Why Meetings are (Mostly) a Waste of Time

In Education, Essays, Self Improvement

Each week I have more meetings that I can count with my hands and feet.

I can categorically state that 99% of these meetings are a complete waste of time, and this is not a reflection of the people attending the meetings. I’ve met CEOs, bank executives, entrepreneurs, artists, philanthropists, criminals, drunks, escorts, soldiers, designers, developers, investors, and it really doesn’t matter who I meet.

Meetings just don’t work.

Meetings are an incredibly inefficient way to communicate. Most people (and I often include myself in this, although I think I am less guilty than the average joe) don’t prepare properly, if at all. The communication in a meeting is often abstract and lack details. Often a good percentage of the people in the meeting are not even required, and just as often the people who should be at the meeting are not.

I estimate that a one hour meeting is about as efficient as a ten minute writing session on a collaboration tool, such as email, Evernote or Basecamp.

The Real Work Happens at Home.

Or at the office. Or at the coffee shop. Or sitting by the pool. The last one is my favourite, and I make sure to work my the pool of my local five star hotel three or four times a week.

I do the lion’s share of my work in the first few hours of the morning at the kitchen table. The rest of the day is often drowned out by these constant meetings.

These meetings break up the natural flow of the day.

Think about it, each meeting has an overhead: you have to prepare for the meeting (ahem…), then you have to arrive at the meeting, then someone is often late so you wait around, then it starts and there are ten or so minutes of chit chat, and then you get down to business, but someone is not fully up to date with the latest information, so you give them a brief overview and then start.

Meetings are not where the work happens, home (wherever your work home is) is where the work happens.

We’re constantly told that the modern working man (or woman) needs to be able to be “highly collaborative” and “multi-tasking”, juggling dozens of projects and seamlessly between it all.

Bullshit.

One thing at a time.

It has been shown time and time again that human beings work best when they work on one things at a time for around twenty to forty minutes. Switching between two or more tasks during this period just decreases concentration, efficiency, and creative thinking.

Every change has a cost. This is true in life, and it is true even at the granular working level. Every time your attention switches from what you are currently doing, it has a mental cost. Every time your phone rings, you receive a new email, a new social media notification, a knock on the door, you pay the cost in lost concentration.

A meeting often has many people with laptops open and phones available and one wonders why nothing often happens in a meeting?

Meetings are not conductive to single-tasking.

Watch out for the moron in the room

If you can’t spot the moron in the meeting, chances are that it might be you. It’s a statistically proven fact that 99.96% of meetings contain at least one moron. That’s the guy (around 78.3% of time it is a guy) who is difficult, unpleasant, and often just too stupid to actually understand what is going on. This leads to mundane questions, backtracking and, finally, derailing.

Once you’re in a meeting with a moron, you’ve already lost. You see, you’ve gone down to their level and then they will beat you with their superior experience.

Avoid meetings, and avoid meeting morons.

Meetings Trap You

I’ve already mentioned how meetings can suck away precious time, and for some reason they always tend to happen in the middle of the morning, or in the middle afternoon, inconveniently placing themselves in such a way to block any possibility of a long stretch of productive and creative work. If you have a meeting everyday at 10am, you may find that you’ve essentially lost all your mornings.

Meetings also trap you in another way, namely that they are an obligation to be at a certain place and at a certain time. I like being free, that’s the whole point of not working for someone else, why should I give that freedom up so many times each week? I don’t want the weight of these commitments.

Working together doesn’t mean that you have to have meetings. The smaller and tighter the team, the less meetings are required. As a general rule, take this:

Ease of communication is inversely correlated to the number of people who need to communicate.

For the maths geeks, the equation for the exponential difficulty in communication between increasingly larger groups of people is [n*(n-1)]/2 .

Think about it, when you work by yourself, the communication is near-instant. With two people, there is one communication avenue, with three people there are three, with four people there are five, with five people there are are ten and with six there are fifteen.

But that’s just the communication avenues/pathways, in terms of actual difficulty in communication, I think that the level of difficulty is the cube of the number of people involved.

So communication in two is four times harder than being alone, and communicating in three is nine times harder, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that the extra effort involved is not worth it. Communication is one of the beautiful things about being a human being, learning to listen, to argue your point across, to make compelling arguments, to reach compromises. This is the stuff that makes us feel alive, but formal meetings are simply not the right place for them.

Does this mean I am a big fan of everyone working alone, completely isolated from each other just so we can all achieve a higher level of concentration, productivity and creativity? Of course not, while I think spending some time working alone each day is extremely valuable, I also think that working together is just as useful..

It’s not all bad

I purposely added the “(mostly)” to the title of this essay after some reflection because there are, in fact, useful and productive meetings that are not a waste of time.

Let me give you an non-exhaustive list right here:

Introductions

Meetings where you meet someone for the first time and you start building a rapport. These are not a waste of time, because it’s often great to put a face behind the name, and to know more about who you are going to deal with. Once you have that working relationship and trust, you can then proceed to work via electronic means.

Pitches

If you want to get something from someone, then a face-to-face approach is still the best solution out there. A above-average meeting is multiple times better than the best crafted email. Also, investors and buyers feel safer having met you in person and often they are not so much buying or investing in your product/idea as they are investing in you. This is an extremely important fact to remember, as developing an easy-going likeable persona and great listening skills will take you places.

Lessons

I am a big believer in self-education but an hour with a successful person that you look up to can inspire one to continue on this path of never-ending education and improvement. Conversely, sometimes one should meet people purely because they are a great example of how you don’t want to end up like.

Socials

Human beings are social animals. Social meetings sprinkled with work/business chat is often very productive as it can foster innovative ideas and creativity, especially as these meetings often take place in unusual locations and so your “work-brain” switches off and you see things in a new light. And let’s face it, hanging out late into the night is also fun

Working meetings

Meetings that are set for very, very specific agendas, and have a set result that must be found within a certain time can also work. This is because there isn’t the time nor the space to drift in a meeting of this type. There is one problem, and a solution must be found. What is often required for these meetings is brilliant prior communication, a rock-solid agenda and iron-clad preparation. Tricky to pull off, but they can work.

The common factor that these types of meetings have is that one of the central aspects is the human factor, and that you could not achieve the results without it.

Weekly set meetings about general topics are the polar opposite of this. The human factor is stripped out, because you are not forming new relationships and so the whole things could probably be handled better via email or another tool. Many meetings are almost forgotten as soon as they are over. If that’s the case, then you know you have a problem at your workplace.

A Few Tips on Having a Survivable (and potentially pleasant) Meeting

Set meetings at 30 minutes or less.

This is where we can blame Google and Microsoft for their calendar applications that have meetings at 1 hour in length by default. After twenty to forty minutes, humans stop being able to concentrate so effectively. A thirty minute meetings is just the right length to make sure that everyone is working optimally. Any longer, and you’re breaking the holy 80/20 rule.

Make everyone drink a bottle of water before the meeting and don’t let anyone leave before the meeting has finished.

A humorous, but effective suggestion that I once read somewhere. Your meetings are essentially guaranteed not to last much longer than the prescribed thirty minutes.

Have meetings standing up.

This is an interesting one, it changes the dynamic of things considerably, and it makes “closed’ body language harder to pull off, thus making people more responsive and alert. Just as the mind the affects the body, so does the body affect the mind. Also, after thirty minutes of standing most people will want to stop.

Meet over lunch.

This introduces a slight social element and is also highly efficient. Worst case, at least you had a good meal. Try not to have lunch meetings with the same people all the time, mix it up a little.

Learn to say “no”.

This is difficult. I am quite terrible at saying no, but I am improving. The really tricky thing is to say it in a honest way. Don’t say “I don’t have time”, say “It’s not a priority right now”. This is a guaranteed way to learn a few life lessons.

Switch your mindset.

Don’t create meetings for reporting, create them to work together when absolutely necessary, not just it just feels like you should meet. Don’t have set weekly meetings.

Invite as few people as possible.

Ignore the fact that someone may get offended that they were not invited, in fact, you are actually doing them a favour. Follow Jezz Bezos’ “Two Pizza Rule”. If a team cannot be fed with two pizzas, then the team is too large.

Try and foster the type of working environment where a big decision may as easily be made over lunch than in the meeting room, you will be much better off for it.

So anyway, I am going to hold myself to this: no more meetings, unless absolutely necessary.

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