Meetings are Often a Waste of Time: How to Make Sure Yours Aren’t

“A meeting is an event at which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.” 

– Unknown

Like it or not, we now live in a world where we rely on virtual meeting tools like Zoom to stay connected.

If you’re organizing a virtual family game night or chat session with friends, you probably have modest expectations and don’t require maximum efficiency—the whole point is face time with your people.

But work, of course, is different.

No one wants to spend time in an aimless meeting where nothing gets done, or—worse—where there was no reason for you to be there in the first place.

And if you initiated the meeting, imagine how your teammates feel being held hostage AND losing another hour or more of their lives?

Most meetings are a complete waste of time. 

Often, everything could have been resolved through a focused thread on Slack MS Teams—or a quick phone call.

And even when something useful comes out of a meeting, those gems are usually at the expense of much fluff, vagueness and unnecessary filler. 

In the past 24+ years working with big and small businesses, we’ve saved thousands of hours and millions of dollars by simply defining what a meeting is … and what it isn’t.

A MEETING HAS A CLEAR AGENDA

I no longer attend any meeting that doesn’t have an agenda.

And by agenda, I don’t mean a single sentence in the meeting notes like, “This meeting is for us to discuss allocation of funds for the Q2 budget.”

That’s far too vague. To begin with, there’s no clear endpoint. Is the goal of the meeting to finalize the Q2 budget, or to talk strategy? 

If it’s just a conversation, the meeting will run better when all participants submit proposals in advance AND everyone attending has reviewed them prior to the meeting.

When you call people to a meeting, you want them to show up ready to do their best work. In the room is NOT the time to review a doc for the first time and then guess at strategy or a solution for a problem.

Many of the principles we looked at a few weeks ago for actionable New Year’s resolutions apply to meetings as well.

A meeting agenda should include specific line items and clear time limits for each item, which you can consider the meeting’s milestones or goal posts. 

If each department’s budgets will be discussed, how much time do you need to allot for all of them to be covered, making sure that the meeting doesn’t run longer than 1 hour?

To maximize success, provide a clear agenda, along with any supporting material, at least 24 hours ahead of the meeting. 72 hours is preferred and should be your goal. 

Longer than that and no one will look at it until the meeting—we put off things that don’t have a degree of built-in urgency.

Any les than a full day and you’re forcing them to prioritize preparing for the meeting without enough time to rejigger their schedule.

So engage your team in their best work by providing a clear, concise agenda for every meeting—and, as much as possible, insist that others do the same for you.

A MEETING ISN’T OPTIONAL

If you’re adding “optional” attendees to a meeting, you’re wasting their time. Unless you’re calling a training or an informational seminar a meeting? If so, be more specific in what you call things.

Because no one wants to attend something optional where the outcome of attending is not easily quantifiable.

Why should non-essential participants attend? Do you need witnesses for something contentious? 

If not, then a simple follow-up email will do.

A meeting is for people who actually NEED to be there to do one of 10 things:

  • To Announce a Change in Direction
  • To Collaboratively Create a Plan and Foster Buy-in
  • To Communicate Complex or Emotionally Charged News
  • To Align or Realign with an Expectation of Excellence 
  • To Solve a Tough Problem
  • To Produce a Product
  • To Make a Decision Affecting a Group
  • To Launch a Project or Report Progress on a Project Milestone
  • To Observe a Ritual or Life-cycle Event
  • To Deal with an Emergency

Meetings should NOT be called to seek consensus. You need buy-in for sure—but consensus creates average ideas. 

On the flip side, if you’re invited to a meeting as an “optional” attendee and you’re uncertain whether you have anything of value to add, ask the organizer if it’s essential for you to attend. It’s okay to ask the question, even if you don’t want to make waves.

It’s not pushing back. It’s a demonstration that you value your time and everyone else’s.

MEETINGS ARE NEVER SCHEDULED BACK-TO-BACK

If you’re organizing a string of meetings in a big Conga line, you’re doing it wrong.

You should always have time to debrief after a meeting—see the next tip for more detail on what a “debrief” looks like.

First, if you’re wrapping up one meeting at 1:59 and your next meeting starts at 2:00, you’re going to be late. 

Whether in-person or virtual, you can’t be in two places at once—so you’ll either need to end one meeting early, or show up late to the next one.

Starting a meeting late feels crappy, and sets an unproductive tone from the get-go. 

And showing up late feels worse.

When you start a meeting on the heels of a previous meeting, one of two things happens:

  1. You spend the first 5-15 minutes of your second meeting capturing notes and to-dos that came out of the first, so you’re only present in body, not mind.
  1. You’re dialed in at the second meeting, and by the time you get a few minutes to write down notes and to-dos from Meeting #1, you’ve forgotten at least 30% or more of what was covered, including deliverables and next steps.

Schedule a 15-minute buffer between ALL of your meetings, and make it a policy that your attendees do the same. If you can advocate to make this a company-wide practice, even better.

Your productivity will shoot up 10-15% just from this simple change.

A MEETING REQUIRES A DEBRIEF

The end of the meeting is NOT the end of the meeting—it’s just the end of all group activity.

By following the tips above, you will have hosted a productive, meaningful session. And by the end of the meeting, you should have a list of things that need to be acted upon.

So what needs to be done, by you, following the meeting you just attended?

You need to debrief yourself.

You need some time to record your notes and make sure you captured everything accurately.

What is expected of you and by what date? And what is expected of any other attendees and by what date?

Is there any follow-up needed with other attendees before deliverables are due?

This is why the post-meeting debrief is essential. There’s a narrow window when the meeting is fresh and top of mind so you can capture required to-dos. Don’t waste this precious gift.

And don’t rely on a recording—which you won’t watch or listen to in its entirety—or on notes anyone else has taken, except as a backup. 

Once you’ve harvested everything from your notes and memory, you are free to share your results with all attendees, including any “optional” attendees. 

They’ll benefit from your insights, corroborate their deadlines and tasks, and respect you for respecting their time.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Done right, a meeting is a useful and powerful tool. Done wrong, it’s one of the 7 Deadly Time Thieves™

Be clear about:

WHY a meeting is happening,
WHAT needs to be accomplished,
HOW LONG you’ll address each item on the agenda,
WHERE it will take place,

And
WHO should be there.

Before you call one … or attend one.

Then, build in time for a post-meeting debrief, so you can accurately capture everything that came out of the meeting.

That’s the recipe for a successful meeting.

A clear intention and some mindfulness around meetings will save you money, energy and is essential to managing your time—and your self. 
Ready to increase your productivity by a minimum of 15-20%? Schedule a quick, free strategy call with our COO, Kevin Smith.