Everybody hates meetings, what can we do about that?

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Oh boy, what a topic this is going to be. Everybody seems to hate them. Yet, they somehow can´t be avoided. So much has been written about them but we still seem to struggle on how to deal with them, meetings.

Meetings in theory

Upfront, it´s important to state that meetings can be very beneficial and important. Also, there is plenty of advice on how meetings should to be conducted. One should set a goal, think hard about who needs to be there and invite only those, prepare an agenda and some materials that should be read upfront, guide through the meeting, create the meeting minutes and follow up with the assigned tasks. Every company I have ever worked for had a meeting guideline where this or something similar was written.

Meetings in the real world

In an ideal working world, every meeting would be as described above. However, in the extremely busy and messy real world, my totally unscientific guess is that less than 1% of all meetings actually happen like that. In my experience, a good portion of people don´t even read the invitation.

And I get it. Who has time for that? The irony is that reading the invite or more broadly speaking properly dealing with meetings would of course save so much more time down the road. But in the heat of the moment this is not always easy to see. Thus, this post is about dealing with meetings in the real world. If done thoughtfully, it can save significant amounts of time and lessen frustration and stress.

I tend to think – and most would probably agree – that we have too many meetings, that they are generally too long with too many participants. Most of the time, there is no real goal aside from sharing some information. Meeting invites are often used as a reminder or deadline by which something needs to get done. Meetings done right and in the right amount can also have some real upside. One underappreciated benefit, regardless of how well or not they go, is seeing people and building relationships.

How to handle meetings

There are three different areas that I want to address:

  • General guidelines or hints
  • Strategies when one is inviting
  • Strategies when one is being invited.

First, something general. Wherever possible, I suggest to create meeting blocks. There are people that cram all meetings into one or two days a week, and there are some that only have them during certain time periods. For me, it´s currently working out pretty well to have all meetings in the afternoon as much as possible.

Regardless of the manner of implementation, all meeting block approaches are based on the same or similar general reasoning: Meetings interrupt and tend to pull one out of the really focused work that is usually the most productive. Since it anyway takes time to refocus the brain on the task at hand after the meeting is done, one might as well just have all meetings after one another so that all the unfocused, jumpy brain work is in one block and the rest of the day/week/month(?) one can work very deeply.

Especially, when you have these meeting blocks or meeting days, I highly recommend to schedule breaks between sessions. So, maybe instead of 30-minute meetings, one schedules 25 minutes to allow for a 5-minute break before the next one starts or instead of a 1-hour meeting, one schedules a 50-minute session to give the brain a break before the next begins. If possible, it´s really beneficial to implement this as a general rule inside the company.

Inviting to meetings

Duration of the meetings is one of the main aspects to influence when one is inviting. Most scheduling software has the shortest default length of a meeting at 30 minutes. Thus, this is usually the shortest meetings that are scheduled. I recommend to go for 15 minutes as a standard. Or generally, I suggest to think about how much time you need for a meeting and then invite to one that is half of that. Far too often are the invites too long and due to Parkinson´s law or because people reiterate what was already said the meeting ends up taking that long.

Moreover, I urge to always consider if a meeting is actually needed and who really needs to be there. Often times, a meeting is used to share information. One can consider if it´s also possible to share the information some other way. A well written e-mail or internal blog post may take 1 hour of time by one person. One 30-minute meeting with 10 people is equivalent to five working hours that are spent in total in the meeting.

Generally, I think it´s a great exercise to calculate how many total hours are spent on a meeting (number of people x meeting duration). This way of thinking greatly helps me decide if it´s really worth to send the invite.

Being Invited

In dealing with meeting invites there are two main strategies to use in order to reduce the number of meetings: decline the invite or leave when one realizes during the meeting that one’s time is better spent on something else. I am good at the former but very poor at the latter.  

Maybe it´s related to ego, maybe it´s related to the fear of missing something, or maybe it´s something else, but far too often is our default behavior to accept an invite without questioning whether the person invited is actually needed. I suggest to be very rigorous about accepting invites. If one is unsure, a good question to ask oneself is “Will I be checking E-mails/Slack/Teams during this meeting?” If the answer is a yes or maybe, consider declining the invite.

One can also just leave a meeting. I know, it sounds easy, but at least to me it is indeed not so simple. It´s likely related to the fear of missing some important information. That´s what the meeting minutes are for! The other reason for not leaving a meeting is probably related to not wanting to offend the others. However, I have witnessed many colleagues politely state that they cannot contribute, that we should call them in case they are needed later, and simply leave. Noone was ever offended.

Similarly, as stated above a good rule of thumb if one is unsure is to ask oneself “Am I checking E-mails/Slack/Teams right now during this meeting?” If the answer is yes, it´s probably time to politely leave the meeting.

Perfect is the enemy of progress

I am well aware that not all jobs or roles are created equal and that not all of what I am proposing can be done at all times. I am a good example, as I still semi-regularly have meetings in the mornings, although I stated earlier that my meeting block is always in the afternoon.

However, even the 80% solution of having very few meetings in the morning helps me greatly in getting to work productively and mostly undisturbed. I suggest to try out different approaches and see what works for you. Even if the solution you find is not perfect it is surely better than it was before.