How to Balance Meetings and Work

Too many meetings?

Along with email volume, the overabundance of meetings is the major complaint of knowledge workers today.

That said, meetings can be extremely effective and are even critical to getting meaningful work done. It would be an interesting experiment to cancel all meetings and watch what happens. What would we miss? What negative impacts would there be? What opportunities would go unrecognized?

What’s the purpose?

Such an experiment would give us insight into what constitutes a constructive and valuable meeting. Just imagining the experiment reveals the key component of effective meetings: purpose. An essential question to answer at the start of any meeting is, “What do we want to accomplish here, and by what time?” If purpose isn’t clear, no one has sufficient criteria by which to frame and monitor the ensuing conversation, nor the information to know whether he or she should participate in it. So, step one, make sure the purpose of each meeting is clear.

Assuming the purpose of a meeting is clear, the second factor to consider is this: What’s your purpose in being there? What is your job? What are your roles and responsibilities within it? How does the meeting relate to that context? If the meeting truly relates to or involves your responsibilities, step up and play. If it doesn’t, step up and decline.

Given that many companies strive for collaborative cultures, I know it might seem a brazen act of rebellion and defiance to decline a meeting request. But before you agree to attend, take two minutes to identify the purpose of the meeting and why you’re expected to be there. You can frame such a query as elegantly and politely as, “I like to contribute as best I can in meetings, so it would help me to gain a sense of the desired outcome of the meeting, and whether and how I can serve that outcome.”

If the meeting’s purpose is clear, it should be clear whether your involvement is necessary. If not, you can gain clarity by further probing. Approach these conversations with the intent of contributing value to meaningful meetings rather than ducking meetings altogether. By seeking clarity and striving to be effective with how you spend your time, you may influence your colleagues to do the same and help your organization expend resources more efficiently.

Best practices for meetings

There are many best practices for good meetings, which include having an agenda, having a monitor ensure the agenda is adhered to, keeping track of decisions and next actions (and by whom), granting everyone opportunity to speak, and having sufficient breaks (if the meeting is longer than ninety minutes). But the critical foundation is clear purpose—for the meeting and your role therein.