Why and How to Break Your Addiction to Meetings

Meeting Bored apathy training woman
Meeting Bored apathy training woman

Why and How to Break your Addiction to Meetings

You are probably having too many meetings, for too long, and with too many people.

Let’s say you hold a weekly meeting with five people that lasts for one hour. And let’s say you hold this meeting every week for the school year. Here is the math:

5 people x 1 hour = 5 cumulative personnel hours of work time per week.

5 hours x 36 weeks (average school year) = 180 hours.

180 hours = ~4.5 weeks of time devoted to this one recurring meeting.

What could you and or your staff do with an extra 4.5 weeks each year?

Here is another example, the cost of the typical faculty meeting.

Let’s assume that you hold an hour and half weekly faculty meeting devoted to sharing information. Let’s further assume that you have 20 teachers attending and one administrator running the meeting.

Here is how much time the weekly faculty meetings cost the school:

21 people x 1.5 hours x 36 weeks = 1,134 cumulative personnel hours of work time.

How much does this cost? Assuming a conservative average teacher salary of $35,000 (not including benefits) and an administrator salary of $50,000 (not including benefits), the cumulative personnel cost for the aforementioned weekly faculty meeting is:

Teacher salary cost: $31,487

Administrator salary cost: $2,142

Total meeting cost*: $33,629/year

If you perform a similar calculation for all of the meetings held in your school throughout the year, you will get some idea how much meetings cost in time and money. You will be surprised, if not shocked!

Meetings are inevitable, needed, and helpful. Too many meetings, for too long, and with too many people wastes time and money, frustrates our best people, and lowers morale.

In offering advice on being a better leader and managing meetings, Elizabeth Grace Saunders1, in the Harvard Business Review, offers advice on how to handle meetings.

Manager, noun.

Textbook Definition: An individual who is in charge of a certain group of tasks, or a certain subset of a company. A manager often has a staff of people who report to him or her.

Modern Translation: An individual who races through the halls in a frantic attempt to make the next meeting on time while also answering e-mails on his or her mobile device.

She goes on to write:

You can’t give other people what you don’t have. So if you’re confused and scattered, your team will be too. You need to make time to get clear on what you want to achieve out of every interaction; this means spending more time on priorities, prep, and follow-up, and less time in meetings. Reducing your meeting time so you have more time to think strategically will require a group effort, but you can make it happen with some simple strategies.

Here is how to break your addiction to meetings. (I have adapted, revised, and added to her original suggestions.)

1. Reduce the number of meeting invitations you accept.

Before accepting a meeting invitation, ask yourself, “Do I really need to attend?” If the answer is “no,” decline the meeting or use one of these less time-intensive strategies:

Ask for a pre-meeting look at the agenda so you can pass on your comments to the facilitator to share. (Bonus: this may force the facilitator to actually make an agenda!)

Can this issue, or my participation, be handled more effectively and efficiently with a phone call, conference call, or an email? If so, don’t hold a meeting. Send someone else from your group to communicate your position. Request a copy of the meeting notes after the fact for your follow-up. When assessing whether your attendance is needed, ask yourself this question:

“If I was sick on the day of this meeting, would it need to be rescheduled?”

If you answer, “No,” there’s a good chance you don’t need to attend. If you do need to go to quite a few meetings, but only to give strategic input, not to assist with tactical implementation, then request your part of the discussion happen at the beginning of the allotted time. Following that part, excuse yourself from the discussion.

2. Reduce the number of meetings you schedule — and reduce their length.

Do you schedule meetings where you spend most of the time talking — perhaps giving “updates” to a room of people subtly checking their phones? Do you default to scheduling hour-long meetings (or longer)? If so, you need to reprogram your default response of “when in doubt, schedule a 60-minute meeting.”

Here’s a decision-tree that you can use as an effective replacement strategy:

meeting decision tree
meeting decision tree

Your new default should be to choose the least “costly” time investment that still accomplishes the end goal. Don’t schedule a meeting for something that you can solve in a phone call, and don’t make a phone call for something that can be communicated in an e-mail.

If you must schedule meetings, challenge yourself to make them leaner. Try out 30-minute or even 15-minute meetings, and set a goal to finish early. If you find you consistently need more time, you can increase the meeting length in the future, but often with increased focus, you won’t need it.

I found that scheduling standup and walking meetings can be effective. Standup or walking meetings have the advantages of being:

  • Shorter and more efficient
  • Less formal, more friendly
  • Healthier—they keep you moving

3. Create good meeting procedures.

Once you are modeling good meeting etiquette, ask your direct reports to follow good meeting procedure, too:

  • Don’t schedule meetings for FYI items that you can communicate via e-mail.
  • Only use meetings for discussions and decisions that must happen with a team, in real time.
  • Send a clear agenda when you send the meeting invitation — not two minutes before the meeting — so it’s easier for everyone to tell whether they need to attend.
  • Designate someone to take thorough notes on the discussion, the decisions, and the rationale behind those conclusions. Circulate those to anyone who might need to be in the loop — but doesn’t need to come to the meeting.

4. Keep your calendar clear by blocking in work time.

Seize the freed-up time before it evaporates. As you transition from a reactive state to a proactive state, you might feel a little disoriented with all your new-found time. But now that your calendar isn’t so full of “busyness,” you can fill it up with actual business. Do so quickly, before work expands to fill the time available.

Set aside time for e-mail, meeting prep, one-on-ones with direct reports, and strategic thinking time. Keep your commitments to yourself in the same way that you would with someone else so that you (and others) can trust you to get things done — and on time.

Here is an example from my calendar. I have blocked off project time, and pre and post meeting prep and follow-up times. I have found this to be extremely effective at saving time while increasing my productivity.


5. Reduce the number of people attending the meeting.

Writing for the American Management Association, Jon Petz,suggests:

Stamp out “Over-Invitation Syndrome.” … Stop cannibalizing time. Invite only the key stakeholders who can then elect to invite others on their team as needed. The ability of a group to make a decision exponentially decreases as the number of attendees increases. Invite people solely based on their value in the meeting.

6. Try the 22 Minute Meeting

This is a great five minute video on the 22-minute meetings. Please note that I do not endorse the innuendo in the video, but it is a great video nevertheless.

The 22 Minute Meeting Video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6536UbT_QA

The 22 Minute Meeting Poster http://www.22minutemeeting.info/22MinuteMeetingPoster.pdf


By cutting down on the number of meetings you’re in, you’ll free the people around you to make reasonable choices without always looking to you for input. That will automatically reduce the number of meetings you need to attend, and instill more confidence in your team. And if you’re using that time to shape strategy and set clear priorities, your team will make the right decisions — whether or not you’re in the room.

You will save time and money and your staff will love you for it!

*You will need to do your own calculations but mine are based on a normal 36 week school year a seven period day, and conservative salaries (not including benefit cost) for teacher and administrator time.

1 break-your-addiction-to-meetings. (n.d.). break-your-addiction-to-meetings. Blogs.Hbr.org. Retrieved August 16, 2014, from http://blogs.hbr.org/2013/02/break-your-addiction-to-meetin/