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July 20, 2018

How to Tame Meeting Overload and Reclaim Your Calendar

Image of hands on a laptop illustrating taking control of meetings to reclaim your calendar

While meetings are typically intended to move work forward, they can quickly derail productivity. In some cases, excessive meetings can even affect morale, as they generate more work while taking away the time to do it.

Few things can send a team spiraling like being stuck in meetings watching their to-do lists growing with every invite while they’re simultaneously kept from working on any of it.

So I’ve assembled all the tricks I’ve learned from smart people across my career to help you tame meetings, reclaim time and productivity, and make your calendar happy again.

 


Here’s the TLDR; version without all the explanation:


 

Target Recurring Meetings

Strongly consider changing weekly meetings to fortnightly (every two weeks), or monthly.

 

“Spring Clean” Your Meetings Regularly

Take a hard look at recurring meetings ever 3-6 months and clear out the clutter.

 

Challenge Default Meeting Length

Consider shorter alternatives to the hour-long meeting, including 20 min, 25 min, 30 min and 45 min.

 

Create Passing Periods

Intentionally schedule meetings to end 5-10 minutes before the conventional hour or half hour mark.

 

Limit Invite List & Send Delegates

You don’t need everyone on every call. Clear agendas and overlapping expertise allow effectiveness with fewer attendees.

 

Team Meetings & One-on-Ones

If you do both of these weekly, consider doing them both every other week on alternating weeks.

 

Demand Purpose Statements

Every meeting should have a statement describing what attendees should be doing in the meeting and what the expected output/outcome are. Meetings that are longer or have many contributors should most likely also include an agenda.

 

Give People the Chance to Prepare

This will make meetings more effective and efficient – most easily accomplished by providing purpose statements and agendas.

 

Consider Group Chat & Project Management Tools

Not everything needs to be a meeting. Be open about trying to handle some communications with group chat, project management or other tools if it makes sense and willing to transition to a meeting if it doesn’t work out.

 


And here’s the full version:


 

Target Recurring Meetings

 

Recurring meetings are probably the single biggest assault on corporate calendars. Don’t get me wrong. Recurring meetings can be valuable. The problem is that they’re usually held far too often.

As with so many automatic behaviors, it’s almost a default for most people to schedule recurring meetings on a weekly basis. This means that any amount of time you spend in this recurring meeting is multiplied by 4-5x per month. If you have a couple of these, suddenly half your work week can be gone before you know it.

Unless your entire group is working on a single project or there’s a rare all-hands-on-deck situation, it’s highly unlikely that there’s going to be enough work time to make meaningful progress in a week.

Strongly consider changing weekly meetings to fortnightly (every two weeks), or monthly. 

You’ll give back time on everyone’s calendars and have more meaningful progress to talk about when you do meet.

Weekly status meetings are a common one here. Status meetings not only rarely serve to advance a project, but they often balloon to large numbers of attendees, who each only need to speak for a minute or two.

If you establish an agreed-upon and consistent method of status tracking and reporting, this may be just as easily handled via something like email or group chat, allowing the organizer or project manager to reach out for individual follow up instead of conducting that follow-up with 23 people on a conference call.

 


 

“Spring Clean” Your Meetings Regularly

 

Recurring meetings are kind of like dishes. If you don’t clean them up regularly, they can really pile up and your schedule can start to stink.

Do an intentional review of recurring meetings ever 3-6 months and clean out the stale leftovers to keep your calendar from getting too cluttered.

 


 

Challenge Default Meeting Length

 

The way calendar software is designed makes it far too easy to default to long meetings.

Don’t default to an hour-long meeting. In fact, some people suggest that you shouldn’t do hour-long meetings unless they’re working meetings you’ll come out of it with some form of deliverable.

You don’t have to stop there. Don’t be afraid of unconventional shorter meetings lengths either. For many meetings, 15 or 20 minutes may suffice instead of 30. Or 45 minutes instead of an hour.

If you keep your meetings tight with purpose and agendas, and especially if you build in passing periods (as discussed below), these alternate meeting lengths can be just as valuable while sitting lighter on your calendar.

 


 

Create Passing Periods

 

When questioning meeting length, don’t just consider the hour vs half hour dilemma. Go further.

  • Consider making your half hour meetings go for 20 or 25 minutes.
  • Consider making your hour-long meetings go 45 or 50 minutes.

Why?

 

Avoiding the domino effect: 

Often, a morning meeting goes a few minutes long. That leaves everyone in a subsequent meeting wasting time waiting for the late party from the previous meeting. That meeting then goes long and before you know it, dozens of people have lost collective hours over the course of the day because that first meeting went long.

When you build in passing periods, you can intend to be done at a specific time, but have a built-in cushion in case you go over a bit—and avoid being the first domino in a chain of lost productivity.

 

Context switching and preparation:

Ever get caught in a marathon of meetings back-to-back? Ever get dialed in a few minutes late and find yourself desperately scanning the agenda to remember what your sixth meeting of the day is even about? We’ve all been there.

What’s amazing is that something as simple as five minutes between meetings to clear your head, wrap your mind around the next topic you need to address, and maybe pull up a few files, slides or dashboards can turn a frazzled mess into a confident contributor who feels in control.

 

Health and biology:

For starters, there’s plenty of evidence that it’s important to at least get up and stretch your legs every now and then if you spend most of your day sitting.

But beyond the health kick, there’s the simple fact that people have basic biological needs like getting hydrated that need to be regularly attended to.

And when you have to go hours with back-to-back meetings without the chance to address those needs, it’s fair to say that your concentration is compromised, if you don’t eventually have to bow out of the middle of a meeting completely.

 


 

Limit Invite List & Send Delegates

 

What kind of meeting should have an expansive invite list? An all-hands meeting is a good example. A quarterly summary of company results is another.

But most other meetings can stand to have their attendee lists trimmed.

Large invite lists are often a symptom of status meetings or of meetings without clearly defined purpose / agenda, both of which are addressed elsewhere in this post.

If you have a reasonable idea of what will be discussed in a meeting, and what the expected output of the meeting is, it becomes much easier to spread out meetings amongst team members and cross-trained peers.

 


 

Team Meetings & One-on-Ones

 

This makes sense for some teams and not for others. But it can be a quick way to get some time back without sacrificing much.

If you’re a manager, there’s a good chance you have both a weekly team meeting and weekly one-on-ones. If this is you and you or your team are strapped for time, consider doing your team meeting every two weeks and your one-on-ones every two weeks so that you get into an alternating pattern.

 

Before:

  • Week 1 – 1 hr team meeting + 4 half hour one-on-ones = 3 hours
  • Week 2 – 1 hr team meeting + 4 half hour one-on-ones = 3 hours
  • Week 3 – 1 hr team meeting + 4 half hour one-on-ones = 3 hours
  • Week 4 – 1 hr team meeting + 4 half hour one-on-ones = 3 hours
  • Total for 4 weeks = 12 hours

 

After:

  • Week 1 – 1 hr team meeting = 1 hours
  • Week 2 – 4 half hour one-on-ones = 2 hours
  • Week 3 – 1 hr team meeting = 1 hours
  • Week 4 – 4 half hour one-on-ones = 2 hours
  • Total for 4 weeks = 6 hours

 

Difference:

Over 4 weeks, for a team of 4, you’ve taken back 6 hours for the manager and 3 hours per employee. That’s a total of 18 hours reclaimed to get stuff done.

 

As I said, this isn’t a match for every type of manager at every level. But many will find that they get every bit as much info as they need by alternating team meeting weeks with one-on-one weeks. Even though you do one-on-ones half as often you’re still talking to every member of your team at least once a week (since you speak to the whole team at the team meeting), so it’s never long before you next checkpoint if something comes up.

 


 

Demand Purpose Statements

 

One of the big ways meetings waste time is by not having a clear purpose. These meetings can appear like they’ll be useful, since they’re about a specific subject. However, without a clearly stated intended outcome, a meeting can easily meander and attendees find themselves having spent plenty of time with nothing meaningful to show for it.

That’s why at a minimum, every meeting should have a statement of purpose. It anchors the meeting, ensures attendees will get something meaningful back in return for their time.

  • Ex. The purpose of this meeting is to brainstorm and document draft project requirements.
  • Ex. The purpose of this meeting is to identify technical blockers and assign action items to be worked after meeting completion.
  • Ex. The purpose of this recurring one-on-one meeting is to discuss top priorities, recently completed projects, upcoming plans, wins and blockers.

In some cases, it makes sense to go deeper with an agenda and desired outcomes. The more time or people your meeting consumes, the more important it is to have an agenda. That way, your meeting stays on track if it’s longer or if you have several people leading different parts of the meeting. Plus, it gives people a chance to prepare, which leads us into our next point.

 


 

Give People the Chance to Prepare

 

Ever been invited to a meeting with a vague or indiscernible title and no description of what you’ll be discussing? Me too. You and your coworkers may speculate on what it’s about. But you know what you can’t do well? Prepare for it.

Not many people enjoy getting blindsided by being asked to speak on a topic or show progress on something they weren’t prepared to share.

This is where purpose statements and agendas come in really handy. If your meeting attendees know what’s expected of them well ahead of time, they can come prepared. That means less fumbling around looking for the info they need to answer the question while mumbling, “Uh, come back to me.” And most importantly—you can save yourself the inevitable follow-up meeting to go over all the things that your unprepared attendees were supposed to share in this meeting, but didn’t have ready.

Occasionally, a leader or executive has an important announcement to make that they couldn’t share ahead of time, but this is the exception, not the rule.

 


 

Consider Group Chat & Project Management Tools

 

“This meeting could have been an email.”

It’s been said in corporate comic strips as a joke, but it’s not always far from the truth. Many meetings could just as easily be handled by some other asynchronous means.

Email is probably not the best choice for many of them. But tools like group chat in Mitel’s MiTeam tool can easily facilitate quick discussions and project management tools can offer a quick picture of status and blockers.

But what if we get stuck and can’t solve our needs in group chat? That’s a fair concern. But have the courage to try. Have the understanding to gracefully accept if it fails. And have a snappy tool that allows you to easily transition to a videoconference if needed. Yes, again, I’m looking at you, MiTeam.

 


 

Looking for more ways to make the most of your team’s time? Find out what the toddler trap is and how you can keep it from torpedoing your productivity >

 


 

Hal Werner
Hal Werner
Hal Werner is a Dallas-area content strategist, digital marketer and idea man that loves bringing distinctive flavor and customer insight to every project.