Death by meeting

Feb 18, 2019

We all know meetings are a necessary evil, but do we have to let them wreck our productivity?

Did you know that a typical American professional attends more than 60 meetings per month? That is more than two meetings per day. With that many meetings, and all the emails we find ourselves responding to, it’s a wonder we get any work done at all. To make matters worse, on average, 50 percent of the time spent in those meetings is waste! Researchers from Harvard Business School and Boston University surveyed 182 senior managers across industries, and 65 percent said that meetings prevent them from completing their work, and 71 percent found them to be unproductive and inefficient.

Meetings have an adverse effect on productivity in a number of ways. Between the time spent in meetings, and working in a collaborative way outside of meetings, very little time is left to accomplish solo work. Many employees dedicate themselves to coming in early and staying late to get everything done, resulting in burnout. Furthermore, time in between meetings becomes unproductive.

In an Ohio State University Fisher College of Business Study, researchers asked participants how long they could spend reading in the hour before a meeting for which they were fully prepared. Respondents said they had 50 minutes available, but it felt like they only had 40 minutes. Participants were also told that they either had five minutes to kill or that they had five minutes to spare before an upcoming task or meeting. Those not reminded about the upcoming task/meeting (five minutes to spare) carried out 30 percent more than those thinking about the upcoming task/meeting (five minutes to kill). It’s clear that the mere thought of an upcoming meeting makes us less productive with the time we have available.

You may be thinking, “So, what! Meetings are a necessary evil of our industry.” That may be true, but even so, they should be managed to provide the most value possible to the organization or project. For years meeting agendas and meeting minutes have been the key tools to get more out of our meetings, but it’s more than that. In the extreme, Mark Cuban refuses to meet with anyone unless they are writing him a check, and Elon Musk will walk out in the middle of a meeting when he is no longer adding value. This is probably not the right strategy for you, but perhaps you can eliminate half of your recurring meetings in favor of email communication or send out pre-reads and homework to make a meeting more productive.

As you begin to take a critical look at your meetings, you may want to consider the following hacks to improve your productivity and remove waste from your organization and projects.

  • Set a timer. When the alarm sounds, the meeting is over. Period. Anything not addressed will have to wait or be resolved outside of the meeting. Constraints can make you more creative.
  • Take the chairs away. Standing leads to greater excitement about the creative process and allows for better collaboration on ideas. The longer you stand, the more uncomfortable you get, which speeds the meeting along.
  • Limit the number of attendees. Keep meetings to less than 10 people. Jeff Bezos of Amazon refuses to attend a meeting if two pizzas don’t feed the entire group. The more people in attendance, the less productive the meeting.
  • Keep meetings to a maximum of 20 minutes. This helps to prioritize the important items and forces attendees to be prepared to discuss the topic at hand. Richard Branson, founder and CEO of the Virgin Group, keeps his meetings to 10 minutes or less, noting that it is rare for a meeting on a single topic to take more than five to 10 minutes.
  • Use email. If it’s a meeting that can be completed just as effectively over email, cancel it.

Chase Miller is a project manager and planner at BSA LifeStructures. He can be reached at

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