If I could pick a single goal for everyone, it would be revamping those time-sucking meetings! Meetings can eat up your day if you let them. Ever seen the Dilbert cartoon about preliminary pre-meeting meetings? Does it feel like you’re stuck in that Dilbert cartoon and can’t get anything effective done? Well, you don’t have to take it anymore! Keep these things in mind when dealing with time-stealing meetings.Refuse Face-to-Face Meetings When Unnecessary
Determine if you really need to meet in person. How many times have you attended a meeting and asked yourself, “Why am I here?” Hopefully, by now you’ve started protecting your time from every person who wants a piece of it. If my clients want to meet in person, I charge a consulting fee. For telephone calls, no charge. Ninety percent of the time, a conference call will suffice. Extra travel time and expenses are involved when meeting in person, so avoid it unless dialogue and brainstorming are required.
Do not accept a meeting invitation if the requestor can’t state in one sentence the exact reason you’re meeting. For example:
- To inform our department of changes in the holiday pay policy.
- To sell management on our division’s plan to automate payroll processing.
- To brainstorm the best way to resolve the association’s budget deficit.
- To determine realistic sales goals for each region for next year.
- To discuss the critical skills required for successful performance as a first-level supervisor.
Meetings can be important; they allow for the exchange of ideas and play an important role in the dynamics of the workplace. But not all meetings have the same value. With a limited number of hours in the day, you need to pick and choose when a meeting is appropriate and when it isn’t. Always think twice before calling a meeting. If you have the flexibility to choose, you should always think twice about agreeing to attend one, too. If you feel like a good deal of your day is wasted by meetings, consider the following:
Is the meeting simply to exchange information?If so, an email might do the trick just as well, and save everyone a lot of time.
Is there travel involved?An elevator ride is one thing; real travel is quite another. Whether the meeting will include attendees from across town or across the country, always stop and consider whether a conference call or webinar meetup might be just as effective (I use www.gotomeeting.com). Sometimes the face-to-face is critical. Other times, it just doesn’t matter, so why waste travel time?
What’s your role?Maybe your place could be taken by an assistant who can take good notes. Just make sure that if decisions need to be made, whoever’s taking your place is capable of filling in for you. Others will be annoyed if your absence turns into an inconvenience for them.
If you do need to be there personally, find out exactly what’s needed of you. If only one item on a two-hour agenda involves you, perhaps you can handle that matter first and leave the meeting early. Or ask what time to show. Spending half of your day in meetings waiting for your agenda item can be a frustrating time-waster.
More is not merrier. Think through who really needs to be there. Don’t worry about hurting someone’s feelings if they aren’t included. If you simply want to keep a stakeholder or player in the loop, select them as “optional,” instead of “required.” Always assume that higher-ups have much more profitable things to do than sit in your meeting. Think about how much people are paid, and ask if your meeting is worth an hour of their pay PLUS what they otherwise could have been doing if they weren’t stuck there.
Only invite people if they have a direct contribution to make to the meeting objective, and the desired decisions would not be able to be made without them. If their presence is only required for ten minutes, give them the first ten minutes, and then allow them to graciously depart.Multiply Your Hands
Have meeting requests and responses go to your delegate (if you have one), not to you. Don’t wade through all the responses; that’s why you have an assistant. In Outlook, under Tools, Options, Delegates, select “Send meeting requests and responses only to my delegates, not to me.” Brilliant.Avoid Meetings on Fridays
Many departments and teams decide as an informal policy to schedule meetings Monday-Thursday if at all possible. Too many people try to take long weekends or duck out early, making scheduling and rescheduling a nightmare on Fridays, plus you’ll end up with a lot of no-shows. I try to leave Fridays open for personal appointments. I find if I put a doctor’s appointment in between business meetings, something always happens to derail one or the other. It’s hard to get my mind switched between different realms in any case.Distribute Your Agenda Early
Always send or request an agenda and include it in the text portion of the appointment, or include it as an attachment. A basic agenda should include a statement of purpose, any logistical considerations, the decisions to be made, a list of the topics to discuss (in priority order), who’s responsible for that item, and how long you’re allotting for each one. Ask participants if they have any changes to the agenda items to let you know in advance of the meeting, so you can make adjustments if necessary. Once you get into the meeting, follow the agenda diligently, so you can ensure all points are covered, decisions are made, and the objective is achieved.Set Your Meeting’s Length Yourself
Don’t let Outlook pick the length of your meeting; the default is one hour, so that’s how much time people normally schedule meetings. Instead, match the length of the meeting to the purpose. If you’ve done an agenda and you’ve determined you’ll only need forty minutes, then manually change the invitation and schedule for that. Otherwise, time will expand to fill the amount of time available. If you’ve promised folks you’ll be out of there quickly, people tend to work toward that goal. If there’s slack time, more socializing will naturally occur, and an hour will definitely get used. Some people try to build in “buffer” time; don’t cave to this habit. I purposefully under-schedule and announce the goal at the beginning, so everyone is actively moving forward.Use Online Scheduling for Outside Parties
According to an international research of online scheduler Doodle, professionals spend 5 hours a week with setting up meetings alone (see 1st International Study on Scheduling Trends 2009). Doodle.com is an online polling tool to find a good day/time for participants to meet, especially helpful when they don’t work at your company. I particularly like the Outlook plugin. It provides an online display of optional meeting times allows all participants to indicate their preferred times and enables the organizer to choose the final slot. Done. There is no toggling between participants’ calendars and no inefficient email chains—obtaining the availability of external parties is made effortless. By engaging participants, Doodle makes scheduling transparent and very flexible, regardless of whether they use online or offline calendars, paper planners, or no system at all.Allow Enough Breaks
Provide at least one break for every hour and 15 minutes, max. Let attendees know at the outset what to expect. If you keep rambling on, and they aren’t sure when they’ll get a bio break, they’ll just start getting up randomly and sneaking out. Clearly state at the beginning, “We’ll meet from now until 10:00, and then we’ll break until 10:10,” etc. If you’re meeting over a lunch hour, it’s also common courtesy to provide food.Be Considerate of Those in Other Time Zones
If you’re in the Pacific Time zone, and some of your meeting participants are calling in from the East, a 2:00 meeting puts them into departure time. Realize that people may have childcare commitments at the end of the day; an afternoon meeting (or vice versa for early mornings on the West Coast) can severely inconvenience folks and reduce the odds of attendance.Strike a Balance on Scheduling
If you schedule a meeting too far out, you’ll get a bunch of cancellations and requests to reschedule as you get closer—or you’ll just get trumped by someone higher up. If you wait to schedule a meeting until the last minute, it’s hard to find a block of time when most people are readily available. So it’s best to schedule 2-3 weeks in advance. Anything sooner or further off than that is fraught with scheduling challenges and conflicts.Immediately Inform the Meeting Leader of Conflicts
If you have a change in your calendar but don’t want to “rock the boat,” you inconvenience more people the longer you wait. It takes effort to work schedules around appointments, so as soon as you know, raise the flag. The chair can determine if they can make it without you or if the meeting should be moved.Confirm Everything
I’ve often shown up for a meeting but the other person “forgot.” You’d like to think all adults are responsible and will do what they say they’ll do, but it’s always better to dash off a quick email: “Looking forward to seeing you on (date) at (time) at (location). Let me know if something comes up.” I don’t make people confirm that things are correct; I ask them to let me know if there’s a change. Also make sure you get directions and map it out well in advance of trying to run out the door. I look at my calendar for the next day before I leave work and make sure I’m ready to roll on everything. Confirm with attendees, too, when it’s your meeting. Open the original meeting request, select Actions, and then New Message to Attendees.Journal Your Meeting Notes
Many people don’t know how to use the Journal feature in Outlook, or even what it’s for. If you’ve ever accidentally clicked it, you’ll get a pop-up box that asks you if you’re SURE you want to turn on the Journal. Most people freak out and click NO. Next time, click YES. Open a new Journal entry, select Meeting in the Type dropdown, type up your meeting notes, put in the day/time of the meeting, indicate in the Contacts field the people at the meeting, and select a Category for the meeting name or project. When you pull up a Contact and click the Activities tab, you’ll be able to see the Journal entries (notes) from every meeting you’ve ever had with that person. You can also pull up your Journal entries by Category to review meeting notes as far back as you’d like. OR give your notes to your assistant, have him type them up in the text field of the original meeting notice, save, and send a message to attendees (under Actions).Scheduling Meetings
Do you find that it’s close to impossible to get five or more attendees that are available at the same time and the same date? When key players are overbooked, it can take hours just to schedule a single a meeting. If you’re not on an exchange server, try my favorite: Doodle.com. Here are three questions you should ask yourself whenever you schedule a meeting:
Do we really need all these people? Make sure you aren’t inviting anyone who doesn’t need to have a seat at the table. Not only does it make scheduling more difficult, but you’ll either (a) waste their time or (b) bend over backwards to accommodate someone who isn’t going to show up anyway.
Can we keep people in the loop without inviting them to every meeting? Some meetings are full of wallflowers who need to know what’s going on but don’t necessarily need to contribute. Publishing meeting minutes or distributing essential information electronically can save time and shorten the attendee list. Also, take a look to see if some work areas are sending multiple representatives. By choosing a single designee from each area, you can make sure everyone is represented without having everyone in the room.
Do we need to meet at all? This is a question you should ask about EVERY meeting, not just the hard-to-schedule ones. Any meeting that doesn’t have a clear objective (if not a formal agenda) should be on the chopping block.
Meetings are the bane of business productivity—but we couldn’t do business without them. This is one of the central ironies of modern business, but there it is. Email and a quick phone call can only do so much. Face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) contact for minutes or hours at a time is often (if not always) necessary to achieve the synergetic interactions that drive accomplishment.
That doesn’t change the fact that it’s amazingly frustrating to spend half your day in meetings and meeting preparations when you’re trying to get things done. You see, to a corporate cog living for 5 PM Friday, this might be productivity—but to the SuperCompetent among us, it’s a potential intrusion on our productive time, requiring that we give up something else in order to make progress. After all, they’re not making days any longer yet; all we’ve got are 24 hours.
Make it a productive day!™Make it a productive day!™
© Copyright 2009 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.
© 2009 Laura Stack. Laura Stack is a personal productivity expert, author, and professional speaker who helps busy workers Leave the Office Earlier® with Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. She is the president of The Productivity Pro®, Inc., a time management training firm specializing in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. Since 1992, Laura has presented keynotes and seminars on improving output, lowering stress, and saving time in today’s workplaces. She is the bestselling author of three works published by Broadway Books: The Exhaustion Cure (2008), Find More Time (2006) and Leave the Office Earlier (2004). Laura is a spokesperson for Microsoft, 3M, and Day-Timers®, Inc. and has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, and the New York Times. Her clients include Cisco Systems, Sunoco, KPMG, Nationwide, and 3M. To have Laura speak at your next event, call +1 303-471-7401. Visit www.TheProductivityPro.com to sign up for her free monthly productivity newsletter.