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Are meetings taking over your life? Try these 5 strategies.

Meetings seem to only have increased during our COVID work from home reality. This productivity coach shares tried and true ways to take back control of your day.

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Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

“I’m so excited for this day of back to back meetings!”, said no one ever.

Meetings are, let’s face it, a bit of a drag. Meetings are expensive, they pull you away from your deep work, and often they do not have a defined purpose. In fact, there’s an image I always have in my head when I’m scheduling a meeting with more than a couple people, or when I get invited to one: a laptop being unceremoniously tossed out a window.

Why? A long time ago I had a friend who said: “Anytime you schedule a meeting, you should imagine yourself unboxing a new Macbook Pro and tossing it out an open window, on the 10th floor. That’s how much this meet is costing.” Is it worth it? Think about it. This is a much more concrete way to say: “time is money”.

And I don’t know about you, but now that we’re all working from home, meeting time seems only to have increased. Now that we can’t have a quick, spontaneous conversation in the hallway, or lean over our shoulder and say “Hey, can I ask you a quick question?”, we’re scheduling ALL of our live work-related communication. And it’s coming at a cost: our ability to get anything done!

So, what can you do about it if your weeks feel like a never-ending slog of non-stop meetings?:

LIMIT INFORMATION-ONLY (AKA STATUS UPDATE) MEETINGS

Before scheduling, ask yourself if this is an information-only meeting.  If so, communicate the information via Slack, email, or some other means so that people can digest the info at their own pace, on their own time.

Status update meetings can be virtually eliminated by using a collaborative task management app with your team. If you’re the manager, put one in place. If you’re not, suggest one to your manager. (Asana and Wrike are my favorites for team use. And if you want more recommendations, just let me know! I’ve reviewed dozens of task apps.)

REDUCE THE DEFAULT LENGTH OF MEETINGS

Work, and talk, expand to fill the time allotted.  Why do we default meetings to an hour? Because that’s the default in most online calendars.

So what can you do? Reduce the default length of meetings, by default:

  • If you default to an hour, try 30 minutes as the new default.
  • If you default to 30 minutes, try 20 minutes as the new default.

Pro Tip: If you’re in the Gsuite ecosphere, there’s even a new “speedy meetings” setting, that will reduce hour long meetings to 50 minutes and half hour meetings to 25 minutes to give you just enough buffer that you’re not rushing from meeting to meeting. (Go to Settings > Event Settings and then click the checkbox for speedy meetings.)

CAREFULLY CONSIDER ALL RECURRING MEETINGS

No one wants to be the person to say “I don’t think we need to meet today.”  As a result, we often keep recurring meetings on the schedule that we shouldn’t. Here are some things you can do instead:

  • Let colleagues know that it is always OK to suggest that a meeting be cancelled if they don’t think it will be necessary/valuable.  (It won’t hurt your feelings! In fact, you’re likely to feel that they are respecting your time more!)
  • Review your calendar for recurring meetings and decide if those on your plate are valuable:
    • Cancel those that are not valuable and let your colleagues know that ad hoc, as needed, meetings will be scheduled instead.
    • If the meetings are sometimes useful, consider reducing the frequency. Turn a weekly meeting into semi-monthly meeting.

Pro Tip: If you’re not sure which meetings to keep and which to purge, try tracking your meetings for a few weeks. Every time you go to a meeting and you leave feeling like “well, that was a waste of time”, change the color of that meeting to grey. It’ll be your little secret code. Then after a few weeks look back at your meetings and see if there is a pattern to the meetings that you’ve marked. Do you have a recurring weekly meeting that is NEVER valuable? See if you can cancel it. Do you have a meeting that’s valuable half the time? Try to reduce the frequency. By actually tracking the effectiveness of your meetings, you’ll be able to outwit the recency bias that might get you thinking you should cancel a meeting just because the last one was bad.

CONSOLIDATE YOUR MEETINGS

Does your calendar look like a block of Swiss cheese?

You’ve got meetings all over the place, with only short blocks of work time between them. You try to get work done in 30 to 60 minute blocks and that means you barely have time to get your head around something before you get pulled away to another meeting. As a result, you find yourself doing your deep work at night or on weekends, because that’s the only time meetings aren’t scheduled.

Even if you can’t actually reduce your overall meeting time, here’s one trick you can use to get yourself larger blocks of work time, where you can actually get into a project.

Try to consolidate your meetings (or at least those you have some control over):

  • Consider a “no meeting” day. I wrote a while back about how “no meeting Mondays” have literally changed my world. (Seriously, that’s how I get this blog post written, consistently, week after week. I write it on Mondays, a day I have no meetings.)
  • Consolidate your meetings within the day. See if you can lump all your meetings together in the mornings, or the afternoons, so that you have larger blocks of work time available within a given day.

Pro Tip: Think about when you are most focused during the day and try NOT to schedule your meetings during those times, as that’s when you’ll get your best, deep thinking work done.

USE OFFICE HOURS

Your college professors were smart about their time as well as the subject they taught you! They held office hours.

If you’re a manager, you probably have lots of demands for your time.  Set aside a block (or a couple of blocks) of time on your calendar each week as office hours.  Let your employees know that if they need to grab some time with you outside their 1:1s, they can grab time on your calendar during these “office hours” windows.

This will allow you to be accessible to your team, but will also protect your deep work time, so you have fewer days with random 15 and 30 minute slots between meetings where it’s hard to do anything but check email or Slack.

(I once had a client who was able to rid his calendar of 17 (yes, 17!) weekly 30 minute meetings with his skip-level reports using this strategy. That’s a whole day he got back…every week!)

Are all meetings bad?

No, of course not! Sometimes, we need to all get in the same place at the same time so that we can discuss an issue, make a decision, hold a post-mortem, etc.

And, there’s one type of meeting we should always hold sacrosanct and not even consider eliminating: weekly 1:1s with our manager and our direct reports. This is often the ONLY dedicated time that we get all week with our manager and reports, and it’s essential and can actually eliminate the need for lots of other meetings.

Now you’re armed with some tips and tricks to start making room for more work time, during the work day. Next week, I’ll be talking about how to make the meetings the meetings still on your calendar even more efficient.

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