Hate meetings? Here are 9 ways to make them more productive

For everyone who’s sat through a meeting that makes you want to pull your hair out, these tips are for you.
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Productive meetings have a clear, defined objective and everybody in the room knows why they’re there.Hinterhaus Productions / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

If you’ve ever attended a meeting that you felt went too long, didn’t accomplish what it was supposed to, wasted your time, or left you feeling drained, raise your hand. If you’re not raising your hand, stop reading and go bake cookies for whoever plans the meetings you attend. (They deserve an award.)

The rest of us, however, can likely relate to that feeling — the one that makes you roll your eyes, wring your hands, want to shout an expletive, or literally want to pull the hairs out of your head — that results from a meeting being wholly less productive than you’d prefer.

You might have felt this way at the office’s weekly staff lock-in, the five-minute doctor’s appointment during which you forgot to ask half the questions you came in with, or the planning meeting for the charity walk you’re helping with (that you leave wondering if any decisions were made or not).

Most of the time it’s not that meetings are all good or all bad, says Steve Rogelberg, Ph.D., Professor of Organizational Science, Psychology and Management at University of North Carolina and author of "The Surprising Science of Meetings." It’s just that the ratio of productive time to unproductive time is skewed in the wrong direction, he tells NBC News BETTER.

What makes for unproductive time? “It’s when people aren’t truly listening to one another, there’s not general engagement, the conflicts are dysfunctional instead of constructive, and it ends with a lack of clarity around what’s actually been decided and whose responsible for what,” Rogelberg explains.

But making a slightly more proactive effort in planning meetings and following these savvy guidelines when you’re in them can help keep your gatherings — whether they’re with your coworkers, doctors or fellow charity walk volunteers — way more productive.

Should we even meet in the first place?

Even if the majority of meetings you’ve attended in your lifetime have felt problematic, let’s agree that they’re still necessary — at least some of them. They allow for collaboration, cooperation and democratic decision-making, Rogelberg says. “A world without meetings is much much more problematic.”

Meetings let people connect, exchange ideas and build ideas in a mutual way, adds Julie Morgenstern, an organizing and productivity consultant and author of “Time Management from the Inside Out.”

Sometimes we work in a sequential way, she explains: one person writes something, someone else edits it, the original writer reviews the edits and makes a few suggestions, and finally someone else signs off on it. “That’s assembly-line type of work that we do independently,” Morgenstern says.

But for some problems you need a lot of heads together in one room (like if you’re brainstorming a creative solution to a problem or you need to factor in a lot of different points of view to come to a decision). Those types of conversations require a lot of back and forth that builds on itself, Morgenstern says. “Doing that sequentially by paper or email doesn’t make any sense.”

Meetings also build trust and connection between people that is really essential for teamwork, she adds. “They help us find opportunities to work with each other that you would not have even known about had you not met and had that side conversation while waiting for the meeting to start. There are a lot of surprises that only happen when people physically have a chance to interact.”

But all of those potential benefits swiftly disappear (think of letting the air out of a balloon and watching it zoom to the ground) when meetings move into bad meeting territory.

Good, effective meetings usually share two characteristics: they have a clear, defined objective (or outcome that needs to happen by the end of the meeting) and everybody in the room knows why they’re there.

What makes a meeting a productive one versus not?

Good, effective meetings usually share two characteristics, Morgenstern says: they have a clear, defined objective (or outcome that needs to happen by the end of the meeting) and everybody in the room knows why they’re there and their role.

Unproductive meetings tend to lack one of both of those components, she adds.

Guess which camp the weekly staff ‘update’ meeting falls into? We've all been to them: that meeting where everyone around the table reports what they’re working on. They usually lack a clear objective or outcomes everyone knows they need to walk away with. They can easily turn into accountability meetings, Morgenstern says, where people need to show up to show that they’re getting their work done but otherwise don’t have a role. People zone out and disengage until it’s their turn to talk because there’s a lot of information being shared that they don’t need to know about, she says. “They’re babysitting meetings.”

Also consider the all-hands-on-deck meeting, where everyone on a team is called in. They happen because whoever is planning the meeting doesn’t know (or doesn’t take the time to think about) whose opinion is going to be needed. The result, she says: “It’s too many people in the room to get anything done.”

While individuals can take it upon themselves to make sure these two components are part of meetings we’re at (you can ask whoever is planning what the objective is or decide for yourself what you want to get out of it; and you can coordinate with whoever’s calling the meeting what your role is), meetings are going to be most effective if whoever is planning them takes these responsibilities on.

Good meetings start with whoever is leading them recognizing that they are acting as stewards of other people’s time in that role, Rogelberg says. You start to make thoughtful, intentional choices about how long that meeting should be, who truly needs to be there, and how to foster engagement among whoever’s in the room, he says. “When you embrace your role as a steward, the thought of people leaving your meeting saying it was a waste of time is really upsetting to you – and that’s motivation to make sure that you’re not part of the problem.”

Think of calling a meeting with your boss or with a potential client you’re trying to win business from. You’re going to do everything in your power to make sure that meeting goes well, you’re respecting the time of the people in that meeting, and everyone walks away feeling like that was a productive use of their time. Imagine if everyone planned all meetings that way, Rogelberg says.

The same rules apply to meetings outside the office.

“For any meeting you’re going to attend, you should ask yourself, what do I want to walk away from that meeting with,” Morgenstern says. Whether it’s a doctor’s appointment, parent-teacher meeting, or a difficult conversation with a family member or friend, knowing what you want to walk away with and announcing it at the start of the meeting can be really helpful, she says.

9 tips for making any upcoming meeting more effective

For way better meetings:

1. Avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings

There’s not even travel time to get from one to the other, meaning you’re pretty much guaranteeing you’re going to derail the timing of all those meetings from the get-go, Morgenstern says. Adding buffer time before and after meetings gives you a minute to focus and get your head in the game.

2. Do the prep

This goes for meeting-goers and meeting planners. If you’re calling the meeting, define what you want to walk away from the meeting with and who needs to be there. Remember, both are essential components of a good meeting, Morgenstern says.

And let meeting attendees know what they need to do before a meeting to come in prepared, whether it’s reading a document or brainstorming an idea.

3. Give people the option to opt out

There’s no magic number of people that makes for a good meeting or a bad one. But usually for any meeting there are people that are absolutely essential and then the nice-to-haves or might-be-interested, Rogelberg says. For the non-essential players, make attendance optional. If you’re planning the meeting, give them the option to deem themselves unnecessary for that gathering or allow them to share anything they want represented via a proxy (someone who will already be there).

4. Set a meeting policy for the office

This to-do is more difficult if you’re not in a leadership role, but that doesn’t mean you can’t suggest it to the higher-ups, Morgenstern says. Meeting policies can include guidelines for what types of meetings might be called in an office (brainstorming meetings, decision-making meetings and so on), how many people should be involved in each type, is it OK to opt out of a meeting you don’t think you need to be in, and what constitutes calling a meeting in the first place given your department’s size and the rhythm of your workflow.

5. Don’t use default timing

Don’t be afraid to set a meeting time of 25 or 35 minutes if you don’t think it’s going to take the full 30 or 45 minutes, Rogelberg says. Some time pressure tends to motivate people to perform more optimally and efficiently, he adds. If you think a meeting might comfortably take 45 minutes, schedule 40 minutes, he says. “Extra time pressure can result in more focus.”

6. Start the meeting by re-stating the objective and how much time you have

By articulating that objective again at the top of a meeting and telling everyone how long you have to reach that outcome, you set the tone to keep things on track and keep everyone focused, Morgenstern says.

7. Keep devices out

We said it: no phones, laptops or tablets. When people tune into their tech, they start to disengage from the conversation happening in the room. It creates an energy leak in the room and gives everyone else in the room permission to disengage, too, Morgenstern says. If you need to meet for a long time and people need to check their emails during that time, designate time for email breaks, she says.

8. Show up

Whether you’re the meeting planner or an attendee, the number one thing you can do to help ensure a productive meeting is to stay engaged.

We spend so much of our time working independently, with technology making this more and the more the case. So when you are taking the time to meet in person with others, show up and don’t tolerate letting yourself not be there, Morgenstern says. “If you find your mind wandering, double down and refocus.”

9. Wrap up

Don’t forget the ending. Meetings should end with a recap of what was decided and who is responsible for which follow-up tasks, Rogelberg says. “People should leave a meeting feeling like their time was honored, it was good that they were there, there’s a collective understanding of what the outcomes are, and what the next steps are.”

Be more productive at work

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