If you’ve ever attended a meeting that you felt went too long, didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to, wasted your time, or left you feeling drained, raise your hand. If you’re not raising your hand, stop reading and go bake cookies for whoever plans the meetings you attend. (They deserve an award.)
The rest of us, however, can likely relate to that feeling — the one that makes you roll your eyes, wring your hands, want to shout an expletive, or literally want to pull the hairs out of your head — that results from a meeting being wholly less productive than you’d prefer.
You might have felt this way at the office’s weekly staff lock-in, the five-minute doctor’s appointment during which you forgot to ask half the questions you came in with, or the planning meeting for the charity walk you’re helping with (that you leave wondering if any decisions were made or not).
Most of the time it’s not that meetings are all good or all bad, says Steve Rogelberg, Ph.D., Professor of Organizational Science, Psychology and Management at University of North Carolina and author of “The Surprising Science of Meetings.” It’s just that the ratio of productive time to unproductive time is skewed in the wrong direction, he tells NBC News BETTER.
What makes for unproductive time? “It’s when people aren’t truly listening to one another, there’s no general engagement, the conflicts are dysfunctional instead of constructive, and it ends with a lack of clarity around what’s actually been decided and who’s responsible for what,” Rogelberg explains.
But making a slightly more proactive effort in planning meetings and following these savvy guidelines when you’re in them can help keep your gatherings — whether they’re with your coworkers, doctors or fellow charity walk volunteers — way more productive.
For way better meetings:
There’s not even travel time to get from one to the other, meaning you’re pretty much guaranteeing you’re going to derail the timing of all those meetings from the get-go, Morgenstern says. Adding buffer time before and after meetings gives you a minute to focus and get your head in the game.
This goes for meeting-goers and meeting planners. If you’re calling the meeting, define what you want to walk away from the meeting with and who needs to be there. Remember, both are essential components of a good meeting, Morgenstern says.
And let meeting attendees know what they need to do before a meeting to come in prepared, whether it’s reading a document or brainstorming an idea.
There’s no magic number of people that makes for a good meeting or a bad one. But usually, for any meeting there are people that are absolutely essential and then the nice-to-haves or might-be-interested, Rogelberg says. For the non-essential players, make attendance optional. If you’re planning the meeting, give them the option to deem themselves unnecessary for that gathering or allow them to share anything they want represented via a proxy (someone who will already be there).
This to-do is more difficult if you’re not in a leadership role, but that doesn’t mean you can’t suggest it to the higher-ups, Morgenstern says. Meeting policies can include guidelines for what types of meetings might be called in an office (brainstorming meetings, decision-making meetings and so on), how many people should be involved in each type, is it OK to opt-out of a meeting you don’t think you need to be in, and what constitutes calling a meeting in the first place given your department’s size and the rhythm of your workflow.
Don’t be afraid to set a meeting time of 25 or 35 minutes if you don’t think it’s going to take the full 30 or 45 minutes, Rogelberg says. Some time pressure tends to motivate people to perform more optimally and efficiently, he adds. If you think a meeting might comfortably take 45 minutes, schedule 40 minutes, he says. “Extra time pressure can result in more focus.”
By articulating that objective again at the top of a meeting and telling everyone how long you have to reach that outcome, you set the tone to keep things on track and keep everyone focused, Morgenstern says.
We said it: no phones, laptops or tablets. When people tune into their tech, they start to disengage from the conversation happening in the room. It creates an energy leak in the room and gives everyone else in the room permission to disengage, too, Morgenstern says. If you need to meet for a long time and people need to check their emails during that time, designate time for email breaks, she says.
Whether you’re the meeting planner or an attendee, the number one thing you can do to help ensure a productive meeting is to stay engaged.
We spend so much of our time working independently, with technology making this more and the more the case. So when you are taking the time to meet in person with others, show up and don’t tolerate letting yourself not be there, Morgenstern says. “If you find your mind wandering, double down and refocus.”
Don’t forget the ending. Meetings should end with a recap of what was decided and who is responsible for which follow-up tasks, Rogelberg says. “People should leave a meeting feeling like their time was honored, it was good that they were there, there’s a collective understanding of what the outcomes are, and what the next steps are.”