meeting of four people with crumbled up balls of paper in the middle of the table

(Second in a random series on Business Time Wasters)

chalk drawing - megaphone and words "stop wasting time"

If email is the great curse over the workplace, (and it is, trust me), then without a doubt, meetings are a spell that’s been cast over offices to suck the life energy out of employees and management alike while making us all think that issues are being thrashed out and matters are being decided.

That something is being accomplished.

That’s what they tell us meetings do for our work and business. But talk to anyone attending those meetings—especially as they’re walking out of one—and you’ll feel all the enthusiasm of a Chicago Cubs fan shuffling from Wrigley Field after a defeat by the St. Louis Cardinals: dazed, more than a bit distracted, and even a little hopeless.

I’m kidding, of course. Unlike the loss of your favorite baseball team to your least favorite team, meetings don’t just beat you down. They also steal a little bit of your life.

Don’t believe me? Research shows the average U.S. employee spends 4.5 hours per week sitting in meetings, and 4.6 hours preparing for those meetings. That’s over a full working day’s time! And executives have it even worse, with the average one reporting 23 hours of meetings every week—that’s the equivalent of three whole working days, devoted completely to sitting in meetings.

Three.

Whole.

Days.

Are you and your staff are wondering where your workday time goes? Do you all struggle with why you can’t seem to get things done at the office? Why you’re all constantly staying late or coming in early or taking work home for the weekend?

If you’ve already followed my tips for getting control of your email, then I’m telling you, you need to look at your meetings.

“We need our meetings!” some of you protest. “Meetings are where we exchange information, and plan, and come to important decisions…”

I’m not saying to do away with meetings. For sure, good things can happen in them. Meetings are where your team collaborates and exchanges ideas directly. They’re where the real creativity can come out, and innovation can happen. You’ve been in those meetings. Not very often, and maybe not for a very long time. But you keep holding on to the meetings because you’ve seen them produce good solutions to issues before.

But in general? In general, I can almost guarantee you that your meetings are costing your organization time and robbing your people of productivity.

Because almost everybody does meetings the wrong way.

chalkboard - "problems" crossed out. "solutions" written under.

What’s Wrong with How We Do Meetings?

Like a lot of office problems, your meetings are sucking the air out of the room instead of energizing the space because they’re poorly structured, which is then preventing you from correcting the situation when participants push it off track.

People and process—the usual culprits.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear: I’m not saying anybody’s out to sabotage your meetings (that can happen, but it’s way more rare than you see on TV). Your team is made of up human beings, all with their own flaws that can get in the way of an effective meeting. And without a clear system for conducting the meetings, certain bad habits and…let’s call them eccentricities…can get in the way of a successful meeting.

Also, to be fair to you, chances are  you were never taught how to conduct an effective meeting. Almost none of us are. And there are so many ways for a meeting to wrong—and go wrong the same way, wasting time every time you gather in the conference room.

Let’s look at what I consider the top meeting time wasters:

  • The “When Are We Having This Meeting?” Meeting – You send out the meeting invitations, and then spend hours (if not days) sifting through the replies and counter-proposed times from all the invitees as you try to hunt out enough overlapping daylight in all their schedules to schedule the meeting.
  • The Everlasting, Neverending Meeting – The meeting runs way over its allotted time, or as topics aren’t discussed or resolved, meeting gets unending follow-ups scheduled and rescheduled to resolve the unresolved topics.
  • The “Let Me Get Clear on This” Meeting – Someone in the meeting (sometimes more than one someone) takes up the majority of the meeting time trying to get the facts straight of what’s going on, preventing other topics from being discussed.
  • The “Oh, I Wasn’t Ready for That” Meeting – Someone in the meeting hasn’t prepared what she or he is supposed to present and instead of discussing the topic, and spends the meeting time talking around the subject trying to cover the lack of preparation.

And you know what’s really bad? Any given meeting can suffer from more than one of these hindrances —sometimes all at the same time.

The good news is, you can handle them each with the same basic tools: Preparation and accountability.

calendar with meeting written on the schedule

Schedule the “When Are We Having This Meeting?” Meeting

You’ve been trying for days to get the meeting scheduled. You send out requests, don’t hear back, and then one of the invitees responds with “Can we move it to an hour later?” You accommodate that request, and then get responses from two other invitees, one suggesting moving it to an hour earlier, the other to the original time but the next day.

Don’t pull out your hair. The issue here (and you’ll see this as a recurring theme in our solutions) is you’re letting them make the problem—in this case, scheduling—into your problem.

Instead, make it their problem.

In my experience, it’s the back-and-forth of getting a meeting scheduled that’s usually the biggest waste of time. You end up going from door to door in your office, desk to desk, like some beggar from a Dickens novel, pleading and imploring people for their time.

And it’s your time that gets wasted the most doing this!

To fix it and reclaim all your scheduling dignity, begin by getting a tool like Calendly or Freebusy. (Take 2 minutes and do it right now. I’ll wait right here for you.) Implement the tool, then inform your team that from now on they’re expected to keep their calendars updated. Set the expectation that when a meeting invitation comes in for a time they have marked as open, they’re supposed to accept it.

The next time you schedule a meeting, use the tool to identify overlapping open slots in all their calendars and send out invitations for the best time. Everyone should accept. For anyone who doesn’t, hold that person accountable. Make sure it’s understood how important keeping the calendar up-to-date is so that nobody (“that means you, pal!”) is wasting someone else’s time scheduling and rescheduling meetings.

I won’t lie, it may be a little bumpy to start, but once the expectation’s set and the process becomes normalized, it will save you a ton of time with scheduling meetings.

two meeting attendees holding their in annoyance

Terminate the Everlasting, Neverending Meeting

Each person in the meeting has taken longer to talk than the last. You’ve been sitting with them all for nearly an hour, and you’ve not even covered half of the topics planned. Which means either extending the time of the meeting, or finding a new time to continue it and hope you can finish everything in another session.

I’ll tell you right now, you’ll never get through it. Not this way. You’ve already lost control of the meeting, and the individuals doing all the talking have taken over.

But there’s an easy way to gain back control and get your meeting times down: the meeting agenda. If you’re using an agenda and this is still happening, you’re not using it correctly. And if you’re not using agenda at all… well, there’s your problem right there.

An agenda can play a role in solving a lot of meeting issues, if you use it correctly. First and foremost, it sets the topics of discussion for the meeting, signaling not just what will be discussed, but what won’t be—if it isn’t on the agenda, it’s not for discussion in this meeting. You do this to manage the conversation and the flow of topics, so when it all ranges too far from the set list, you simply redirect the discussion back to the agenda.

Now, if your problem is that the discussion of the agenda items takes too long, you can solve that by setting time limits, both for the meeting itself and the individual topics of discussion. You can write the time next to each item—15 minutes for one item, 10 minutes for another, 25 minutes for a third, etc. Where this gets a little magical is that you don’t have to be the bad guy with the timer, cutting people off when they run over the allotted time. (I mean, you can be the bad guy if you want . . . there is a certain wicked fun in finally having a good way to end some people’s discussion. Trust me on that) Instead, you just get to announce that time’s nearly up, and there are other topics remaining.

Or you can make ending the discussion a shared responsibility for the group. Simply announce, “We can keep on with this discussion, but we’ll have to skip some of these other topics.” If the agenda item at hand is important for the team, they may all agree to stay on it for a bit longer. But if others feel the remaining topics need to be discussed, they’ll speak up. And the discussion time adjustments become almost self-regulating.

Meeting of four people in progress with crumbled paper balls in the middle of the table

Get Them Clear Before the “Let Me Get Clear on This” Meeting

How many meetings have you gone to where someone’s just talking because they’re trying to get the facts straight? Not trying to understand the point someone’s trying to make, but just trying to get their head around the underlying information and issue? And keeping at it for so long that it’s actually preventing the discussion of the issue?

For me, that’s as bad as going door-to-door begging for time—in some ways, worse, because now the entire room is wasting time—the time I had to go begging door-to-door to get (before I picked up my scheduling app, that is).

The agenda comes to the rescue here, too.

You ever been to a meeting where someone hands out the agenda to everyone as they sit down? Don’t do that. When everyone sits down, it’s too late for you to take advantage of one of the agenda’s most useful capabilities: showing everyone clearly what’s going to be discussed in the meeting.

Making sure the attendees all know this ahead of time is crucial to a successful meeting because it sets the expectation that everyone needs to be prepared to discuss the listed topics before they walk in the conference room. And again, set that expectation! Let everyone know they’re to know about the topics of the meeting and have specific questions or points to discuss and hold them accountable. Then when that person starts taking up time asking the very basic information, you can end the his or her Q&A with the reminder that everyone is expected to be prepared for the meetings, and there’s no time here and now to go through all the basics that should have been gone through before the meeting started.

Sure, it might be a little rough on a couple people the first few times you have to hold them accountable for being prepared on the background information. But once your team gets the message, the problem just disappears.

Refuse the “Oh, I Wasn’t Ready for That” Meeting

This is almost the same as the “Let Me Get Clear on This” meeting, but the twist here is that the individual who’s supposed to be presenting a topic for discussion just hasn’t prepared. So the whole room gets to watch this person tap dance, talking and dissembling for the allotted time.

Does that sound like a good use of your team’s time? The time you had to go begging door-to-door for? (Yeah, that’s a sore spot for me.)

Don’t let these people waste everyone’s time. For every topic, in addition to allotted time, also assign an owner who’s to take point for the discussion. And again, hold that person accountable. When the topic comes up, and it becomes clear to you that the individual assigned hasn’t prepared, end the discussion right then. Say you’ll move it to another meeting and that you expect appropriate preparation next time. Don’t be mean or snarky about it, but make it clear you have a very busy team, and no one has time to watch someone twist in the wind when there’s so much else to get done.

After that’s happened once or twice, you’ll see people completing their meeting prep ahead of time.

meeting team with hands in the air celebrating a great meeting

Make Your Meetings Magic

As much as I’ve been complaining, I’ll let you in on something:

I like meetings.

I love the energy. I love the collaboration. I love pulling my team together and letting their expertise shine to solve a problem with a solution none of us could have come up with on our own.

Notice I never said that meetings are a waste of time. I said they can be huge time wasters. And, for sure, when run poorly so your participants’ bad habits get in the way without correction, they are.

But when managed properly, with a quick and direct way to schedule and an agenda to keep things on course and on time and keep everyone responsible for their part in it . . . they can be magical. So magical that, rather than having the life sucked out of them and wondering how to make up that hour they just spent locked in the conference room, instead everyone walks out energized and excited.

Because you did the meeting the right way.

Do these things for the next meeting you have, and feel the difference.