Updated: Mar 4
On that fateful day, after answering the umpteenth email and plastering my To-Do board with more sticky notes from the latest meeting, I shut down my computer and walked around the forest of cubicles that separated my office from that of my boss. He was staring at his computer monitor, typing away at something, while cradling his phone between his ear and shoulder. He waved me in and I stood at the window, noting all the people in the tower across the street, also at computers, in meetings, or on the phone.
When he finished his call, he shut off his monitor and forwarded his phone to voice mail (I always LOVED that he did that). I walked over, closed his office door, and sat down. "Oh oh", said he.
"Boss," said I, "I spend 100% of my day, every day, in meetings, on the phone, and creating or answering email. I don't actually DO anything, and haven't for weeks. At least not during office hours. Can we change this?" He steepled his fingertips, thought a minute, and said "Not really." We always had a great, honest rapport, so I told him that I had to find another job. We talked some more, and he eventually said "I don't want you to go, and I will help you find that job." Which he did.
While sometimes necessary and valuable, excessive meetings and email documentation are chronophages: fancy word. Means Time Eaters. These insidious things will completely eat your time, energy, productivity and progress against deadlines. Yesterday afternoon, I started a Microsoft Teams meeting with a client. He looked beaten up and exhausted. It was his 5th meeting of the day, and he had 4 more on the slate. It was like looking in the mirror at me back on that day.
Libraries have been written about this, but still it persists. John Cleese immortalized the lessons in his videos "Meetings, Bloody Meetings" and "More Bloody Meetings". Check 'em out. In the meantime, work with your manager, peers, colleagues and team members and draw some lines in the sand. Here are some pointers that I have found useful.
People are most productive in the morning. Have your meetings in the morning (no more than 90 minutes altogether). For time zone issues, shift the time slot window to the westernmost folks. Noon Eastern is 9 Pacific. Then stop. STOP. No more meetings for the rest of the day. Laughing yet? Not funny. That boss I mention at the beginning was infamous for being able to come up with 25 fantastic ideas in 25 minutes, usually during meetings. It took my inner bulldog to get him to acknowledge that fulfilling those ideas took considerably longer, and maybe he had to select from the set based on time and resource realities. He would also call meetings spontaneously, eat up 2 hours of everyone's time, then ponder out loud why deliverables were late.
Meetings fall into a small number of categories: discovery, delivery, discussion, decision point, and debriefing. Don't mix them up in the same meeting.
Pre-publish an agenda. No, really. At least a day in advance. An agenda is not just a list of topics. It must be a working brief that explains what will be included, why, and how people need to prepare for it. Identify the meeting as one of the 5 types listed above. Organize topics by urgency (time sensitivity), not importance. Identify specifically what each attendee is expected to contribute. Do individuals really need to attend this one? Do we really need a meeting at all?
UNDERagenda. 'Nuff said.
Both Microsoft Teams and Zoom have the ability to record meetings. Do it. Pre-empts all the he said/she said debates afterwards.
ALWAYS delegate a note taker/timekeeper. They should use PowerPoint for all this. Allocate the last 15 minutes of a 1 hour meeting to having that person share their screen and review what just happened, including decision points, deferrals and go-forward action items. The attendees then make any adjustments, the presentation gets saved, and posted on your file share. Voila! A deliverable, completed and approved in place.
There's so much more, of course. The items I have included here are quick and effective wins for everyone, in my experience. And oh, if you have to munch your Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bomb cereal during a meeting, mute your mic.