A few weeks ago, my friend and I discussed our shared disdain for meetings and she said,“I just feel like we’re having the same conversation again and again. When they’re not done correctly, they can be such time burners.”
I couldn’t agree more. At previous jobs, when a calendar invite would show up in my inbox, I’d often emit a loud sigh (which is always great in an open office environment). Then, I’d spend precious time trying to figure out how to avoid accepting it.
Ah, sorry! I have 14 conflicts at that time, or I have a dentist appointment. Every day this week. And next. Please carry on without me. May the force be with you.
I’m not saying all meetings are worthless. Some are absolutely, hands down necessary. And sometimes they’re just the only way to get things done. But I also believe that there’s room for us to be incredibly more efficient by asking ourselves these three questions before each one.
1. Who Needs to Be Here?
Hint: Probably not as many people as you think. It’s key to be conscious about who you’re asking to be there so you can guarantee it’s as productive and meaningful as possible for all parties. No one should leave thinking, “Well, that was a colossal waste of my time.”
Because that feeling isn’t good for the individual, the group, or the company. Just imagine all the work that could be getting done if you only had four people in the room instead of 10. For a 60-minute time slot, that’s six more hours that could be spent doing work.
For instance, let’s say you’re brainstorming about the firm’s new logo. The graphic designer’s there to ensure he understands the vision. The branding director’s there to make certain it adheres to company guidelines. But do you need the HR manager there because she puts the logo on every job posting? Nope. Once it’s finalized, you can ask her to switch the old out for the new. For now, leave her be—she’s got work to do!
If you’re not the organizer, you should assess whether or not your presence is essential. Sometimes, co-workers invite you simply because they think you want to be there. But you can decline if you think it’s appropriate (i.e., if you have no idea what you’d contribute or if you’re just overwhelmingly busy).
In situations like this, I say something like, “Hi there. I think [insert team member’s name] will be able to handle this on her own. If there’s a specific reason you’d like me to be present, though, let me know!”
And then take that free hour and get back to the grind.
2. What Are the Goals?
What exactly are you trying to accomplish? Identifying the objectives beforehand is crucial. It can keep you on task and help shape the entire conversation. Otherwise, you may sit there rambling for 45 minutes about how Leonard is always humming the Titanic theme song. (Gets me every time, too. Never let go, Jack!)
“An effective agenda sets clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during a meeting,” explains Roger Schwarz, author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results.
“It helps team members prepare, allocates time wisely, quickly gets everyone on the same topic, and identifies when the discussion is complete. If problems still occur during the meeting, a well-designed agenda increases the team’s ability to effectively and quickly address them,” says Schwarz.
Perhaps you just want everyone to provide status updates on top priority projects. Or, you need to make a decision—today—about which account manager will be assigned to a huge, new client.
Figure out your destination and get there. (And, also, it’s helpful if you share your plans with the rest of the attendees so they know what to expect and if there’s anything they need to do in advance.)
And here’s a tip: If you can’t answer pinpoint a reason to meet, then please, for the love of all things chocolate, cancel it.
3. What Do I Need to Prepare?
A former colleague of mine used to block off time to get ready for meetings with other people, and I’d always wonder why. And then, I attended a bunch where I either completely forgot what we’d discussed last time and had to do a recap, or I (embarrassingly) didn’t complete an action item. In all of these instances, we ended up having to put more time on our schedules.
To make sure this doesn’t happen, you need to show up prepared. Maybe it’s reviewing the notes from last week’s session so it’s fresh in your mind. Or, maybe, it’s making a list of talking points and answers you need. Whatever it is, make the time to do it. It’ll pay off big time.
As an example, I oversee my department’s peer education program, and I’m working hard to revamp it. In two weeks, I’ll have my one-on-one with my supervisor to discuss my proposals. I’ve been gathering feedback from the students and compiling my thoughts, and the next step is to plot out the structure and timeline on paper.
If I approach her empty-handed, we’ll probably just spend the time bouncing ideas off each other, which isn’t necessarily bad, per se, but also doesn’t help me move forward.
I promise you—I do like working with people. But one of my major pet peeves is inefficiency, especially when it’s easy to prevent. If your schedule’s looking a little too full, or if every time you meet you have flashbacks to waiting for the bell to ring in high school, it may be time to take a step back and start asking yourself these questions.
And hey—if you have more questions like this that you ask yourself, let me know what they are on Twitter!
Photo of meeting courtesy of gradyreese/Getty Images.