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How Meetings Steal Your Productivity (and 6 Ways to Get it Back)

Are you sometimes amazed at how little of substance you accomplish in a day? Yes, you went to six meetings today and checked them off your to-do list, but it’s a net loss in productivity because each meeting just generated more work that you have to fit in somehow between tomorrow’s meetings.

Do you ever wonder what would happen if you refused to deal with all those meetings, emails, and random interruptions? Do you ever dream that if you could just block off a few days to get organized, to really think without interruption, you could do something innovative? And do you also secretly wonder if, after years of running frantically, you even know how to innovate any longer?

My inspiration for this post is a video interview of Jason Fried titled “Why You Can’t Work at Work” ( Fried is the co-founder of 37signals, a maker of software tools for project tracking, collaboration and information sharing. (Many of us have used their project tracking software, Basecamp.) Yet with all those great tools to foster communication and innovation, he still gets frustrated with interruptions, especially those created by meetings:

The modern workplace is structured completely wrong. It’s really optimized for interruptions — and interruptions are the enemy of work. They are the enemy of productivity, they are the enemy of creativity, they are the enemy of everything. But that’s what the modern workplace is all about, it’s interruptions. Everyone’s calling meetings all the time…you don’t work at work any more.

Easy to Say, Hard to Do

Jason Fried’s solutions are striking. While I admire them, I’m not sure how to introduce some of them to our organization and gain acceptance. But they are certainly better than all those tired remedies I read about all the time.

In contrast to Fried’s innovative solutions, those great-in-theory remedies don’t work for our organization:

  • No, I can’t check my e-mail only twice a day, because we’re an e-mail culture and you’re expected to respond quickly.
  • No, I can’t opt-out of meetings, because we are a culture that highly values consensus.
  • And no, if I make myself unavailable by closing the door then I can’t provide one of the vital services of a project manager: serving as the “glue” that pulls together everyone’s news, ideas, and concerns. Besides, talking to people and learning new things — either one-on-one or in a group — is one of the great pleasures of the workplace.

But our team has made some changes about the way we hold meetings; the result is more opportunities for reflection and innovation during the day. These ideas might help you too.

6 Ways Our Team Reduced Meeting Madness

1. Eliminate redundant meetings. We had two weekly one-hour meetings with about 90% overlap in attendees (different projects, same players). We spent most of our time trying to remember who knew what (or getting bored because we’d repeated everything at least twice). We consolidated two meetings into one, saving countless hours and untangling our communications in the process.

2. Share information in a shorter time span. We took the newly consolidated meeting and made it a dual-purpose event. The first segment of the meeting is an operations review for our entire team of fifteen people. We each give a one-minute update on our projects and ask for help or advice as needed; we finish in thirty minutes or less.
That meeting we consolidated in #1 above — it now takes place in the remaining thirty-minute segment. People who aren’t part of those two particular projects are free to leave; the rest of us only need thirty minutes since we shared broadly in the first part of the meeting.

3. Stop taking elaborate meeting notes and sending them to everyone via email (or worse, as a document attachment to e-mail). Instead, use a collaborative space like a wiki or Google Docs to record agreements and commitments. It reduces e-mail traffic; saves space in each person’s email client; and eliminates storage of the document on the organization’s shared drive (a place where documents get stored in mysterious folders never to be found again). It puts information where everyone can easily access it, making it a snap for people who missed the meeting to learn what happened.

4. Hold meetings that really matter. Recognize when an email thread is spinning out of control; people don’t know what steps to take; or there is tension in the team that needs to be resolved face-to-face. That’s the right time to call a meeting. Specify a start and end time. Set an agenda showing desired outcomes. Designate one person as facilitator to help people reach those outcomes. Make sure each task has an owner, a due date, and a clearly defined work-product. (Get more tips in our post Envisioning Successful Outcomes.)

5. Delegate work to small, nimble teams. Last year we held extensive planning sessions to create three-year goals and objectives. Recently we were asked to propose five related goals for this fiscal year. Since we already had a shared understanding, we trusted a small team to draft the additional goals. We posted it on our wiki, collected feedback, and then gained consensus in a quick thirty-minute meeting.

6. Declare one day a week as a meeting-free zone. Even though we never talked about it formally, we don’t hold meetings on Fridays unless it’s absolutely necessary. It gives us a solid block of time to catch-up, think, and plan for the next week.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  — Annie Dillard

Now It’s Your Turn

1. Listen to Jason Fried’s interview, “Why You Can’t Work at Work” ( Share it with your work team and see if you can find better ways to work together. (Lena and I want to get bolder and adapt more of his ideas.)
2. With the time you’ll gain in productivity, try completing a small innovation project that gets you energized. Read our post on How to Embrace Innovation for some motivation.