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6 Ways to Have More Productive Meetings (Yes, it Can Happen)


That’s right. You just got another calendar invite. Your last free block of time to do actual work is gone.

Don’t get us wrong – there can be great value in meeting with your team face-to-face rather than sending half a dozen emails. However, there are also those meetings where direction is lacking, no decisions are made, and you’re left wondering what the point of it all was.

(Not-so) Breaking news: we all attend too many meetings

Just like email, conference calls, and less-than-great coffee, meetings have always been a necessary evil in the workplace. However, there are signs that the meeting epidemic is getting worse.

It’s estimated that there are 11 million meetings in the U.S. each day, and according to research, at least a third of them are unproductive. In a survey conducted by Evernote and YouGov*, one in five U.S. respondents said that they have either somewhat or far too many meetings at work, the highest of any country surveyed.

What can you do to avoid back-to-back meetings every single day? And how can you make the meetings you do attend worthwhile? Here are six simple tactics to make meetings more productive and manageable.

1. Take back control of your calendar

We all have those pockets of time when we do our best work. For some, maximum productivity hits first thing in the morning, right after that cup of coffee. For others, mornings may be the time to catch up on emails, while afternoons are saved for peak creativity.

Whatever your rhythm is, don’t let meetings get in the way. Block your calendar to maximize your most productive time of day and save meetings for the lulls. Or, schedule all your meetings on certain days of the week (like Tuesdays and Thursdays, for example), so you are free to work uninterrupted for the rest of the week. At Evernote, some teams try to stick to a “No-Meeting Wednesday” policy to facilitate deep work.

2. Consult the dictionary

Meetings have taken on new definitions: check-ins, brainstorming sessions, or project status updates, to name a few. And this definition changes from team to team, and company to company.

Redefine what meetings look like for your organization and reserve them solely for that purpose. For example, questions can be answered and problems can be solved in a less formal setting. Instead of blocking 30-minute meetings by default, try a 10-minute huddle at your coworker’s desk. If the issue still isn’t resolved, then a meeting may be required.

This doesn’t mean you need to avoid brainstorming sessions or check-ins entirely; it just means that those may take on a new form, like syncing up over coffee.

3. Set the stage and make a strong exit

People can get so caught up on the core purpose of a meeting that we forget about the other major parts: the beginning and end. While these parts may seem more like housekeeping tasks, they can dramatically affect the productivity of your meeting.

First, every meeting should have an agenda (this is where Evernote templates are your friend). At a minimum, your agenda should list the meeting objective, meeting topics, and time allotted for each topic.

Then, make sure someone takes notes during the meeting and shares them afterward so you can determine next steps. Before you wrap up, spend five minutes talking about action items, owners, and the timeframe to complete each one.

4. Strategically hit the “invite” button

Ah, the guest list. Invite too many people to your meeting, and the conversation goes sideways. Invite too few people, and you won’t have all the necessary stakeholders to make a decision.

Luckily, there are magic attendee numbers for certain types of meetings. Consider these tips next time you schedule one:

  • To solve a problem, invite four to six people
  • To make a decision, invite four to seven people
  • To set an agenda, invite five to 15 people
  • To brainstorm, invite 10 to 20 people

Or you could follow Jeff Bezos’s famous “two pizza rule” — if the group is larger than you could feed with two pizzas, your meeting is too large, period. The main thing is to invite only those people who truly need to be there: those who have something to contribute, can get something out of it, or are directly affected by the outcome.

5. Keep laptops closed and ears open

Meetings have become a time to check emails, catch up with Twitter on the sly, or wrap up a project. Oh yeah, and half-listen to what is actually happening in the meeting.

No one can truly multitask (as much as we may tell ourselves differently), so consider banning open laptops in meetings except for presenters and notetakers. The lack of distraction will help you move through your agenda faster and reduce the need for follow-up meetings.

Take notes by hand (how old fashioned!) or hold walking meetings to keep the focus on your conversation, not your devices. Walking meetings can also boost your creativity, energy, and happiness.

Pro tipUse the Evernote camera to snap a photo of your handwritten meeting notes, share them with colleagues, and store them in a safe place.

6. Chart the right path

It’s hard enough to get everyone in the same room to pay attention and contribute. And when you have remote colleagues across different continents? Anyone who has joined a 15-person conference call knows that virtual meetings can quickly go off the rails.

While in-person meetings are not always possible with distributed teams, you can mimic the same kind of engagement and productivity with a communication charter. This charter allows you to lay down the ground rules for how your team will communicate. You may include standards for things like meeting etiquette, where everyone agrees to limiting background noise and side conversations, talking at a reasonable pace, or not dominating the conversation.

The charter can also help clarify when you should use certain kinds of communication channels. For example, your team may first default to calling, then chatting, and finally, emailing as a last resort.

When your team has agreed on the guidelines, everyone signs the charter, which is then printed out and posted.

Remember – You hold the keys to your calendar

We are constantly looking for ways to make meetings more bearable. We try to rebrand them, calling them check-ins or stand-ups. We serve lunch to make them more appetizing. We add animation to PowerPoint presentations to engage our colleagues.

But, regardless of the name, menu, or slide transition, meetings will always be painful unless we change the role they play in our working days. If it feels like having meetings is your entire job, it’s time to turn the tables and make meetings work for you.

The real way to finally have better meetings? Stop making them your default. Avoid blindly accepting each and every invite, and remember that you can control how a meeting unfolds.

And, if all else fails, just hit the decline button and do something more productive with your time. Like actually getting stuff done.

*All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1084 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between February 27th and March 13th 2018. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all adults (aged 18+).