Crucial Skills®

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Getting Things Done

How to Balance Meetings and Work

Dear David,

How do I find time to do actual work when all I do is spend time in meetings? I wish I could opt out of meetings, but that’s not an acceptable practice at our organization. And yet my work is suffering. Help!

Suffering From Meetingitis

Dear Suffering,

Welcome to the worldwide club of meeting overwhelm. Along with email volume, the overabundance of meetings is the major complaint of knowledge workers today.

That said, meetings can be extremely effective and are even critical to getting meaningful work done. It would be an interesting experiment to cancel all meetings and watch what happens. What would we miss? What negative impacts would there be? What opportunities would go unrecognized?

Such an experiment would give us insight into what constitutes a constructive and valuable meeting. Just imagining the experiment reveals the key component of effective meetings: purpose. An essential question to answer at the start of any meeting is What do we want to accomplish here, and by what time? If purpose isn’t clear, no one has sufficient criteria by which to frame and monitor the ensuing conversation, nor the information to know whether he or she should participate in it. So, step one, make sure the purpose of each meeting is clear.

Assuming the purpose of a meeting is clear, the second factor to consider is this: What’s your purpose in being there? What is your job? What are your roles and responsibilities within it? How does the meeting relate to that context? If the meeting truly relates to or involves your responsibilities, step up and play. If it doesn’t, step up and decline.

Given that many companies strive for collaborative cultures, I know it might seem a brazen act of rebellion and defiance to decline a meeting request. But before you agree to attend, take two minutes to identify the purpose of the meeting and why you’re expected to be there. You can frame such a query as elegantly and politely as, “I like to contribute as best I can in meetings, so it would help me to gain a sense of the desired outcome of the meeting, and whether and how I can serve that outcome.”

If the meeting’s purpose is clear, it should be clear whether your involvement is necessary. If not, you can gain clarity by further probing. Approach these conversations with the intent of contributing value to meaningful meetings rather than ducking meetings altogether. By seeking clarity and striving to be effective with how you spend your time, you may influence your colleagues to do the same and help your organization expend resources more efficiently.

There are many best practices for good meetings, which include having an agenda, having a monitor ensure the agenda is adhered to, keeping track of decisions and next actions (and by whom), granting everyone opportunity to speak, and having sufficient breaks (if the meeting is longer than ninety minutes). But the critical foundation is clear purpose—for the meeting and your role therein.

Ineffective meetings contribute to other ineffective habits, like time-wasting emails. “I wasn’t sure what we decided at the project meeting in terms of our go-forward strategy. Could someone clarify that for me?” Ineffective emails contribute to ineffective meetings. “We need to meet again to clarify what our last meeting was about and who will do what by when.” And the more you permit either behavior, the deeper the quicksand pulls you down.

If your meetings are not ending with a collective sigh of “Wow. Good meeting!” some course correction is due. Start by clarifying purpose with the intent to effectively contribute value and see what happens.

Good luck,

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2 thoughts on “How to Balance Meetings and Work”

  1. Joanne Hillion

    Regarding “Help I have too many meetings”: I agree with the response. However, the challenge largely stems from limited ability to implement this advise because too often the meetings are run by others who do not know how to run an effective meeting. It’s one thing to be in control of running the meeting and implementing these great suggestions but when the meetings are being held by other groups or senior leaders is when it becomes more frustrating for attendees.

    1. Justin Hale

      Joanne – fair point. There are a lot of these meetings you don’t have control over whether it happens or not. But one area you COULD potentially influence is simply asking about your own role and purpose for a given meeting. How often do you people ask the meeting creator how essential they are to the meeting? I started trying this a few years ago and found i had about 10% fewer meetings. might be a nice place where you do have some control.

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