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January 13, 2023

5 ways to fix 'wasteful and soul-crushing' meetings

Daily Briefing

    Being overloaded with meetings can "create wasteful and soul-crushing friction" in the workplace, Rebecca Hinds—head of the Work Innovation Lab at work-management software company Asana—and Robert Sutton—an organizational psychologist and professor of management science and engineering at Stanford Engineering School—write for the Harvard Business Review. Here are five tips on how to reduce meeting overload.

    5 ways to reduce meeting overload

    1. Adopt a subtraction mindset

    Research from Gabrielle Adams at the University of Virginia has found people have a tendency to add something rather than take something away when they're attempting to solve a problem. Hinds and Sutton write that this mindset can also be pervasive in meetings, as people add more to their calendars without much thought.

    However, Adams' research has found that when people are asked to subtract something and think about what they're doing, they adopt more of a subtraction mindset, Hinds and Sutton write.

    In a pilot program at Asana, Hinds and Sutton implemented a "Meeting Doomsday," in which the group of participants deleted all recurring meetings with fewer than five attendees from their calendars for 48 hours. Afterwards, the participants then considered the value of each meeting and repopulated the calendars.

    As the participants repopulated their calendars, Hinds and Sutton say they did a lot of subtracting. Some of the participants removed meetings entirely, some shortened them, and others changed weekly meetings to monthly meetings.

    2. Start with a clean slate

    Those participating in "Meeting Doomsday" were divided into two groups—a full participation group that completely purged their calendars for 48 hours, evaluated each meeting, and then repopulated, and a "lighter" version that assessed each meeting on their calendar but didn't do a 48-hour purge.

    Hinds and Sutton write that, while both groups saved time, those who fully participated saved an average of five hours per person each month compared to three hours among those in the light group.

    According to Adams, going with a "clean slate" approach like those in the full participation group nudges people to slow down and think about whether a meeting was truly necessary or whether it could be redesigned more than those in the lighter group.

    3. Use data to decide what to subtract

    According to Hinds and Sutton, some people in the program struggled to figure out exactly how valuable each meeting was, so the authors developed a system that allowed participants to rate each recurring meeting on two dimensions on a three-point scale:

    • The effort required for the meeting, including prep time, meeting time, and follow-up work
    • The value of each meeting for helping the participants reach their goals

    The participants said this part of the program was useful and helped them think about their meetings more deeply. And according to Hinds and Sutton, the system was able to predict low-value meetings with over 80% accuracy.

    4. Create a movement

    It's easier to fix meetings "when people do it together," Hinds and Sutton write, "when it feels like a movement, be it in your team, department, or entire organization."

    Some participants in the program were enthusiastic about it, while others "went along grudgingly" or decided not to participate, Hinds and Sutton write. But even those who elected not to participate still benefitted from the program because their workloads got lighter. And some of those who initially resisted joining the program eventually participated after hearing about the program's benefits from other volunteers.

    5. Redesign your meetings

    Throughout the program, Hinds and Sutton write they found just 30% of time savings came from eliminating meetings entirely while the rest came from redesigning meetings.

    For example, 27% of time savings came from restricting meetings so fewer people would need to attend or from replacing parts of a meeting with asynchronous communication. The leader of one meeting eliminated a ritual in which each participant shared a status update and instead replaced it with written updates on Asana and Slack software instead.

    Hinds and Sutton caution that as you redesign meetings and adopt a subtraction mindset to your calendar, "don't try to make everything quick, easy, and frustration-free. The goal is to make time for the things in life that ought to be slow—like pausing to think about your work and taking time to take care of yourself and others."

    For the participants in Meeting Doomsday, Hinds and Sutton write that cleansing their calendar "jolted them to abandon ingrained habits and gave them more time to think about tough problems, enabled them to bring their best selves to the meetings that remained on their schedules, and helped protect them from the emotional exhaustion that results from attending too many meetings—especially bad ones." (Hinds/Sutton, Harvard Business Review, 10/28)

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