Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn to understand so that we can be utilized at our highest point of contribution.
Do you dread attending meetings because they seem like a waste of time and energy? Are you tired of spending your days in back-to-back meetings with little time left to focus on your actual work? If so, this episode is for you.
Meetings can be a drain on our time and energy, but they don’t have to be. In this episode, the first of a series of four episodes about how to apply effortless thinking to our work lives, I’ll begin by something that is anything but effortless, which is meetings. Let’s begin
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Literally, today I was in a meeting which I wish I had not been in. It was scheduled for just half an hour. It was a promising beginning. At the start of the meeting, there were five people. By the time it ended, there were just three, and I was one of them. The people in the meeting were capable. Everybody arrived on time. My own mindset was focused on really trying to understand everybody there and how I could be useful. Nevertheless, I had, without intending, to violated one of my most important procedures in scheduling any meeting, which is to get not sort of clear, but really clear as to the purpose of the meeting.
And so it turned out that 40 minutes or more into the meeting, I found myself discovering that the purpose was not sufficient to have justified having that meeting. And as you’ll remember, in the opening chapter of Essentialism, I learned that lesson, that being invited to a meeting is not a good enough reason for going.
As soon as I realized that the meeting really did not have a sufficient purpose attached to it as politely as possible, I got myself out of the meeting. However, it lingered with me. It bothered me that I had spent this time, and now as I reflect on it, I know what really bothered me, which is that my time had not been valued. I noticed that most of the people on the call were busy typing away doing other things. One person dominated, and they themselves, despite their being well-intentioned, did not seem to be briefed well on the purpose of the call, the purpose of the meeting.
So let’s get straight to it. The most important thing that you can do to make meetings more effortless at work is, paradoxically, to make it harder to have meetings at work in the first place. Too many workplaces are still inundated in a sort of zoom, eat, sleep, repeat life. The lockdown of the pandemic introduced all sorts of ways of working, and one of them, as we all know, was that video conferencing became the norm, and one of the unintended consequences of that is that we had even further meeting inflation. Both the number of the meetings and how many people could be invited to those meetings increased. It was the meeting’s equivalent of adding the reply all button to email. When I find my time machine, I’m going back to find the person that added the reply all button and make that stop before it begins. The costs of that functionality have been much greater than the benefits, but a similar thing has now happened in video conferencing.
So the idea is to create a little friction. The first and most important element of friction is your own selectivity is just to pause before you say yes to attending a meeting, to review your calendar at the beginning of the week to look for any meetings that are not essential that do not help you achieve what is really important this week to ask yourself what trade-offs are involved.
Over at Harvard Business Review, you can estimate the cost of a meeting using a meeting calculator. We’ll put the link in the show notes, but of course, you can do the mathematics easily in your head. How long did the meeting last and how many attendees were there, and what’s the estimated salary for everybody in the room? And you can use that tool to remind yourself to be more selective but also to remind other people around you.
The full cost, the total cost of ownership for a meeting, is far higher than is obvious. It goes beyond, of course, the kind of calculation I just described. It’s not just the estimated salary. It’s all of the opportunity cost. In my case, that was time away from working. That was time spent in my pivotal hours where I would normally be writing. It takes emotional energy to be able to concentrate, and to be able to listen. And if I spend time listening to the wrong person focusing on the wrong problem in a meeting I shouldn’t even be in, then you can see the dilemma grows.
In another article called Stop the Meeting Madness, Leslie Perlow et al. make the following observation. “Many executives feel overwhelmed by meetings, and no wonder,” they write. “On average, executives spend nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s.”
Did you know that? Did you know that there’s been that kind of inflation?
They continue, “What’s more? The meetings are often poorly timed, badly run, or both. We can all joke about how painful they are”, say the authors, “but the pain has real consequences for teams and organizations. Every minute spent in a wasteful meeting eats into solo work that’s essential for creativity and efficiency. Chopped up schedules interrupt deep thinking, so people come to work early, stay late, or use weekends for quiet time to concentrate, and dysfunctional meeting behaviors are associated with lower levels of market share innovation and employment stability.”
So the authors have found that real improvement requires systemic change, not just discrete fixes. They have a five-step process for that, along with diagnostic work that you can do in advance.
Before we get to that, they surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries. 65% said meetings kept them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings were unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together. The essence of what they’re recommending is to take not just an individual approach to solving the problem, but a collective one. Their five steps are to collect data from each person so that you understand a clearer review of how meetings are affecting your group. Then to interpret the data. They found, for example, that in one organization they worked with, the calendars were chopped up so badly because of meetings that very few, two or three hour blocks were left for deep thinking work. Step three for them is to agree on a collective personally relevant goal. What they’ve found is that when people understand how they’re going to personally benefit from the group initiative to reduce the number of meetings or to make them more appropriate is a great motivator, which of course makes sense. If people suddenly understand that by eliminating meetings they’re going to create more white space for individuals to be able to increase their personal productivity, that’s going to help.
Here’s how it worked at one of the technology firms they worked with. They had members that were based in the United States and India. So a handoff meeting was held each day early in the morning for some and late at night for others to accommodate the 12-and-a-half-hour time difference. The long days were causing significant stress and fatigue on both sides. Early morning calls were required, family dinners were missed, and work days were more than 12 hours long. So once the team had collected survey data from its members and realized the magnitude of the problem, it altered its approach. Each person was given one workday a week when he or she didn’t have to participate in the handoff call. In order to ensure the appropriate information exchange, team members had to find ways to cover for one another and keep everyone updated. So learning how to do that gave individuals the break they needed, but it also resulted in more shared knowledge and versatility in the group. So it turned out to be a success story.
Number four thing is to set milestones and monitor progress. In another instance, what they found is that people got into the meeting, it was quite a large meeting, 30 people, and that all hands meeting was a pain point. Often attendees were on their phones and laptops, continually distracted, and so they just decided to try a small, concrete, measurable change, which was no outside technology at the meetings, which, of course, it’s not surprising, led to people being more focused and therefore the meeting becoming much more efficient. I would encourage you the next time that you are in a meeting, especially a virtual meeting like I was, and you are using technology in the meeting, to ask yourself why you are there, is it really important, and is the purpose of that meeting being achieved? And that’s the final of their five-point suggestion, which is to debrief as a group to be able to talk about it, have a sort of pulse check to see how you are feeling about the elimination of a meeting, and so on.
In the non-essential meeting that I was in that I’m describing, it would have helped immensely if I had taken even a moment to design an agenda to make it effective. An article specifically about that written by Roger Schwartz can also be found in the show notes. What he found is that to prevent holding a meeting in which participants are unprepared or veer off track or waste the team’s time, you need to create an effective meeting agenda.
Okay, we’ve all heard that suggestion, but what really needs to be in it? It’s something that sets clear expectations for what needs to occur before and during the meeting. You’ll want to seek input from your team to make sure that the agenda reflects their needs and keeps them engaged. A good tactic for that is to list topics as questions to be answered. So instead of writing office space, reallocation, try, under what conditions should we reallocate office space?
One of the things I like about this article by Roger Schwarz is at the very end of the article, he provides a sample meeting agenda. It’s divided into three columns. The topic with the specific question, the proposed amount of time, the purpose, and the leader of that conversation in the second column does what preparation is required so that people know whether there’s something they’re supposed to do or not. If there’s no preparation, you just write none, and if there is something specific, you write that as well. And then what the proposed process will be. Because, after all, what effort is mental exertion, and there’s only so much mental capacity that we have in a given day, so it needs to be managed really carefully.
After we’ve made sure to eliminate meetings that are themselves non-essential, we want to make the most important meetings as effortless as possible. In chapter 13 of Effortless, I talk about the power of automation to be able to do something once and then never to have to do it again. And really, we want that to be true for as many of the essential things in our lives as possible. In this instance, having a really well-designed meeting agenda template doesn’t mean you won’t have to do it ever again. You’ll still, of course, will be updating it with the most relevant items, but to not have to think about what should have to be on an effective agenda in the first place is a great step forward.
And this is the point that I really want to end on because research proves your brain needs breaks. As Michael Bohan, the senior director of Microsoft’s Human Factors Engineering Group, found in some specific research on exactly the subject, “Our research shows breaks are important not just to make us less exhausted by the end of the day, but to actually improve our ability to focus and engage. While in those meetings, the kind of back-to-back meetings that we’ve been doing that have often become norms in company cultures are literally not sustainable.” What they did in their research is they took two groups of people and put EEG caps on them to measure the beta wave activity that is the activity associated with stress. And one group had back-to-back meetings with no breaks in between them, and the other group had just a short break in between each of the meetings.
What they found can be described in color. The no-break group had what could be visually described as red brain by the time they were in their second, third meeting without a break, whereas the group that had just a short break in between meetings maintained blue brain throughout. Now, we could get into the neurology of this.
We could get into the specifics of what’s going on in the brain, but haven’t you experienced it yourself? Haven’t you experienced red brain, where your brain is just feeling more and more stressed out? And then, if you continue in that mode, your brain literally starts to pulsate? It happened to me just recently. I was trying to do too many things at once. In a sense, I was trying to do two or three meetings at the same time. It didn’t go on for very long because it’s just not sustainable. But within half an hour of that, I just could not think clearly anymore. I went to my office and laid down for just a few minutes. I could feel that pulsating stress, and I could feel it dissipate, and I found myself going from red brain to blue brain, right? Viscerally experiencing that, or sometimes we’re not aware of the pressure that’s building up slowly, continually in this back-to-back endless meeting norm. But that’s exactly what we’re talking about.
The goal here with our meeting management is to keep ourselves in an effortless state. When our brains are at full capacity, everything feels harder. I’m reading here from the opening chapter of Effortless. “When our brains are at full capacity, everything feels harder. Fatigue slows us down, outdated assumptions and emotions make new information harder to process the countless distractions.”
And I should add here, meetings of daily life make it difficult to see a priority clearly. So the first step towards making things effortless is to clear the clutter in our heads and our hearts and our calendars, and I call that being in the effortless state. You’ve probably experienced this before. It’s when you feel rested, at peace, and focused, you’re fully present in the moment. You have a heightened awareness of what matters here and now. You feel capable of taking the right action at the right time. You are in the zone. And the beauty of this is that as you become more aware of that effortless estate and how meetings are affecting that, often for the negative, you can protect and restore that effortless estate, that effortless way of being, which of course, then has a positive upward cycle where you’ll be able to start taking effortless action and start producing effortless results.
So, in summary, to have effortless meetings at work, you want to make it a little harder to have them in the first place, to be able to discuss that with other people so that collectively you can design the right kinds of meetings, and to be able to eliminate all those that are actually making the work of work harder to achieve. Then in the meetings you actually have, you want to be able to design purposeful and efficient meeting agendas, and you can just use the cheat sheet document that I’ve discussed, and I’ll put that in the show notes. And then, finally, to build breaks between your meetings to allow your brain to reset, reducing the cumulative buildup of stress across the meetings to be able to return from red brain into blue brain and to gain all the benefits that come from being in the effortless estate.
Thank you. Really, thank you for listening to today’s episode. As mentioned at the beginning, this is episode one of a four-part series of solo episodes about how to apply effortless thinking to those elements of work life that are anything but effortless. Subscribe to this podcast so that you can get those episodes as effortlessly as possible. Sign up for the 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter that’s designed and curated to be able to help you implement these ideas. Listen to Effortless either for the first time or a second time, to get these ideas to be more intuitive in your work life. Encourage your whole team to read it together. Share this episode with people so that you can start asking this special question, “How can we make what’s most essential as effortless as possible? I’ll see you next time.