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Meetings can be painful. (Photo via Bigstock)

You’ve heard it (or probably said it) many times before: “I can’t wait to get out of all these meetings so I can actually get some work done!”

Meetings are critical to most organizations, but the vast majority of meetings you attend on a regular basis are too long, unfocused, unnecessary, or otherwise wasting your time.

For most of us, seeking to get more done in less time, meetings are the single-worst time waster and barrier to productivity in our professional lives.

You may not be able to eliminate every meeting on your schedule.  Some are quite valuable.  But if you were to inventory the regular meetings on your calendar, and those on your schedule this coming week, how many do you think will really help you get your job done?  How many will result in positive, proactive action, direction or progress for your organization?

How many of those meetings could be reduced, made more productive, or eliminated altogether?

You’re not going to boil the ocean (or clear your entire schedule) this week.  But, starting with meetings you control or influence directly, apply the following eight best practices to make meetings more productive, make them shorter, or get rid of them.

1. Establish clear objectives and expected outcomes

Why is the meeting necessary?  What does success look like at the end of the meeting?  Clearly define these objectives and outcomes, and ensure everyone invited understands them as well.

2. Determine the right format & length

Keep meetings to under an hour. Photo: Alan Cleaver

Do you really need to get together in person?  Can this meeting take place via a conference call instead?  If the business is quick, can it be done in a stand-up environment (where attendees stand and conduct business quickly)?

And please (please) stop using a full hour as the default meeting time.  If you truly need a few key stakeholders together live to resolve an issue, but it can be done quickly, schedule 15 minutes.

Understand your objectives and scope of the discussion well enough to more accurately set the time required.  Then focus on getting it done and get back to work!

3. Publish an agenda in advance

In addition to objectives, publish a clear agenda of what’s required in the meeting.  Allow attendees to suggest edits or additions to the agenda, but once you get there, stick to it!  If other ideas come up, great, but those are for another meeting (or offline discussion between fewer people, or email, etc., but not in this meeting).

It’s possible that a clear objective and agenda up front will help you realize that the meeting isn’t necessary in the first place, that fewer people are required, or that it needs more research or due diligence before the group is gathered.

Many workers think an agenda takes too much time, but in reality a well-written agenda will render many meetings moot before they begin.

4. Clearly identify the right attendees and their roles

Matt Heinz

Most meetings include too many people.  There are usually a core group of attendees who do the work, and others that mostly observe or attend because they want to be “in the know.”

Force your meetings to require and include fewer people.  Use a good meeting summary to communicate outcomes to those who need to know, but don’t need to be there as it happens.  Reading a summary takes a fraction of the time, typically, as the meeting itself.

Should one of those attendees be an administrative assistant whose role is to write the meeting summary and document action items?  It’s possible that this investment of their time will save your organization many hours of time from more senior and more expensive resources who otherwise would have “had to be there” to keep track of what was discussed.

5. Crisply document action items and owners, and follow up

Too many meetings (even those that were worthwhile to begin with) end without any resolution or next steps, and attendees walk away without a clear, across-the-board understanding of what’s required next and who owns what.

Someone in the room needs to be responsible for documenting action items and owners.  This is another reason why having an administrative assistant present may be the most important role & investment in the meeting to maximize it’s immediate and long-term value.

6. No laptops or smartphones

If you have time to check email in the meeting, you either don’t really need to be there or you’re wasting everyone else’s time by not giving the meeting your full attention.

If attendees are checking their phones, it’s a clear sign that you’re off track, off agenda, and no longer running an efficient meeting.

Force laptops and smartphones out of the room.  Consider requiring attendees to leave all devices at their desks.  Watch how much more quickly everyone is motivated to get business done and end the meeting!

7. Be on time or don’t participate at all

Respect each other’s time.  If your organization has too many back-to-back meetings, consider working with your IT department to add a natural 5-minute break 55 minutes into the hour, so that you have at least five minutes to end the previous meeting, get to the next one, and start on time.

Many meetings end late (therefore making the next meeting start late) because they aren’t well managed, don’t include clear roles or objectives, and don’t have anyone helping to document next steps and owners afterward.  When these roles are missing, attendees scramble at the “end” of the meeting to ensure something of value is recovered, which usually ends in frustration, confusion and inconsistent expectations among departing attendees of what they agreed to and who’s doing what.

8. Set criteria for and regularly review “recurring” meeting requests

Your calendar full of meetings is bad enough, but I bet a significant portion of those meetings show up again and again.  The “recurring” meeting is the single-biggest culprit of wasting your time, as they’re too often a lazy way for an organization to update itself on things that could be communicated in other formats (email, memos, wikis, etc.) or conducted as-necessary, with fewer people, without requiring a regularly-scheduled meeting.

These same “recurring” meetings almost always go on far longer than they’re valuable.  I recommend ending each recurring meeting with a quick look around the room to make sure the next one is necessary.  Cut off those recurring meetings as soon as they lose their value.

Matt Heinz is president of Heinz Marketing, a Redmond-based sales & marketing firm. You can connect with Matt via emailTwitterLinkedIn or his blog. He writes occasionally on GeekWire under the column Productivity Porn. Previous columns…An introduction to productivity porn: How to be lazy, productive & successful… 15 New Year Resolutions for Entrepreneurs.… Productivity Porn: 7 tricks for beating procrastination.

[Meeting photo via Bigstock]

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