Stuck in endless meetings?
Make better use of that time.
How much time do you devote to meetings? Your first answer might be: “Too much!” But seriously, do you have any idea what percentage of your work life is spent meeting with people? Try calculating it. And if meetings take just 20 percent of your time, and you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, that’s a whopping 400 hours annually.
I often talk with coaching clients about how to cut down the number of hours they spend sitting at a conference table. You can reduce meeting time by:
- Agreeing with your colleagues to maintain shorter default times. For example, if your team always gathers on Monday mornings for an hour, commit to a new time limit of 45 minutes.
- Say “no.” Sometimes your presence isn’t all that important, and you can be excused simply by explaining that you have another commitment.
- Run better discussions. Particularly if you’re the leader, you can recapture wasted time by establishing good group habits, like always having an agenda, and insisting on punctuality.
You may sometimes feel like my client “Sharon,” who was frustrated because she felt stuck. Sharon wanted the chance to lead a team. But Jenny, her mentor, warned that some senior colleagues felt Sharon wasn’t ready to be a manager.
Sharon complained, “If I didn’t have to waste so much time sitting in their useless meetings I could really show them what I can do.”
Jenny countered, “You can’t get out of those meetings, so why not make better use of them? That’s where people see you in action, so think of those sessions as a chance to show off your strengths. Instead of coming in late and appearing distracted, aim to be one of the most productive people there.”
Convinced it was worth a try, Sharon developed a plan for being a stellar attendee at each required meeting:
- She’d rearrange her priorities to allow time for preparation, like reading the agenda and other materials sent out in advance.
- While prepping, she’d identify at least two comments or questions to contribute to the discussion.
- She’d ask herself, “What is the goal of this meeting? And what can I do to help get there?”
- Before arriving, she’d set a personal goal like, “today I will come across as calm and organized.”
- Once the discussion began, she’d listen carefully to each speaker, taking notes to help her stay focused.
The plan worked. Meeting leaders began noticing that Sharon seemed more engaged and was adding more to the discussion. They started to count on her support, and that led to her getting better assignments. After a few months, she did get a promotion, and with it came the chance to be team leader for an exciting project.
To her surprise, once Sharon launched her plan she found other benefits as well. Her job started to feel more interesting and satisfying. She felt more connected to her colleagues. And she had fewer moments of boredom and frustration. “By trying to act engaged,” she said, “I found out that it’s more fun to be engaged.”
The fact is that meetings represent a significant part of a professional’s life. And as long as you have to spend the time, why not get the biggest possible bang for your buck?
Here are six strategies for maximizing the return on the hours you spend in conference rooms:
- Do the homework. You won’t fool anybody when you’re searching through your papers or tablet, trying to catch up with the crowd. When you put the meeting time on the calendar, schedule some minutes for any necessary preparation.
- Be on time. Even if the culture tolerates casual start times, late arrivers show a lack of respect for their more punctual colleagues. By typically being there at the appointed hour, you can help to set a more productive tone. And once you’re there, you can make use of any delay by doing a bit more prep or networking with the other folks.
- Understand the purpose. It’s easy to dismiss many meetings as pointless, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. Somebody had something in mind or you wouldn’t be sitting in that room. You will be able to make a bigger contribution if you have some sense of the objective. Dig a little, and you may find several reasons why you’ve all been called in, like:
- Sharing information.
- Brainstorming and solving specific problems.
- Establishing goals, making plans and keeping track of milestones.
- Creating a collective sense of purpose.
- Encouraging collaboration by helping people get to know each other.
- Set your own goals. Of course, you always want to do your part to make the meeting productive. But beyond that, you’ll get more out of your participation if you have your own games to play. For example, if you’re trying to broaden your brand, your objective might be to speak knowledgeably about areas outside your normal portfolio.
- Listen. One reason so many sessions feel useless is that attendees just aren’t paying attention. If just one or two of you start listening carefully you can change the dynamic. And if you make a habit of being truly engaged, chances are that when it’s your turn somebody will hear what you have to say.
- Follow up. Often the success of a meeting depends on what happens next. Do your bit. Keep track of any commitments you make, and do that work. If you’re particularly interested in aspects of the conversation, find ways to continue the dialogue later. And let people know if you found their remarks to be helpful.
The bottom line: If meetings are part of the job, complaining about them is at best a waste of time. Instead, create your own plan for getting as much as you can from the hours spent around a conference table.