Too Many Meetings? How to Avoid This Common Waste of Time
Keep your meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratio from getting too high
Posted February 20, 2022 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Group meetings can be the great silent time suck of work. Make sure you measure and follow the meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratio.
- Don't schedule a group meeting until there is a clear and concrete agenda that is circulated beforehand. Establish clear, concrete output goals.
- Keep meetings short—when possible, no more than 30 minutes. Be respectful of everyone's time. Treat time as the valuable resource that it is.
- The sole output of a meeting shouldn't be to schedule more meetings. When possible and appropriate, come up with alternatives to meetings.
Here's what it's like to enter the Twilight Zone of meetings. Someone once requested that we have a 90-minute group meeting that would be preceded a week earlier by a meeting to prepare for that 90-minute meeting and then followed by a follow-up meeting soon thereafter to discuss what was discussed in the 90-minute meeting. And the specific agenda for that 90-minute meeting hadn't even been solidified yet. This left me wondering whether the agenda would be determined in the pre-meeting meeting, assuming that there wouldn't be a pre-pre-meeting meeting meeting.
When I asked whether all of these meetings could somehow be consolidated and shortened to save us time, the response was essentially (and I am paraphrasing because the reply was longer) "let's meet to discuss this."
Death by Meetings
All of this was for a project that had already been overrun with meetings. Basically, you never want the biggest accomplishment of a project to be, "We have met and met and met and talked a lot about what we will be planning to do," with a bunch of phrases like "activate" and "circle back on that" thrown in there. When the meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratio for a project has already gotten way too high, it's time to course-correct as soon as possible. Group meetings can be the great silent time-suck of work, giving the illusion of progress being made. Simply meeting can simply delay everything, so that real work doesn't really get done.
Case in point. I once noticed that an organization was rather adrift with problems. The leader had formed multiple committees, each aiming to address one of the multiple challenges that the organization was facing. And what did these committees do? They met. And met. And since the committees didn't make enough progress on each of the challenges, they continued to meet.
Soon, there were so many committees that the leader decided to form a Committee on Committees to help organize all of the committees. Eventually, the leader left the organization. It wasn't clear, though, how many committees were eventually formed to choose a replacement for the leader.
Of course, not all meetings are useless. Every organization or project needs to have at least some group meetings, assuming that everyone isn't a telepath like Professor X, Jean Grey, or your cat. When done well, group meetings can certainly help team members bond, exchange information/ideas, and do real work. But that's only when the meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratio remains reasonably low. When meetings devolve into discussing things over and over again or micromanaging people, they move from the useful end of the spectrum to the repeatedly-hit-my forehead-with-a-head-of-lettuce end of the spectrum.
Calculate and Use the Meeting-Time-to-Tasks-Completed Ratio
So for any project or organization, make sure that you measure and keep track of the meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratio. As the saying goes, you can't fix what you can't measure. In fact, simply measuring this ratio can make everyone more mindful of the time-suck of meetings and motivate everyone to collectively keep the ratio as low as possible.
So how do you calculate, assess, and use this ratio? For every task that you need to complete, try to estimate how much meeting time would be really necessary. In general, a 30-minute span should allow at least several minor tasks or one major task to be completed. After all, if Jerry Seinfeld can tell George Costanza's college crush Diane that George is now a marine biologist followed by George protesting but then pretending to be a marine biologist followed by George rescuing a beached whale by removing a golf ball from the whale's blowhole followed by George being hailed a hero followed by George confessing to Diane that he's not really a marine biologist followed by Diane dumping him as result, all within the confines of a half-hour commercial-filled episode of Seinfeld, then surely you can get at least several tasks done within the same time span.
As you continue to make the estimates in advance and then conduct your meetings, keep a running tally of overall cumulative meeting time and tasks completed. Then compare the tallies with your premeeting estimates. If your meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratio is trending too high, try to cut down on the number of meetings that you have, decrease the length of each meeting, and make each meeting much more efficient. Here are five ways of doing that:
1. Don't schedule a group meeting until there is a clear and concrete agenda that is circulated beforehand.
Going into a meeting without an agenda would be like playing in the World Cup without a game plan. Or having a huddle in the Super Bowl and saying, "OK, bro, what do we talk about now?" If you can't even put together an agenda, you probably don't have enough things to discuss or work through at the meeting.
2. Establish clear, concrete output goals of the meeting. Put together a check-list.
The goal of a meeting shouldn't be to just meet. That would be like saying that the goal of a football game is to stand on a field and stare at each other. Prior to a meeting, put together a list of concrete things that you want to accomplish, so that you can check things off of that list during the meeting.
3. Keep meetings short, when possible no more than 30 minutes.
A 90-minute meeting should be the exception and not the rule. If you can stage the Super Bowl halftime show in 20 to 30 minutes, you can usually get what you need done within a half hour. Peter Bregman wrote an article entitled "The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings" that was published in the Harvard Business Review in February 2016. There he argued for keeping meetings within 30 minutes. He didn't see any downside to such limits and felt that the time pressure of such shorter meetings would force everyone to be better prepared, remain more efficient, and pay attention throughout the meeting.
4. Be respectful of everyone's time. Treat time as the valuable resource that it is.
People aren't waiting, staring at the walls, wondering, "when will he or she ask me to meet? Hopefully, we will meet again soon," like a high schooler before prom. Regardless of a person's rank in an organization, his or her time is valuable. Any minute spent meeting is one less minute that he/she can spend doing real work. Alternatively, it's one less minute that he/she can spend resting and relaxing, which in turn can lead to more efficiency and productivity.
So when you request a meeting, treat it like the imposition that it is. First, ask everyone whether such a meeting is actually necessary. If the universal answer is yes, then ask everyone how much time will be needed to get the stated tasks done and jointly put together an agenda. The emphasis here is on the word everyone, because it's not all about you or whoever is calling for the meeting.
5. Identify meetings with particularly high meeting-time-to-tasks-completed ratios and come up with alternatives.
Carefully examine meetings that have had particularly high ratios. For example, when a meeting consists of one or two people talking and the rest pretending to listen while surreptitiously posting pictures of hot dogs with noodles through them on Instagram, it's not likely to accomplish that much. Consider alternatives to such meetings. If you want more team bonding, opt for planned and dedicated social events instead. Also, email, message boards, messenger apps, or some other electronic communications method can be more efficient ways of answering quick questions. Moreover, if you are meeting to micromanage others, maybe you can, you know, actually trust what others can do.
Ultimately, meetings should be just one means to an end. No one should be saying, "today was a great day because it was filled with meetings" or "this project is going well as measured by the sheer number of meetings that we've had" or "my goal in life is to meet. And meet and meet." Remember a meeting is like any other tool or piece of technology. It in itself is neither good nor bad. It's all in how you use it. If the sole output of a meeting is to have more meetings, then you are probably not meeting everyone's expectations.
Bregman, Peter, The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings, Harvard Business Review, February 22, 2016.