There are two types of people in the world: those who organize meetings, and those who hate them. If you’re reading this, it’s very likely that you fall into the latter category. The typical reason for hating meetings is simple: they’re usually a waste of time.
Status updates that could be sent by email, entered into wiki, or added to a group spreadsheet are turned into 30-90 minute rituals that prevent employees from getting actual work done. There’s nothing worse than sitting idle for 50 minutes to get to 10 minutes’ worth of conversation that concerns you specifically.
Just because meetings waste time doesn’t mean you have to. There are ways to either shorten meetings, or get more done during their less relevant stretches. Let’s look at a few strategies.
For the record, I’m going to assume you’re an adult, and understand the difference between productive and unproductive meetings. I’m referring specifically to meetings organized by others, outside of your direct control. Obviously, not all meetings are a waste of time, but we’ll focus on making better use of the ones that are.
Use meeting inefficiencies to your advantage
At least some part of a typical meeting requires your undivided attention, but most of it doesn’t. Meetings are rife with digressions, smalltalk, awkward silences, and mock participation to fill the time allotted.
Instead of going along with one of these unproductive behaviors, arrange your work ahead of time to seize these moments as windows of opportunity. You can use idle times in meetings to outline project plans, revise your to do list and calendar, clean out your file cabinet (really!), get answers from coworkers about projects, catch up on memos, or clarify your list of discussion items for the meeting at hand.
Bring your Read/Review folder
A best practice for handling documents and articles that take longer than two minutes to read is collecting them into a “Read/Review” folder under your in-tray. For items that take less than two minutes to read, it’s more efficient to read them on the spot the first time than to glance at them more than once, think about them more than once, and add them to your backlog.
So the next time something you need to read catches your attention, ask yourself, “Will this take longer than two minutes?” If the answer is yes, print it out and put it in your Read/Review folder. Otherwise, read it now and be done with it.
What does this have to do with meetings? Well, all of that longer reading material you were going to get to “later” suddenly gets 17 minutes of quality time when you’re sitting in the conference room and the meeting runs late. Instead of commiserating with coworkers during those 17 minutes about not being able to get anything done, now is your chance to knock off some of those documents.
You can often get in even more reading during the meeting by listening out of one ear to monitor whether or not the item under discussion directly concerns you. If the conversation is off-topic, keep going through your folder.
Show up late
This one’s controversial, since it’s common to fetishize punctuality for it’s own sake, treating it as a proxy for personal integrity. Since what you don’t do determines what you can do, not attending 10 or 15 minutes of icebreaking can give you that much more time to focus on output. Delivering measurable results is the true sign of personal integrity.
In my last job, we had a 30 minute meeting every Tuesday that actually ran anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. The sole purpose of this meeting was to have each employee rattle off a few key metrics that could literally have been been done in under 60 seconds. Since a half-hour was blocked, the time had to be filled, so the first 10 minutes or more would consist of verbal stall tactics (“So, how was your weekend?”).
Since I had hacked my workflow to the point where I could get a full day’s worth of work done in under four hours, 10-15 minutes of those four hours represented a nontrivial opportunity cost. Most of my work required access to my desktop, so I started going to meeting 15 minutes late, doing work at my desk instead. By the time I showed up, other employees had just started to give their metrics, and absolutely nothing was lost.
Clean up your files
You can’t clean out your file cabinet in a single meeting, but you can chip away at it, one large handful of files at a time. Each meeting gives you the chance to sort through and eliminate the next set of documents filling your file drawer: A-C, D-F, etc. Naturally, this is something to do during idle time.
When you’re sitting at your own desk, there’s almost always something more important that you could be doing than cleaning out your file cabinet. But when you’re stuck in a meeting, and nothing significant is going on, going through a short stack of files actually seems like a worthwhile activity.
Use agenda lists
Agendas can apply to people, not just meetings and events. Instead of interrupting coworkers and managers every time a non-urgent question for them pops in your head, you can write them down on lists specific to them. All of your questions for Amy would go on your “For Amy” list, questions and issues for the boss would go on your “For Boss” list, and so on. You can pull out the appropriate agenda list the next time you meet with the person in question.
A great time to meet the person in question is when you’re both corralled in the same meeting, during those first 10 or 15 minutes when the meeting hasn’t actually started. Getting your questions answered during this time is usually more fulfilling than talking about the weather.
Feel free to make your own meeting agendas during a meeting. As you have issues and questions about the material that’s discussed during the meeting, write them down instead of hoping to remember them later. Toward the end of the meeting, when the manager asks if anyone has any questions, you can replace the usual awkward silence with real questions.
Brainstorm and plan projects
With nothing more than a legal pad, you can get some broad outlining and brainstorming done during lulls in meetings. If you have a client presentation due at the end of the week, you can write out a list of slides you’ll need. If you need ideas on how to promote a new service on a limited budget, you can use a few spare minutes to write down every possible idea that comes to you, no matter how absurd. After the meeting, when you go back to your desk, review your list for at least two or three ideas that merit further investigation.
Propose next actions
In too many meetings, participants fail to define next actions for their proposals and projects, assuming that what to do next is implicitly obvious. Taking next actions for granted virtually guarantees inaction. Make them explicit, very explicit.
If the item under discussion is increasing next week’s sales to hit end-of-month goals, what’s the next action required to actualize that increase? There are many possibilities, but I would propose that before we can concretely increase sales, we need to get the data on (a) how many remaining sales are needed to hit the goal for the month and (b) how many sales that translates into per day. Then we can estimate how many more cold calls the sales division needs to make per day. So the next action that gets the ball rolling would be “Email sales manager request for December sales numbers.”
Notice the phrasing in the latter example: “Email” instead of” contact”, “sales manager” instead of no one specified, “request for December sales numbers” instead of “information.” Everything is concrete, so that when it’s time to perform the action, there’s nothing left to think about. At the end of the meeting, when you’re discussing the sales increase, you can say, “I’ll email Mike a request for our current December sales, then email the sales division the upgraded call quotas.”
Give meetings your full attention
None of the above suggestions are meant to imply that you shouldn’t be paying attention during meetings when it’s warranted. On the contrary: knowing when to engage in another activity requires active listening and conscious discrimination. From moment to moment you’re asking yourself questions like, “Is this information actionable?”, “Is listening to this the best use of my time?”, “What do I need to get out of this meeting?” Your goal is to always work consciously.
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