their solution? To limit the amount of meetings.

Scaling back on the amount of meetings is definitely a good start, as is the 10-minute stand-up meeting, or the exercise-friendly walking meeting, but inefficiency is still inefficiency — doesn’t matter if it’s walking, sitting, 10 minutes or an hour.

The real problem lies with why the meeting is happening in the first place, and the solution is to create specific rules and processes that everyone understands, before setting up the gathering.

Meetings shouldn’t have to be this head-hanging, defeated cause. Having a better, more useful meeting environment at work starts with anyone who is responsible for creating one, from entry-level employees to CEOs.

4 meeting rules and habits everyone should adopt

1. Before you set up a meeting, question the why. 

If you can’t answer the “why” behind the meeting, it’s a clear indication the meeting is going to waste everyone’s time.

Can the meeting be avoided all together? Can the same outcome be accomplished through creating a specific Slack channel or group chat?

2. Always provide an agenda on the calendar before the meeting, and don’t do it five minutes before the meeting. 

Again, start with the why and what participants can expect during the meeting, what the goals are, along with next steps and any deadlines.

It might sound complicated, but keep it simple, and focus on only one or two goals for the meeting outcome.

3. Set a timer. 

There’s nothing worse than a long meeting that runs over. In my experience, 30 to 45 minutes is more than enough time. Any longer and people start to lose focus.

4. Start on time. 

It’s inevitable that people will be late to meetings. Start on time so you’re not wasting time for those who actually made the effort to be punctual.

Delegate someone to take notes, in case people are late, or miss anything important.

3 common types of meetings and easy hacks that can help

1. Status meetings

It’s great to get aligned with team members on projects, but mostly, these types of meetings can be accomplished through a Slack channel with brief weekly updates for the team. Updating your key results in a performance management software (like BetterWorks) also does the same thing.

Solution

If your manager insists on keeping these meetings, ask if you can shorten the meeting to 15 minutes. Suggest setting a timer to make sure it happens.

The reason why you’re asking for this meeting to be shortened is because you’re going to send a status update to your manager before the meeting, preferably on the morning of, or even the day before. That way, 15 minutes is sufficient, since you won’t need to go through every single task or project. Focus on the big project that’s almost done, or a sticking point that you’re working through.

2. The ‘I Need Your Help’ meetings

“Hey, you have a sec?”

If you’re a highly sought-after director or manager, this one’s for you. Even if you’re not a manager, your particular position may require that you interface with lots of colleagues from various teams. This means you’re facing constant interruptions.

These types of meetings often fall into the last-minute meeting category, and seriously, there’s nothing worse than thinking you have a few hours blocked off to do “alone work,” only to be interrupted by a knock on your door or tap on the shoulder.

Solution

Set up office hours a few times a week (or whatever schedule works best for you), and block off that chunk of time to answer questions and concerns. But don’t stop there. There’s a way to do this so that you don’t end up being everyone’s answer man or woman. After all, you have your own set of problems to deal with, it’s not your job to solve everyone else’s too.

Create an “office hours guideline” for others to follow and brief them on it, so they know what to expect before they approach you.

Here’s what to include in the guideline: 

  • If someone comes to you with an issue, he/she needs to have two to three solutions prepared beforehand.
  • The issues must be able to be discussed in 10 minutes or less, generally speaking.

Having this set up will force them to assess the problem and come up with viable solutions. Encourage them to turn to their peers for help and ideas as well.

3. Brainstorm meetings

These are the worst kind of meetings, in my opinion. They are supposed to spark creativity and innovation, all in 30 minutes to an hour! The truth is, these meetings are only good in theory and rarely result in any good ideas.

Two things usually happen in brainstorm meetings:

1. No one pays attention.

2. The conversation is dominated by one or two people.

Solution

After you figure out why you’re setting up the meeting, include it in the agenda so everyone understands what the meeting is about.

In that same agenda, provide team members with a predetermined list of brainstorm questions that you’d like answered before the meeting. Have participants answer the questions and bring it with them, or you can have them answer the questions during the meeting, on paper (laptops closed!). Collect their answers, read them aloud, discuss and have someone take notes.

Don’t forget to set a timer so the meeting doesn’t run over the scheduled time.

More ideas to save time

If you’re invited to a meeting where your presence is unnecessary, politely decline, and ask for notes after the meeting. You might bruise some egos along the way, but something miraculous may also happen.

If you stay consistent with your meeting motto of: needing an agenda, goals, and asking why the meeting needs to take place, your colleagues will start to take notice. They may stop inviting you to unnecessary meetings all together, or will start providing you with an agenda and so forth — improving the quality of their meetings and wasting less time.

Days of the week matter

Avoid meetings on Mondays or Fridays. No one likes coming back from a weekend to a hectic Monday filled with back-to-back meetings. Similarly, in preparation for the weekend, no one likes Friday meetings, plus a lot of people take Fridays off or choose to work from home that day.

I heard about a company that only allows employees to schedule meetings on Wednesdays. The CEO said he chose Wednesdays because it falls in the middle of the week (it’s not a Monday or Friday), but more importantly, he said it helps people mentally prepare for the day.

A more realistic approach might be to designate a “no meeting day,” as Asana cofounder Dustin Moskovitz does on Wednesdays or Aria Healthcare CEO Kate Kinslow does on Fridays. Try implementing this rule for just your team, and make assessments along the way. (Is it working? Has it saved your team some time? How much time?) Then you can share your findings with the company during communication meetings, and if it works well, other teams may start doing it too!

It only takes a few small changes to get those around you to stop wasting precious time in meetings. Start with creating expectations that everyone can adopt, so the next time you hear, “I just scheduled a something on your calendar,” you won’t feel that familiar twinge of dread.

I’d love to hear your suggestions on how to run more efficient meetings!

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