A four-step approach to cut back meeting dependence

The more we run away, from meeting, the more we crave for them.— Pic by Luke Stackpoole

We have a love-hate relationship with meetings.

Most people want to get rid of them — they drive frustration and waste our time. However, when people don’t get invited to a meeting, they feel left out. We have become addicted to coming together with our coworkers — the more we run away from meetings, the more we crave for them.

Meetings are a necessary evil.

Teams thrive when they work well together — collectively, they can generate better solutions, make better decisions, and improve performance. Conversely, executives spend between 25–30% of their working hours in meetings — that’s a lot of time that can easily be wasted when meetings become purposeless.

A prune-and-crop approach can help cut back meeting dependence.

You might not get rid of the addiction, but you can turn it into a healthier habit. This four-step approach will help you: cut, shorten, optimize, or do nothing with your current meetings.

The Symptoms of Healthy Meetings

“Meetings should be like salt — a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.” — Jason Fried

Our addiction to meetings feels less harmful than that of alcohol or drugs.

However, attending meetings without having a clear why can impair our productivity — we lock ourselves into an inescapable pattern of behavior. We act without thinking and prioritize brain reward over what’s best for us.

To effectively deal with addiction requires more than a treatment. Research shows that the most successful approaches are non-confrontational, allowing self-directed change, versus being imposed by others. The team and you must own the solution.

Letting go of bad habits constitutes a dramatic change, but it doesn’t have to be dramatic. The first step requires to realize how your life would look like if you overcome your addiction. In other words, how much happy and productive you would feel if you only go to meetings you want to attend, rather than joining out a compulsion or external pressure.

Let’s start by clarifying how ‘healthy’ meetings should look like.

Clear purpose:

Why are we having the meeting? The purpose is not the agenda, but the vision, goal or desire outcome — it should drive both clarity and excitement. Simply put, the outcome could only be accomplished with this meeting.

A purpose brings meaning to a meeting; without it, the meeting will be doomed to failure.

Participants, not spectators:

Only those who would actively contribute should join. Active roles include: presenting, providing feedback, ideating solutions, making a decision, sharing insights or learning, etc. Don’t just invite people to take notes or ‘feel’ part of the team.

Roles over politics:

For ‘regular’ meetings, I always suggest capping attendees — 5–7 people is more than enough. Larger groups only function for working sessions (such as a brainstorming that requires to break out in smaller teams and facilitation) or informational town hall meetings.

Don’t invite people because they would feel offended if they don’t attend. Meetings are to make things happen, not to play politics. If you have two people that play similar roles, invite just one. Avoid duplication when possible.

Why should YOU attend?

The above principles apply to you. Unless your boss is forcing you to attend (which is not a strong reason), don’t go to a meeting if you won’t add value.

Saying ‘no’ is not an act of rebellion, but an effective way to focus. When you say ‘yes’ to a meeting that has no value, you are saying ‘no’ to doing something more relevant.

Fewer and shorter meetings:

We don’t have time; we make time. Be wise. Having fewer or shorter meetings is the simplest way to recover time to work. A smart way to regain time is to invest it wisely.

End with actionable outcomes:

Don’t leave the room without a clear outcome. Has the team accomplished the purpose? If you meet to make a decision, have you arrived at a clear conclusion, next steps and who’s accountable for what? If you gathered to come up with new solutions, has the team come up with great ideas? Was one selected?

Prune and Crop Your Meetings

“A meeting is an event in which the minutes are kept and the hours are lost.” — Anonymous

Digital marketing experts suggest that, by cutting a third of your website’s content, you can triple your trafficprune and crop is a simple and effective method to improving mediocre content and making it fabulous. Or to delete the pages that have become useless or that no one visits.

The approach was named after a proven agriculture practice — cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems increases fruitfulness and growth.

The pruning and cropping method is about turning mediocre meetings into high-yielding ones.

Cutting away unnecessary or dead meetings is a quick fix to increase your team’s productivity. As I mentioned above, you have four options to cut back on your meeting addiction: Cut, Optimize, Shorten, or Do Nothing.

1. Cut

If a meeting creates little to no interest among the team — or doesn’t pass the health test outlined above — cut it away. Like removing a dead branch, it will help redirect the energy to places that are worth it.

Removing unnecessary meetings needs to be done with a purpose. People must understand why it is done and how it will affect their work. Many companies cut sessions to free their team’s calendars, but end up creating a bigger problem.

The same way you would redirect the traffic of a deleted website page, where would the work be reallocated once a meeting is cut?

2. Shorten

I never heard anyone complained because a meeting finished earlier than planned or because it was shortened. If your team can achieve the same in less time, not only your company will save a lot of money; your team will be eternally grateful.

The time you save is time that you can invest somewhere else.

One of the most significant issues I usually observe is that companies plan meetings in 30 and 60 min increments. The one-hour meeting is by default the biggest addiction.

I’ve been using an approach that has not only save me (and the companies I help) a lot of time; it creates breathing room for everyone. Reframe you meeting durations: 15, 25, 45, and 55 minutes.

The majority of your meetings should last either 15 or 25 minutes. You would be amazed by how much you can accomplish — when you narrow down the time, people are more focused. Quick catch-ups, simple decisions, updates, or launching a new initiative are all meetings that can be done in 25 minutes or less.

I always block 15 minutes in between meetings. This provides time to prepare, bio breaks or merely to move from one conference room to another. Most people arrive late because they have back-to-back without a pause in between — not starting on time is a usual way to waste everyone’s most valuable asset

Use 45 and 55 minutes for topics that require more extended discussions — choose this length wisely for ‘special occasions.’ The 55 is the new one-hour meeting — those five minutes make a big difference in the long run.

3. Optimize

If the meeting is popular among your team, has a clear purpose, and feels extremely necessary, you can still optimize it. How can you improve the team dynamics? Are there ways to improve the outcome? Can we shift some players or reduce the number of participants?

Optimization requires to experiment with small tweaks to maximize desired factors and minimize undesired ones.

4. Do Nothing

Change is not always good. Mindless change can create unnecessary issues. I’m all about changing stuff, but with a purpose. If a meeting is working perfectly, don’t feel the need to change it just for the sake of it. Focus on the ones that are creating unhealthy addictions.

Exercise: The Real Cost of Your Addiction

Meetings are never perfect (but can be perfected).

To apply a prune-and-crop approach, you must first assess your current meetings. This simple exercise will help you categorize all your team gatherings as well as discover how time is spent — it will help you put a dollar sign to your recurring meetings.

First, start by creating a spreadsheet of all regular meetings. Create the following columns: meeting name, purpose, number of attendees, duration, frequency (daily/weekly/ monthly/ annual), quantity per month, and cost. To assign a dollar sign, multiply the salary of all attendees by the yearly hours per meeting type.

Second, sort meetings from more to less expensive.

Third, categorize each meeting with the following color code

  • RED: Useless, unnecessary, and frustrating meetings. No one wants to attend, but we can’t get rid of the addiction of having them. These are ‘why the heck do we have these meetings’ type.
  • YELLOW: Meetings that are necessary, but are not being managed efficiently or productively. We all feel we are getting a larger dose than we crave for. These are the ‘okay’ meeting type. We get work done, but we know that we can do much better by either shorten the meeting, the participants, or get better outcomes.
  • GREEN: Exceptional meetings. They feel balanced regarding energy, duration, and outcome. We wish we could have more like these — they seem like a healthy addiction. These are the ‘one-in-a-kind’ meetings.

It’s time to start pruning and cropping.

Use this framework as a reference — tweak it and adapt it to your organization’s reality. Like with any addiction, changing your habits will cause withdrawal symptoms. Even though this can save a lot of energy and time, people will resist changes — brain reward is a strong motivation.

Change takes times. Be patient. And remember that, when people feel in charge of overcoming their own addiction, they will fully commit to a new treatment. Invite them to co-create the new medicine.

Happy recovery!