Better Meetings

Stop Wasting Everyone's Time: How to Avoid Unnecessary Meetings

We've all been there. You get a calendar invite for a meeting that makes you think, "This could have been an email." Unnecessary meetings are a plague on productivity and morale in many organizations. But how can you avoid having meetings that waste everyone's time without being seen as uncooperative or disengaged? Keep reading for tips on identifying and preventing meetings that should have just been an email.

Signs a Meeting Could Have Been an Email

Let's start by identifying meetings that likely don't need to happen. Here are some telltale signs a meeting should have been an email:

  • The goal is simply to share information. If the purpose is just to update people or deliver news that requires no discussion, an email works better.
  • There's no clear objective or agenda. If you find yourself wondering what the point of a meeting is, it probably doesn't need to happen.
  • Too many people are invited. If the meeting has more than five attendees, it often indicates the scope is too broad.
  • No pre-work is required. Effective meetings require preparation. If attendees don't need to review anything beforehand, it may not be substantive enough to warrant a meeting.
  • The meeting is recurring without a clear need. Many recurring meetings get scheduled out of habit versus necessity.
  • The invite contains no context. If a meeting invite provides no background on the purpose or desired outcome, that's a red flag.

These factors indicate a meeting that should have just been an email update or memo. Of course, some may be worth having regardless. Use the criteria as a trigger to reconsider whether the meeting is truly needed.

The True Cost of Unproductive Meetings

Before calling a meeting, consider the full cost. Every meeting incurs both hard and soft costs:

Hard Costs

  • Salary expense - The time of each attendee must be factored in. For a one-hour meeting with six people making an average of $50/hour, that's $300 plus the organizer's time to prepare.
  • Overhead - There's the cost of reserving a conference room, providing refreshments, and supplies. These are real budget items.
  • Lost productivity - When people are in meetings, they aren't getting their "real work" done. Meetings are often the first thing cut when people are behind on projects.

Soft Costs

  • Lost opportunities - Meetings divert focus and energy away from more impactful work. Attendees' time could likely be better leveraged elsewhere.
  • Burnout - Too many meetings is commonly cited as a major driver of employee burnout. They contribute to calendar clutter and a feeling of not having enough time to do meaningful work.
  • Morale and culture issues - Unproductive meetings signal poor leadership and a broken culture. Employees quickly become disengaged if their time is wasted.

With both hard and soft costs often totaling thousands per week, unnecessary meetings can meaningfully hurt productivity, not to mention morale.

How to Prevent Meetings That Should Have Been an Email

Once you know the signs of unnecessary meetings and their full impact, here are some ways to avoid them:

1. Ask Clarifying Questions When Invited

Don't accept a meeting invite at face value. It's okay to reply with constructive questions like:

  • What specific objective(s) do you hope to accomplish in this meeting?
  • Who absolutely needs to participate given the objective(s)?
  • How should participants prepare for this meeting?
  • What do you see as the outcome of this discussion?

Smart leaders will appreciate your desire to ensure a productive meeting. Phrasing matters here; avoid coming across as combative or uncooperative.

2. Suggest Alternatives Like an Email or Call

If a meeting seems unnecessary based on the organizer's responses, propose alternatives:

"Thanks for clarifying the purpose of this meeting. Since it sounds like we just need to make an update rather than have an interactive discussion, it may be more efficient to summarize the status in an email unless you feel strongly that a meeting is necessary."

Most reasonable organizers will be receptive to logical alternatives.

3. Decline Tactfully

If you deem a meeting truly unnecessary and unproductive, it's okay to politely decline:

"I'm going to have to decline this meeting to focus my time on more business-critical projects, but please keep me updated on anything I need to know that comes out of it."

Be sparing here, as declining may carry interpersonal risks. But judicious use establishes you as someone who prioritizes their time.

4. Suggest a Standing Cadence Rather Than Ad Hoc Meetings

For recurring meetings that don't need to happen every time but still have value periodically, propose a regular cadence like every two weeks or once a month. This eliminates the need to evaluate each instance separately.

5. Make Meetings More Productive

If a meeting needs to happen, ensure you're making the most of everyone's time:

  • Have a clear agenda - An agenda ensures the meeting stays on track and enables preparation. Share it ahead of time.
  • Limit attendance - Only include required attendees. Default to smaller meetings of 3-5 people whenever feasible.
  • Enforce brevity - Place a time limit on each agenda item. the Parkinson's Law states that a task expands to fill the time allotted.
  • Designate a facilitator - Have someone manage the conversation and keep things on track against the agenda and time limits.
  • Limit presentations - Slide decks should enhance clarity, not be the content. Get to the discussion quickly.
  • Summarize action items - End each meeting with a quick recap of decisions and commitments to drive accountability.

Following these best practices will help transform bloated, passive meetings into concise, participatory discussions that engage rather than bore.

Embrace Tools That Make Meetings More Effective

Technology like Supernormal can help transform inefficient meetings into productive discussions. Supernormal provides features that enable better meeting accountability. With Supernormal, attendees can get automatic notes for each meeting that include a transcript, summary and action items. These notes make it clear what was covered and agreed upon, and who is responsible for each follow-up task so not only is post-meeting work easier to track, the meeting itself is easier to evaluate.

Supernormal transforms meetings from an obligation into a value-driven activity. Its solutions put meetings to work for people and organizations again, and make it crystal clear when a meeting isn’t useful. The result is happier, more empowered teams who can collaborate efficiently.

In summary, meetings may sometimes be necessary, but should never be the default. Apply a critical lens when evaluating whether to accept an invite or call your own meeting, and implement AI tools like Supernormal to document your meetings and evaluate their value.

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