Stop going to meetings

[The second guest post from Dave Wascha.]

In the last post I talked about the pitfall of confusing activity with impact and why you should stop doing mail.  Today I want to discuss why you should stop going to meetings. Before we get started, try the following exercise:

1. Print out your calendar from last week.

2. Circle all the meetings you attended that were not directly relevant to executing your objectives.

3. Add up the number of hours of those circled meetings and work out how much money that has cost the company you work for.

4. If you’ve recently thought that you work too much or don’t have enough time for your friends, family or hobbies – consider that you are responsible for wasting time in meetings that you could have spent doing more important things inside and outside of work.

Meetings are the antithesis of progress

Most of the meetings you get invited to are probably a waste of your time. I’ve observed that far too many people regularly waste the time of others by inviting them to meetings that aren’t relevant, aren’t necessary, or where the purpose of the meeting isn't even clear. What confounds me even more however is that despite the meeting being irrelevant, unnecessary or without clear purpose people still accept the invitations and attend the meetings! Just like with email, it’s easy to succumb to the illusion that by attending all these meetings you’re being productive and moving the business forward. Just like with email we have this fear that if we don’t go to every meeting we get invited to we’ll somehow miss something crucial to our jobs or be out of the loop. And just like with email, people will waste your time with meetings that aren’t relevant to you if you let them.

My approach to meeting requests is this:

  • Just like with mail I have a list of people whose meetings I don’t attend because they are time wasters.
  • I’m biased towards declining a meeting if the meeting isn’t relevant to the execution of my objectives.
  • If the purpose of the meeting isn’t clear in the meeting request I ask the organiser for clarity. If I don’t get a response I don’t go to the meeting.
  • If I find myself in a meeting and it becomes clear that it isn’t relevant I will leave the meeting.

When they’re big, they’re not clever

In most cases, the likelihood that a meeting is directly relevant to you achieving your objectives is inversely proportional to the number of attendees. Be sceptical of any meeting with more than 5 attendees on the invite list.

Even if a meeting is relevant and the purpose is clear it is likely that the meeting isn’t as efficient as it could be. Most meetings are scheduled to be an hour in length. In my experience any meeting scheduled for one hour can be held in 30 minutes and achieve the same results. If I get a 1:1 meeting request for an hour, I respond by suggesting we shorten to 30 minutes or telling the person I only have 30 minutes for the meeting.  Like gas molecules and preparing for executive reviews, meetings will take up exactly as much time and space as you allot for them. When you get a meeting request, respond by suggesting you do the meeting in half the time. You can usually achieve this if everyone agrees and is clear on the purpose of the meetings.

Spot the difference

There are generally three types of meetings each with a different purpose:

  1. Decision making meetings
  2. Information sharing meetings
  3. Working meetings

Decision making meetings

For these to be successful you need 3 things:

  1. To be clear on what decision is being made
  2. To be clear on who is making the decision and that the decision maker will be present
  3. To ensure that stakeholders and reviewers are represented in the meeting

If you don’t have those three things, cancel the meeting.

Information sharing meetings

Perhaps the biggest culprits when it comes to wasting time, these ever expanding information sharing/project management meetings have evolved more into a (usually large) group of people sitting around a table doing email and listening occasionally (if you’re lucky). If you find yourself spending all your time in a meeting doing email and not paying attention, stop going to the meeting. If you find that a meeting you are holding becomes a room filled with people doing email, consider whether or not you should be holding the meeting. There are better ways to share information with colleagues, and if you’re looking to gather information, consider having more individual meetings.

Working meetings

Scheduling meetings for a group of people to collaborate is a good thing. I’m a huge fan of these kinds of meetings as long as people are really present (not doing email), you’re clear what you’re working on and you know what you want to achieve within the meeting.

As soon as people stop listening and start doing something else (like email) then you know the meeting isn’t working. You can force people to attend, you can ban laptops, mobile phones and all other external distractions, but if a meeting isn’t keeping people’s attention then it’s a lost cause. You’d be better off cancelling the meeting and figuring out what you really need to achieve – and chances are it’s not a meeting.

[Want a second opinion? Best Buy has taken an extreme view of meetings and other corporate artifacts known to be time wasters by formally getting rid of meetings.]

Key takeaways:

1. Attending meetings does not mean you’re making progress towards your objectives.

2. Keep meetings small – in number of attendees and time scheduled. (If you can’t get used to 30 minute meetings, try 45 minutes instead.)

3. Don’t be afraid to say no to irrelevant meetings.

4. If you’re running a meeting, think about what you want to accomplish in advance and decide if having a meeting is the best way to achieve this.