1 Big Idea to Think About

  • To make meetings effortless, start with zero. Make every single meeting justify itself.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Start with zero. Instead of trying to reduce the number of meetings you have, ask yourself, “How could we run this team or organization with just one meeting?”

1 Question to Ask

  • How many of the meetings that I attend have a clear purpose?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • How to increase productivity at work: Cancel 4 out of 5 meetings (1:27)
  • How to reduce the number of meetings you are having (3:45)
  • An example of starting with zero at Apple (5:59)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Hello everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn so that we can make our highest point of contribution. 

Have you ever wished that you could accomplish more by doing less at work? This is part three of a four-part series on how to apply effortless thinking to the sometimes exhausting world of work. By the end of this episode, you will be able to trade off some of the exhausting meetings and replace them with high yield low-maintenance delegation. Let’s get to it.

If you want to get for free, the first chapter of Effortless and the first chapter of Essentialism sent to your inbox today, just sign up for the 1 Minute Wednesday newsletter. This is one of the fastest-growing newsletters on the web right now. It’s highly curated, and high quality. You could read it in just about a minute, and I designed it, especially for you.

Just this week, my amazing literary agent, Rafe Selin, sent me a story with evidence of 74% greater productivity when essentialist thinking is embraced in the workplace. We’ll put the article in the show notes, but here’s what’s covered. The article is called Want More Happiness and Productivity Cancel Four of Every Five Meetings. Companies that tried It saw productivity rise 74%. 

They summarize that a study of 76 companies that have deliberately reduced or eliminated meetings showed an increase in job satisfaction, communication, cooperation, and productivity and a decrease in micromanaging and stress.

They point out that it’s no secret that people dislike having to attend meetings and that research assembled by the transcription site Otter AI found that 67% of employees complained that meetings were hindering their productivity, and 35% said they spent up to five hours a week in meetings that did little to advance their work or their company’s success. 

Think of that, and really, you don’t have to imagine it because it may well be true for you. However, a team led by Benjamin Laker, a professor of leadership at the University of Redding in England, surveyed these 76 companies that had deliberately reduced their number of meetings, eliminating some, most, or even all of them. Every company that lessened its meeting burden saw benefits, even those companies that eliminated meetings altogether. So regardless of how much of an adjustment they made, there was an improvement, but the sweet spot seemed to be in reducing meetings by 80%, or as I’ve mentioned, four out of every five meetings. The ones that did saw an average of a 74% increase in productivity, the highest in the survey. They also had the highest increase in employee engagement, which was at 44%. Job satisfaction went up 62%, and stress went down a whopping 63%. 

Now, in part one of this series of applying Effortless Thinking to Work, I addressed meetings specifically, and the first thing I suggested was to make meetings harder to have in the first place. But it seems that this needs a second dose, an emphasis, because just making it a little harder, putting a little more friction does not seem to get you into the sweet spot. This research reinforces the power of essentialist thinking. 

Here’s the biggest single thing that I would recommend in applying Effortless and Essentialism to this serious obstacle to productivity, this meeting inflation and meeting for everything. It’s this: Start with zero. 

In chapter eight of Effortless, I outline one of the more surprising approaches of those that are exceptionally good at simplifying circumstances so that execution becomes almost effortless, and what they do is instead of starting with all the complexity that is the 35 hours of meetings you already have and reducing a meeting here or the length of a meeting there, tweaking the existing complexity, how they approach simplification is to start with zero, start under the condition, all meetings are gone. Zero.

It’s what I talked about in Essentialism as zero budgeting, but applied to time management. Imagine you have no meetings. Consider, as a company, zero meetings, and now from that premise, ask yourself what absolutely has to be done and from that place, say, how could we run this company, this team with a single meeting, one meeting? What would have to be in it? What would be absolutely essential? Then if you consider that one is insufficient, add another, but to do it in that way is much better than to start with all of the tradition, all of the well-intended traditions that have been made over years and years of running the organization and taking that as your starting line. 

You’ll remember, and I’m reading here from page 121 in Effortless, “When a team of Apple’s best product designers met with Steve Jobs to present their design for what eventually became the iDVD a now defunct application that allows users to burn music, movies, and digital photo files stored on their computers onto a physical DVD.”

“They expected their boss to be wowed. It was a beautiful clean design, and while it had a number of features and functions, they were proud of how they had streamlined the original version of the product, which had required a thousand-page user manual. But as the team soon learned, Jobs had something else in mind.” 

“He walked to the whiteboard and drew a rectangle. Then he said, here’s the new application. It’s got one window. You drag your video into the window, then you click the button that says Burn. That’s it. That’s what we’re going to make.“

“Mike Evangelist, one of the product designers in the meeting was blown away. He told me, I still have the slides I prepared for that meeting, and they’re ridiculous in their complexity. Only in retrospect could he see clearly that all this other stuff was completely in the way. Evangelist told me that his biggest aha was that he and his team had been looking at their process the wrong way.”

“They had started with an immensely complicated product and attempted to pare it down, but Jobs came at it from the opposite angle. He started at zero and tried to figure out the absolute minimum number of steps required to achieve the desired outcome.” 

So sometimes, we have become so accustomed to the meeting complexity and all of the meeting processes in our lives. We rarely stop to question it completely from the beginning, and that’s the big idea here, to make meetings effortless. Don’t start with your 28 meetings; your 35 hours of predetermined meetings. Start with zero, make every single meeting justify itself. Again, what are the fewest possible meetings that we need to have in order to achieve the objectives that we have? Because it is a statement of fact for very, very many people that when they need to do real work, when they need to do important essential work, the last place they go is work. Think about it yourself. Perhaps there’s a particular place that you go for concentrated work to actually do the work itself. Perhaps it’s on a flight because it’s one of the few places that we won’t get disturbed. Perhaps there’s a particular room or a particular table chair that you go to. Maybe it’s late at night or early in the morning. Maybe it’s out on your deck, but the very fact that there is such a place and that it isn’t where you do your normal work illustrates the problem. 

What we are looking for is a radical rethink to make the serious trade-offs so that you can create space to do the actual work that pushes the agenda forward, that helps a company to go forward that reduces stress for everybody involved. That’s what I’m interested in, in writing both Essentialism and Effortless, is to be able to radically rethink the life of business and the business of life.

We shouldn’t have to justify doing real work; meetings should have to justify themselves. So I’m encouraging you, if you are the manager, to start with zero. I’m encouraging you that if you’re not the manager, you at least explore this conversation, share this episode, share the article or the research behind it with the people who are making those decisions in your organizations. 

So, in summary, this new research shows that 70% of meetings keep employees from doing productive work, and while there was a 20% decrease in the average length of meetings during the pandemic, the number of meetings attended by a worker on average rose by 13.5%. In addition, they found curiously that newly promoted managers are holding almost a third more meetings than their seasoned counterparts, and it’s that last distinction that I’m going to take up in part four of this series because it’s a reasonable question about what you do instead. If you eliminate all of your meetings, how do you coordinate the work that needs to be done? How do you make sure that you’re making decisions in a way that optimizes the talent and resources of the team? How do you make sure you are working in the right direction and aligned with a clear purpose around the things that matter most? Well, there is a way, and while it takes perhaps a little more work to set up, the return on effort is enormous. We’ll get to that in part four of this series.

Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. It is such a joy to be able to share with you the insights that I’m learning, and this discovery that I’m on, and thank you for going on this journey with me, for learning together, for listening to. I hear from many of you about what this means, and that touches me as well as you are walking along or running along as you’re going on the beach or listening while you’re tidying up or making your commute more meaningful, more productive. 

I heard from a friend recently who I never even imagined was listening to the podcast who told me he listens to every episode. As a thank you to all of you that are listening, the first five people who write a review on Apple Podcasts about this episode, I’ll make sure that you have free access to the Essentialism Academy. Just go to gregmckeown.com/podcastpromo. 

Just remember that it takes an essential meeting to be better than not having one at all because you’re always making a trade-off between that and the ability for people to do the work itself. I’ll see you next time.