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How to boost productivity and make every meeting count

Too many meetings at work is a common experience. In a session with a senior client recently, we sat in front of his calendar to find a good time to plan a critical new project. I knew we’d be hard-pressed to find any available time over the next couple of weeks, but as we scrolled through week after week of back-to-back meetings, double-booked meetings, all-day meetings and recurring meetings, I realised just how bad the problem was.

This executive needed to go forward eight weeks before he could find a three-hour slot to schedule the project planning. Now this is an extreme example, but it’s becoming more and more the norm – our work days are being completely consumed by meetings.

So why are meetings a problem? Isn’t this how senior executives get stuff done? When managers have meetings, it’s usually their teams that walk out with a list of actions, not the executives. But senior executives still have tasks outside of meetings that they need to do. The problem is, they’re in meetings from 9am to 5pm, and then spend from 5pm to 9pm catching up on their other work. There is no work/life balance and the long working hours lead to an increase in stress and much frustration.

So what is the solution to this dilemma? Is there anything that can be done to stem the tide of meeting overload?

Many executives feel it’s outside of their control, but I disagree. In fact, I think it’s critical that we control our schedules, because if we don’t, others will.

Public versus private work

Meetings are a type of activity that is very public. Other people are involved, and we do not like to say no. Other tasks in our workload are more private. A common behaviour is to say yes to meetings if we have “free” space in our calendar, and then put off doing our private work until later. “Later” could mean doing it after 5pm, or leaving it until the last minute. I believe this is one of the key causes of urgency and reactivity in many workplaces.

Just because a task is private work doesn’t mean that it’s less important than a meeting. We need to give ourselves permission to preserve our time for what we think is worthwhile, whether that’s important meetings or important tasks.

Let’s make every meeting count. If you are going to give your precious time to a meeting, make sure you are clear about the agenda and the outcome, and expect the same of others.

Balance your workload

A second behaviour that feeds this problem is that most people manage their task workload in a separate tool to their meeting workload. Many managers use MS Outlook, Lotus Notes or Google Calendar for their meetings, but then use their inbox or a to-do list to prioritise tasks. This makes it impossible to plan time holistically.

Yet all those calendar tools I mentioned also let you prioritise tasks for each day of the week. By simply deciding when you need to work on different priorities, and putting that into your schedule, you begin to plan your time in a more balanced way.

Either block out time for important work in your calendar, or schedule a dated task in your task list for the appropriate day. I suspect you will begin to make different decisions about incoming meeting requests when you can see the priorities that they might be competing against.

Make every meeting count

The number of meetings we attend is one thing, but the quality of them is another. Let’s make every meeting count. If you are going to give your precious time to a meeting, make sure you are clear about the agenda and the outcome, and expect the same of others. As far as time sheets are concerned, a one-hour meeting with 10 participants is not one hour’s labour, it’s 10 hours. Ten hours of opportunity cost. So start on time, finish on time, have a plan and shorten the meeting if at all possible. Parkinson’s law states that work will always expand to fill the time available. A 45-minute meeting will achieve the same results as an hour meeting if participants are focused.

Dermot Crowley is a productivity expert, speaker and trainer and the author of Smart Work (Wiley).

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