9 Tips to Make Your Meetings Less Painful and More Productive

January 15, 2018

For many of us, meetings are not our favorite part of the day. And yet, believe it or not, they make up 39% of our overall work time. On top of that, according to a Salary.com survey, 47% of employees find meetings to be the biggest time-waster and distraction at work—they’re simply a necessary evil for any effective organization.

From intake meetings with hiring managers to regular meetings with your manager, nothing can truly replace the quality and efficiency of in-person interactions where we can brainstorm, plan, and address key projects and initiatives.

And the good news is, there are ways to make meetings less painful for everyone, and more importantly, more meaningful and efficient. Keep reading to find tips for how to plan meetings that are actually worth your time—and will keep you (and others) from drifting off to sleep involuntarily half-way through.

1. Rethink your attendance list

We've all been in meetings where we asked ourselves "why...WHY am I here?" So before getting too click-happy with your calendar and adding all those names to the meeting roster, stop yourself and ask: who really needs to be at this meeting? Attendees should only be those directly concerned with the meeting’s objectives. And everyone else will thank you for leaving them off. 

Yes, there are probably plenty of people who should know what was discussed, but unless they’re a decision-maker, they don’t really need attend. Consider forwarding them the meeting minutes afterwards in place of having them attend, or give them a brief call to provide them with a more time-conducive recap.

2. Preparation is everything—exchange as much info as possible in advance

Microsoft conducted a survey to get a sense of what’s holding us back from having successful meetings, and the responses were telling: 42% pointed to procrastination as the biggest obstacle to productive meetings, 39% blamed lack of effective communication with team members, and 34% found ineffective meetings to be the issue.

Yet, all of these issues can be easily resolved with just one thing: preparation. Prior to your scheduled meeting, make sure everyone is familiar with the objectives. Send out previous meetings’ minutes, along with any reference material to make sure you don’t have to spend precious time rehashing old discussions.

3. Have an agenda and stick to it

First of all, if you’re going to take time out of everyone’s schedules for a meeting, make sure it’s purposeful. A meeting without a clear agenda is guaranteed to lead to nothing more than a session of chit-chat and talking in circles. As executive management expert Victor Lippman explains, “If you're not exactly sure what you're trying to accomplish, you can be sure it won't happen quickly. As meeting organizer, it's your responsibility to have clarity about objectives.”

Keep everyone on track by making your agenda visible, whether that means writing it down on a whiteboar, presenting it via powerpoint, or simply including it in the meeting email invite.

4. Start on time—even when others don’t

As the old and ever-relevant adage goes, time is money. Don’t wait for latecomers and stick to your timeline. Waiting for people who may or may not even attend the meeting not only wastes time, it gets your meeting started on the wrong foot, welcoming boredom and distraction from attendees who may have already started to chit-chat, fuddle with their devices, or day dream. If you start on time, you’re more likely to end on time.  

5. Schedule shorter meetings

This might be the easiest way to ensure meetings are more invigorating than draining. Shorter meetings force attendees as well as the meeting organizer to remain on topic and to move swiftly from objective to objective.

Victor Lippman likens meetings to accordions when it comes to length: “They stretch naturally to fill the allotted space. If you schedule a meeting for an hour, you'll probably take the whole time, even if a fair amount consists of amiable, random off-topic conversation…If you schedule that same meeting for 30 minutes, you'll do what you need to in the tighter time period.” Simple, but genius.

6. If your meetings have to be long, provide snacks or a break

Snacks have never failed in boosting our moods, especially when there’s business to take care of. Give your attendees a little bit extra motivation to attend and pay attention with a treat, whether that is some homemade chocolate chip cookies or a shared lunch from everyone’s favorite dive down the street. If you can’t make these happen, leave some time for people to take a break, get a snack/water, and stretch their legs.

7. Consider having a stand-up meeting

While this approach might not work for everyone, recent research suggests that it may be worthwhile for us to get out of our seats during meetings.

Standing up helps to keep attendees active, engaged, and more interactive—and ensures the meeting’s objectives are dealt with more promptly, as distraction and boredom are less likely to interfere. Big names like Facebook, Microsoft, Adobe and Zendesk have already started to incorporate this strategy into their practices and are reaping the benefits.

8. Always end meetings with a plan of action

Meetings are useless if all that talk doesn’t translate into action. Every meeting should end with a clear plan of action that answers the “so, what do we do next?” question.

Or, if you’re Shellye Archambeau, chief executive of MetricStream, it’s the “Who’s got the ball?” question that closes every meeting. As she explained to The New York Times, “When you’re in sports, and the ball is thrown to you, then you’ve got the ball, and you’re now in control of what happens next. You own it. It becomes a very visible concept for making sure that there’s actually ownership to make sure things get done.”

9. Find time for meeting evaluations every so often

Your meetings aren’t going to improve themselves. Just like anything else, change requires some critical reflection as well as trial and error. Every few meetings or so, carve out some time—even if it’s for 5 or 10 minutes at the end—to check in with participants to see how they think recent meetings have been going.

Ask them to touch on both what they think has been going well, as well as what they still consider to be holding the meetings back from being productive and efficient.

No one looks at their calendar and jumps for joy when they see a day chock-full of back-to-back meetings. They’re not always exciting (okay, almost never), but you can still get a lot out of them with a few of these simple tricks.

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