Five ways to spend less time in meetings.

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Catch-ups, all-hands, check-ins, WIPs – whether in person or virtual, meetings punctuate our days more than ever before.  For many, regular Zoom or Teams calls have been a replacement for face-to-face contact since the start of the first lockdown.  For others, structured time together means our office-based days are filled with appointments.

We speak to many people who resort to doing their priority work before 9am or late in the evening, as the 9-5 is too fragmented with back-to-back meetings to spend any meaningful time on important work.

If that sounds like you, or if you’d just like to free up a little more time away from Zoom or the inside of a meeting room, our five tips for minimising meetings might help you out:

1  Towels on the sun lounger

Picture the scene – in a week full of commitments, you’ve got a two hour slot on Thursday afternoon that is mercifully free in your calendar.  This all-too-short sanctuary is where you plan to blast through some of those meaty tasks weighing down your to-do list.  Then you receive the message: “I saw you were free on Thursday at 3, so I’ve sent you an invite to discuss xxxxx.”

There’s a (clearly) false assumption that any time not booked out in our calendars is ‘free time’, where we’re just idly waiting for the next task to come in.

To avoid our time being whittled away by others, it’s important to protect it, and book out time for important tasks in the same way we book time for meetings.  After all, if your weekly team catch-up deserves a ring-fenced hour in your calendar every Monday, so does the time needed to do that very important and increasingly urgent client work that you’re struggling to fit in.

Using your calendar to schedule solo work as well as meetings can help protect your time.  It can also help you to manage your own week and prioritise your workload, rather than trying to fit things into the gaps that are left.

2  What’s the point?

If you ever turn up to a meeting not knowing why you are there, we’d argue that time is being wasted.

The point of getting people together at the same time is to reap the benefit of everybody’s input*.  That input is only going to be at its best when people have had a chance to consider the issue at hand in advance, to prepare their thoughts, gather relevant information and come ready to contribute.  If new information is shared with the group at the start of the meeting, no one will have been able to properly formulate their thoughts. As a result, the meeting will take longer to bear fruit or it will prompt muddier thinking. Either way, the potential value of the meeting will be diminished.

If you want to get the most out of your time together (and spend less time kicking an issue around), make sure everyone has a clear agenda, relevant information and knows what is expected of them well in advance.

Similarly, agreeing on clear actions and responsibilities for each agenda point before you finish is important in maintaining momentum.  How does this save time? By ensuring that the next meeting isn’t just a repeat of what you agreed last time with no meaningful progress or ownership. A Groundhog Day without the humour. 

In essence, you can minimise the time you need to spend in meetings by preparing people in advance and ensuring follow up action afterwards.  This means the time you do spend together is punchy, productive and efficient.

*If the meeting is more about sharing information, we’d question whether this always needs to be a meeting that everyone attends. Perhaps the information could be more effectively digested in an email.

3  Fancy seeing you here!

Where we have recurring meetings, we typically have a recurring invite list.  For example, the weekly project team WIP includes the whole project team.  Where this is the case, it’s worth questioning in advance whether everyone is really needed on each occasion.  Nothing happening at the moment that’s relevant to the marketing team?  Tell them not to come this week.  Just some general updates to share at the beginning? Tell them just to come for the first 10 mins.

If you gather 20 people into a meeting for an hour, that’s 20 working hours committed to that meeting.  There’s a lot that can be done in 20 working hours.  If your meeting isn’t generating the same amount of productivity, it’s worth reconsidering attendees.  Perhaps one representative from each department / team could attend, and summarise key points to others in a more time efficient way? 

4  Leave some room

Despite what your Outlook calendar might tell you, not every meeting takes exactly 30 or 60 minutes.  There’s the famous observation that ’work expands to fill the time available’ (Parkinson’s law), and the same is true of meetings.  When you’re scheduling a meeting, try to estimate how long you might realistically need, and challenge yourself to come in under the default 30/60/90 minutes.  You’ll find that however long you allow, you’ll mostly find yourself keeping to that time.

As an addition to this, there’s not much worse than bouncing from one meeting straight to another over the course of a day.  Not only do you have to join the next meeting without getting sufficiently prepared, you also get no opportunity to capture any notes or actions from the prior meeting.  For these reasons, any two meetings should always be buffered by at least 15 minutes of time to process and prepare.  Without this, there’s little chance of making the most of either session.

5  Change the record

At their worst, days packed with meetings can be draining and feel unproductive.  While the tips above will reduce unnecessary and prolonged time in meetings, it also helps to vary the routine whenever the opportunity arises.  For in-person meetings, consider a walking meeting, or relocating to a coffee shop, the office cafe or even trying a standing meeting.  These little changes in routine and setting aren’t revolutionary, but they can break the monotony  and reduce meeting fatigue.

Whether your meeting is in person or virtual, you can also experiment with rotating the chair person (also giving more junior staff an opportunity to step up), hearing from different voices or considering new ways of sharing and presenting information.  Even little changes to routine can introduce fresh impetus and avoid the feeling of meeting Groundhog Day.

We hope these tips can help you free up some more time in your work calendar and make the time you do spend in meetings more valuable, productive and energising. 

Now get some time booked in for non-meeting work quickly, before someone else gets to your calendar first!

Co Contributor – Alex Haywood
Image – Mario Gogh @ Unsplash

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