Let Me Work, Please: A Case for Fewer & More Productive Meetings

Posted by MTurek

If you feel like your workweek is structured around meetings—like all you’re doing is preparing for and attending meetings, talking about and reporting on your work rather than sitting and doing it—then you’ve reached a point of frustration where you need to regain control of your time.

There are two sides to meetings: not attending them if they’re unnecessary, and when running a meeting, ensuring that it’s purposeful, on-point, and driving a specific outcome. If the meeting lacks purpose and has no desired outcome, what’s the point?

Today’s workplace

The current workplace is operated on a model that doesn’t promote productivity. Many offices are built around the “open office” concept, which serves as an ideal delivery system for distraction. This open-plan environment may promote camaraderie, but constant noise damages attention spans and workplace productivity. Even the most sophisticated noise-canceling headphones cannot defend workers from inevitable but unpredictable waves of interruption: ringing phones, loud chatter, shouting across the office, and more. People go to work every day, but much of the real work happens before or after business hours, on the weekends, at home, in airplanes, in coffee shops—virtually everywhere except the office.

If we want to start being productive at work, the model needs to change. This requires removing distractions and creating longer and longer periods of uninterrupted time devoted to work. Feeling frustrated because of how little you actually get done is a sign you’re feeling resistance against the model in which you must operate.

Creative people require unstructured time to “get into the zone.” As a knowledge worker, whether you’re a programmer or a digital analyst, being unable to complete your work creates internal friction and frustration. According to an Atlassian study, employees are attending up to 62 meetings per month, half of which are considered a waste of time. In a 20-day work month, that averages to 3.1 meetings per day. Now, imagine that these meetings are spread out across the day. That’s a recipe for frustration: a stop-start workday in which you never have the opportunity to take the time to focus on complex work.

To preserve both your sanity and your productivity, you must reclaim your workday.

21 daily habits to master for increased productivity, from Too Busy to Do Good Work.

Finding work/meeting balance

Meetings should be like salt—a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.

– Jason Fried, Basecamp

1. Block out 2–4 hours every day in your calendar for uninterrupted work.

If you’re an early riser and your most productive time is in the morning, you have a better chance of setting up several hours of uninterrupted work time during the day. Create blocks of time in your calendar dedicated to your work, and indicate in the title that this time is blocked off for specific, focused tasks. Indicate which project you’ll be working on and request that no meetings are booked in that time.

2. Review your existing meeting invitations.

Review your calendar at the start of each week, ensuring that you understand the purpose and desired outcome of every meeting you’re invited to. If there’s any doubt in your mind as to the purpose of a meeting, speak to the organizer and determine whether your attendance is required.

3. Ensure that every meeting you attend has a clear purpose.

If there’s no agenda for a meeting to which you’ve been invited, request it. Every single meeting should have a clear, unique agenda that’s outlined at least 24 hours beforehand.

4. How many meetings actually take an hour?

The reality is that there are few meetings that require a full hour to complete. The challenge is that, if the meeting is set to last an hour, the meeting will likely be stretched out to accommodate that timeframe. Start by scheduling your own meetings for 30 or 45 minutes. For meetings that routinely end early, reach out to the organizer and request that the meeting invite be shortened to reflect the actual time required.

5. No-meeting weekday.

This one’s ambitious, but if companies like Asana, with over 100 employees, can successfully manage their workweek with a “No Meeting Day,” then surely your company can, too. This is a decision that must be supported by senior management and implemented by the entire organization. If you are in a position where you can make a recommendation for such a policy, begin by having conversations with the right people.

If you’re not fortunate enough to work at an organization that implements this type of policy, begin by blocking out a no-meeting day in your own calendar, encouraging team members to book meetings with you another day. Your example may inspire others to implement their own no-meeting days, organically spreading this idea across the organization.

21 daily habits to master for increased productivity, from Too Busy to Do Good Work.

Productive meetings: The rule, not the exception

If 20% of an average day is spent on meetings, expressed as a year, that means a meeting you start on New Year’s Day would let out around the middle of March.

– Merlin Mann, 43 Folders

Meetings can be an incredibly effective way for people to share and exchange information, get feedback, plan, collaborate, brainstorm, and make important decisions. To ensure that meetings are adding value to your work rather than detracting from it, hold yourself and others accountable to a higher standard.

1. Avoid over-inviting.

Consider the purpose of the meeting and determine who is actually required to attend. Meetings require employees to drop whatever they’re doing and switch tasks. In a service-based business model, time is one of the company’s most valuable assets. If you’re pulling five people into one meeting, that meeting costs five billable hours. Let’s assume that a billable hour is conservatively worth $200. How confidently can you say that your last meeting, where you may have pulled in 5 senior team members, was worth $1,000?

2. Ban cellphones.

When attendees are checking their phones, they aren’t focusing on the meeting. If distraction is a problem in your meetings, address it by removing that distraction.

3. Write actionable agendas.

Your agenda should be written with action words, not nouns. Each item should address the desired outcome using an action, with the responsible individual indicated. For example, “Agree on ad copy testing plan next steps – Max” is more descriptive and actionable than “Ad copy testing plan.”

4. Send agendas 24 hours in advance.

Ensure that the agenda is updated and sent to attendees 24 hours in advance so that they’re able to review it, contribute to it, and prepare for the meeting.

5. Begin on time.

Make sure to start and end every meeting on time.

6. Prepare for meetings.

Simply attending a meeting isn’t enough. For a meeting to be productive, you need to prepare for the meeting, understand what your role is at that meeting, and be prepared to contribute to its desired outcome.

Meetings are one of the biggest disruptors of at-work productivity and have come to dominate the workday, when in reality creative work should be the core focus of every day. Our most productive work is done without distraction; wasting workday time means we’re working more outside of business hours in order to get things done. Build some quiet time into your day and be vigilant about ensuring that you have at least 2–4 hours dedicated to focused tasks. When you do attend or run your own meetings, ensure that you put in as much effort into making those meetings effective.

Take back your workday and use the skills that you’re paid for to work on constructive, creative projects. If you’re looking for some additional steps to improve your focus and productivity while on the job, download the PDF of my slide deck Too Busy to Do Good Work from MozCon 2015.

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