Beating the meeting glut

Want to end the constant distraction of meetings? Here are four ways to reclaim your day.

(Photo: CJ Burton)

Nothing chops your workday off at the knees like a calendar full of meetings. We schedule too many, create agendas that are too vague, invite too many people and let each say too much.

The meeting glut is expensive. In last year’s bestseller ReWork, 37signals founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson remind us that the true cost of an hour-long meeting with 10 attendees is 10 hours of productivity—“and it’s probably more like 15 hours, because there are mental-switching costs that come with stopping what you’re doing, going somewhere else to meet, and then resuming what you were doing beforehand.” Fried and Hansson advocate a minimalist approach to meetings—held at the site of the problem, with as few people as possible, and with the meeting’s goals explicitly laid out. Business guru Seth Godin, meanwhile, believes there are three archetypal meetings—for information, discussion and permission—and that “meeting ennui” tends to result from participants not sharing an understanding of what kind of meeting they’re in.

American corporate consultant and motivational speaker Jon Petz knows you’re likely to end up in far more bad meetings than good ones. So, in his new book Boring Meetings Suck: Get More Out of Your Meetings, or Get Out of More Meetings (Wiley), Petz suggests you have as few as possible, but also offers a ream of “suckification reduction devices”—tools to minimize the cost meetings extract in productivity and engagement, or to simply get you out of the conference room. Amid advice about the quotidian stuff—agendas, PowerPoint—Petz offers a handful of novelty meeting styles, some designed to run as quickly as possible, some intended just to be different. Here are four of the best:

1. The Standup Meeting
Nothing sends workers into “meeting mode”—“that ‘I’m-going-to-be-here-for-at-least-an-hour-so-I-might-as-well-get-comfortable’ feeling…that can change your brain from a productive, task-oriented mode to one of being a barely breathing body taking up space”—so quickly as having everyone file into a conference room and slouch down into their usual seats. Petz suggests having meetings in spaces with no tables, no chairs and no laptops, but near a whiteboard or chalkboard for note-taking. While it may not be the best format in which to work through a complicated subject, says Petz, “people who are standing get moving quickly with their thoughts.” Plus, the meeting will last only as long as people “are willing to stand and bear it.”

2. The Step-It-Up Meeting
If you’re already out of the conference room, why settle for standing in one place? Small-group meetings can take place in your building’s stairwell. Start at the bottom and give each participant a flight of stairs or two during which to make their point. You can then have a brief question-and-answer session when you reach your final landing. A voice recorder, or a smartphone recording app, can capture good ideas as they’re articulated. You can’t force this format on people, but if you can win buy-in, you’ll have a team that’s energized, and that’s too busy trying to catch their breath to ramble and waste time.

3. The Two-’n’-Out Meeting
Petz suggests stealing the format of the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, in which two hosts get two minutes each to debate a laundry list of topics from the day’s sports news. Schedule, say, a 20-minute meeting, and give each participant two uninterrupted minutes to provide information or make a case. Be strict about the two-minute limit—don’t be shy about cutting people off, and applaud those who come in under time. In this format, a countdown timer can be your best friend. “Use it any time you can’t afford to get off topic,” Petz suggests. It will force participants to stay focused. And it’s a natural for meetings to update project status. A brisk wrap-up comes at the end, and everyone gets back to work.

4. The Break-the-Seal Meeting
“It’s definitely not for all company cultures or teams,” Petz warns. But here goes: provide a tall glass of water to each participant, and have everybody drink at the top of the meeting. The session ends when the first person has to use the washroom. Petz offers plenty of caveats about this one—consult your human resources department first, for one—but with the right group of people, this can add some fun to the day. And because your meeting is guaranteed an end, this can be a lighthearted way to force a decision. Petz acknowledges that “it’s quite easy [for someone] to do the chicken dance and fake [their] way to the restroom, hence ending the meeting”; but even if that does happen, you’ll at least get out of that conference room. Who knows? You might even get some actual work done.