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Meetings are ruining my life! 6 ways to make them better for everyone

By Elizabeth Exline

At a glance

  • Meetings aren’t the problem. Bad meetings are. Improve yours by inviting only those who need to be there, setting a clear agenda and encouraging engagement.
  • If you’re attending a meeting instead of leading it, arrive on time and prepared, and eliminate distractions.
  • Consider time blocking your meetings by opening set days or chunks of time for meetings and protecting the rest of your schedule for work.
  • Enhance your job search and readiness with free downloadable guides and templates from University of Phoenix!

If you heard that only 50% of meeting time is worthwhile, would you agree? Disagree? Wonder why you have so many meetings?

Whatever your response, you’re not alone. Meetings are like vaccines: not fun in the moment, but they keep your organization healthy.

“I often hear people complaining about meetings,” says Jessica Roper, the director of Career Services at University of Phoenix. “I think what creates so much frustration and dread is not always that the meetings are unnecessary, but rather that they are inefficient, unclear and poorly planned or managed.

“The good news is that, with even just a small amount of planning and intention, you can ensure your meeting is valuable and productive.”

Elevate your job search with our free resources and tools.

Tips for planning better meetings

Before you can plan a good meeting, however, you have to ascertain whether a meeting is actually warranted.

There are various formulas for deciding this question. For example, the COO of Hugo, which produces an app designed to improve meeting performance, recommends limiting meetings to discussion, debate and decision-making. If your meeting doesn’t focus on one of the three D’s, consider another, asynchronous platform instead (e.g., chat, phone or email).

Of course, it’s possible, depending on your team and goals, that a necessary meeting doesn’t fall into one of those three categories. So, another way to frame this question might be to assume a certain mindset. Treat your potential meeting invitees as high-value clients or organizational leadership. Would you ask the CEO of your company to set aside 30 minutes for this meeting?

If so, schedule away! If not, open up your email.

Recurring meetings should not be immune to this evaluation either. Roper calls this “meeting inertia”: when a once useful recurring meeting has lost its value but the organizer, whether out of laziness or obliviousness, keeps it on the calendar.

If you or your participants suffer from “meeting recovery syndrome” (spending time processing or making peace with a bad meeting), it may be time to strike that one from the calendar.

But if your meeting is original, necessary and happening, here’s how to make it more effective.

 

1. Time it right

Not every meeting needs a full 30 or 60 minutes. Break free of old constraints! It’s fully acceptable to set a meeting for 15 or 20 minutes if that’s all you need.

“Is there information you might be able to send out in an email prior to the meeting that could reduce the amount of time needed for your meeting?” Roper asks.

Keeping things short and sweet can have another benefit: positive pressure. Kind of like giving a task to a busy person if you want it done, positive pressure is a research-based concept in which people improve productivity when working within a time constraint.

Speaking of time, be sure to start and end punctually. No one likes waiting or being made late for the next meeting.

“As you review your meeting agenda items, consider how long you may need for each and try to stick to it, even if it means redirecting the conversation,” Roper advises.

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2. Be discriminating with the guest list

Like a good dinner party, who’s invited to a meeting can make or break the experience. Consider who’s absolutely necessary and invite them. If you need a contribution from someone who doesn’t otherwise need to be there, ask for it over email ahead of time.

Being exclusive can feel awkward in this age of transparency, but most people will appreciate not wasting their time attending a meeting they don’t have to. Having too many people at the table, especially if it’s a virtual one, can also diminish the quality. It’s one thing to share ideas and perspective with four or five people; quite another to get a word in with 10 or 15.

If you’re on the fence, consider recording the meeting and sharing it out to those nonessential colleagues with the invitation that they can attend future meetings if they’d find it helpful.

3. Encourage preparation

Coaxing the best out of your meeting participants starts with giving them clear direction on:

  • The purpose of the meeting
  • What you hope to achieve
  • How everyone can contribute

This approach may require everyone to do a little advance work or share information ahead of time. Be sure to outline these expectations if they will help you stay on track during your meeting.

“If you do one thing to improve your meetings, communicating the purpose would be the way to go as it allows participants to understand why they are attending and how they can contribute or prepare,” Roper says.

4. Set an agenda

Similar to outlining the objective, setting an agenda for your meeting can help people arrive ready to participate.

Invite everyone to contribute to the agenda ahead of time to improve buy-in. Also, consider framing the agenda as a set of questions as opposed to topics anyone and everyone can discuss. The question format will not only help you fine-tune who’s invited but it will also clarify who’s expected to speak and why.

5. Take the reins

It can be tempting as the meeting leader to say your piece and then sit back and let everyone else take it from there. (Especially for introverts!) But your role doesn’t end until the meeting does.

As the meeting organizer, you have to engage everyone. “Social loafing,” or coasting while others do the work in a group setting, is real. To counteract this tendency, keep the meeting small, encourage everyone to turn on cameras if it’s a remote meeting and call on specific people for feedback and insight.

Asking, “Any questions?” for example, is less likely to elicit a response than, “Julia, what are your thoughts?”

On the flip side, some employees love to talk. As the meeting leader, it’s up to you to keep garrulous participants in check (and, when necessary, on mute).

6. End on a high note

When you have five minutes left on the clock, it’s time to wrap things up. Take this time to:

  • Summarize in a few points what was accomplished
  • Assign action items and next steps
  • Thank everyone for their time or insight

“Ending with a note of appreciation or positivity is always beneficial,” Roper observes. “You can even point out someone specifically who had good ideas or participation.”

 

Tips for being a better meeting participant

Not everyone can be a leader, and not all meetings will be your responsibility. But just because you’re not helming a meeting doesn’t mean you don’t have a role to play.

As an attendee, you should arrive prepared and on time. If you have materials to review or information to share, make sure you set aside time in the days leading up to the meeting to get ready.

This is part of being engaged, and it should carry you through the entire meeting. “To be a highly engaged participant, ensure you’re actively listening and avoiding distractions,” Roper advises. “This might mean closing your laptop or turning off your phone to avoid checking email or notifications, or, if it’s a virtual meeting, turning on your camera.”

When (and how) to just say no

One of the best ways to stay excited about the meetings on your calendar may be to group them together. Creating chunks of time or even dedicated days for meetings allows you to focus on other tasks during those meeting-free slots of time.

“If you know that you’re at your best in the mornings,” Roper explains, “you could schedule meetings in a block during the mornings on two to three days of the week, leaving the rest of the days open for focused work or other tasks.”

This is helpful for leaders to keep in mind too. Ask your team for consensus about when recurring meetings work for everyone so you can all manage your schedules in ways that work for you.

Of course, even the best-laid meetings aren’t always necessary. If an invitation lands in your inbox, and you’re leaning toward declining, Roper recommends reaching out to the organizer to inquire about the meeting’s objective and gain clarification on the role you’re meant to play.

If it still feels unnecessary, Roper suggests offering an alternative like, “I know this meeting covers an important topic. Could we consider sending a detailed email update instead, allowing everyone some additional time to complete their action items?”

And when the situation calls for a hard no, maybe soften it just a bit. The “no, but” format works well for this, Roper says. “I’m unable to attend, but I’d be happy to review the notes afterward” is one example of how to do this.

The goal, after all, is not to be a yes person for every meeting that comes your way but to contribute meaningfully. Bringing intentionality to every meeting can ultimately help you save both your schedule and your sanity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, parenting, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors. Today, if given a free hour and the choice, she'd still prefer to curl up with a good story.

 

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