Badass Meetings — 23 tips on how to tackle the “too many meetings” problem

Meetings are an essential artifact of getting work done – the right work done. Worse than having too many meetings is having too few meetings that result in the getting the wrong work done. Likely, you are here because you are struggling with meetings.

Companies vary widely in their practices and culture. Even if you can’t change the entire organization at once, I guarantee you there are a few tips below to help you run your meetings better, get more value out of the meetings you join, and slowly change your company practices around meetings.

I’m a productivity nerd and an optimizer. Productive meetings (and emails) fascinate me, and how you can use them for good or “evil.”

Let’s cut to the chase. Most of the time, you feel you have too many meetings for one of these three reasons:

  1. You don’t feel your participation in a meeting was necessary
  2. The meeting wasn’t well run (even if you ran it)
  3. There isn’t enough time in the week for you to do another type of work.

I believe you can have 20+ hours of meetings in a week and end the week without the feeling of too many meetings and being excited about how much you got done. The problem is not necessarily about “too many meetings.”

Here are 23 tips for you to consider:

#1 Block focus time

You should add focus time to your calendar. These are blocks of hours, usually 2-4h long, so others don’t schedule meetings with you. I have two types: flexible and inflexible focus time. Flexible focus time is visible to others in my organization. People learn these are not ideal for me, but I also allow coworkers to book them for high priority meetings. Inflexible focus time appears on my calendar as a private “busy” event. I need those to catch up on email, prepare presentations & docs, read content and do other work. Every day I block at least 1.5h of focus time. I also sprinkle my week with 2 or 3 two-hour blocks of flexible focus time.

#2 “100 email messages can save you a 30-minute meeting”

Right out of this post’s opening, I say that worse than having too many meetings is having too few meetings. Some folks — or entire organizations — swing the pendulum too much in the opposite direction. They use meetings as a last resort. That isn’t good. Meetings are much more efficient than email (or Slack) for high-throughput idea exchange. It’s incredible how much we benefit from “reading” facial and body expressions and tone of voice. The actual point here is that each channel (voice calls, video meetings, face-to-face meetings, email, Slack/Teams, docs/presentations comments) has strengths and weaknesses. Over indexing in any of them isn’t optimal.

#3 Consider the time-zones & needs of participants

Do you want attendees who hate being at a meeting? Easy, schedule the meeting at an inconvenient time for them. Too early or too late in the day. During their lunchtime. During the time they saved as their focus time. It can be even more of an issue for the WFH/Remote situation. People try to “design” their day to accommodate their meals, family time, exercise time, etc. The flip-side of this is other people infringing on your schedule needs. Are you a pushover? If so, you are helping perpetuate the idea that people don’t need to respect each other’s needs.

#4 Early in the week, early in the day

People have more brainpower early in the week (Monday and Tuesday) than they have towards the end of the week. It’s also true that people’s cognitive abilities are sharper in the morning. Want peak performance at a critical meeting? Sleep well the night before, eat low-sugar, low-carb food for breakfast, do a cardio exercise in the morning, and, for the brave of you, take a cold shower. Combine that with a Tuesday 9 AM meeting, and you’ll be at your peak.

#5 Avoid the Swiss cheese week

Having a handful of 30-min meetings spread throughout the day is terrible for productivity. More likely, there will be context switches that you have to perform at the beginning and end of each meeting. If your meetings are back-to-back – and preferably in the morning – you might cut down context switches from ten times to five or six times. The only time I don’t think back-to-back meetings are ideal is after a long meeting with a client or something like an ideation session, where people need time to debrief or decompress.

#6 Default to 30-minute meetings

A well-run 30-minute meeting can accomplish a lot more than a poorly run 60-minute meeting. Time pressure helps people focus and be more productive (see #8 below)

#7 Recurring vs. ad hoc meetings

Many loathe recurring meetings. Project managers, account managers, salespeople, business development people, and executives are the culprits of 80% of recurring meetings on your calendar. Check your calendar. I’ll wait. Here’s the thing. Recurring meetings are not a problem, per se. They are a great way to block time to guarantee space for a conversation. They are great for creating a cadence of check-ins and alignment. The problem is when people decide to meet out of the force of habit, instead of questioning each time if there is something worth discussing in a meeting. The readout of status reports is the worst. Whoever scheduled the recurring meeting should have the burden of ensuring, every single time, if it’s worth having the meeting or not. “Let’s meet since we have this time blocked anyway” is not an acceptable answer. And, as a participant in a recurring meeting, skip them if you don’t feel they have enough there to justify you showing up.

#8 Don’t fall prey to Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” — You guessed it, schedule a 30-minute meeting, and it’ll likely fill the entire 30-minutes. Schedule a 60-minute meeting, and it’ll probably fill the whole 60-minutes. There are several simple practices to avoid Parkinson’s Law: 1) End a meeting as soon as the agenda has been exhausted, or you have achieved the desired outcome. 2) Don’t hesitate to cancel a meeting if a key participant doesn’t show up. All that you are doing is avoiding having two meetings. 3) If the meeting seems to have become irrelevant considering a just discovered fact, even if in the first few minutes of the meeting, end it! 4) Schedule meetings with slightly less time than necessary, so there is a sense of urgency. For example, if you have seven topics to discuss and expect each to take 5 minutes (total = 35 minutes), the best option is to make this into a 30-minute meeting instead of a 45-minute meeting.

#9 Check people’s availability

It’s not only a courtesy to see if someone is available for the time you want to meet; it reduces the chances of a critical person not showing up to your meeting. It’s better if you attempt to schedule meetings on the days of the week and the hours of the day you know these people prefer to meet. Finally, consider making it back-to-back with other meetings in their calendar.

#10 Make use of optional attendees

Sadly, the only options you have in today’s calendar to invite attendees are “mandatory” and “optional.” Even that granularity level is better than just inviting everyone as “mandatory,” which is the default assumption people make when they receive an invitation to a meeting.

#11 Understand your role in the meeting

No, not everyone is equal at a meeting. Meetings are not democracies where everyone gets a vote. Meetings shouldn’t be a committee where everyone has an equal amount of time to speak. There are many roles in a meeting. There is the leader, who’s orchestrating the meeting. The presenters, who will provide information or facilitate a discussion—often, the presenter and the leader are the same. There are key participants, who are the critical people the meeting would not happen without them. There are the other (non-key) participants, who are there to provide input when consulted, and, finally, there are guests invited to listen because the content of the meeting will affect their work. Do you know your role at the meeting? When you are organizing a meeting, are you making it easier for people to understand their roles?

#12 Don’t automatically accept meeting invites

Curiosity killed a̶ ̶c̶a̶t̶ your calendar! The number one reason for you to be in a meeting is that you are the leader or a key participant. How do you know if you are a key participant? If you can’t attend, the meeting won’t take place. The second best reason is that you hold essential knowledge, skills, or responsibilities relevant to the meeting. You either will provide input to critical participants or receive information that’s critical for you to do your job, and that information couldn’t be provided in other ways. The worst reason for you to be in a meeting is that you are “just curious” about that topic.

People also accept more meeting invites than they should because they want to be nice to others. It’s not unusual for the domain expert to become the security blanket for BD, Sales, and Account Management. They will keep asking you to join this status meeting, that weekly review, the other technical meeting with a prospective customer, etc. It’s their job to learn how to do this at scale without including someone from product or engineering. If the meeting is a fair use of your time to learn from the customer’s needs, go for it. If it’s not, consider declining.

#13 Set an agenda and desired outcome

An agenda can be a few simple sentences that describe what the meeting is about. It might describe why the meeting is taking place, and it might hint or spell out what’s expected to get out of the meeting (the desired outcome). I don’t recommend trying to add too much structure to a meeting because usually, those are hard to survive the encounter with reality. Agendas can be part of the meeting invite or sent ahead of time. It provides a lot of value: 1) It gives people a chance to prepare. 2) it let them know what to expect. 3) it helps them decide if they should attend or not. Here’s a big hack for creating a good agenda: write a set of questions that you want answers by the end of the meeting as a checklist. These include decisions that need to be done (e.g., “Which of the design options we’ll use on the landing page?”) or information to share (e.g., “Does everyone understand the deadlines and tasks for this project?”). You can think of these questions as the meeting checklist. Once all the checks are marked done, the meeting is done!

#14 Demand an agenda and desired outcome

If it’s not your meeting and there is no agenda, politely ask them to provide one.

#15 Prime attendees

In many types of meetings, priming the attendees is critical to the success of the meeting. It’s unproductive — and it can be frustrating — to show up to a meeting, believing they are discussing the company offsite to learn the meeting is about quarterly planning. The top of the “funnel” for priming attendees is the meeting title. Be cautious here because most calendar apps will only display 4 or 5 words, so a meeting with a title like “Weekly Check-in for the project Blue Whale” isn’t a good title. Second, adding an agenda in the calendar event description helps. Sadly, people are conditioned not to open it since there isn’t anything there most of the time. So, what do you do? The simple answer is to send a one-paragraph email to the attendees a few hours before the meeting. If you send it too long before the meeting, people will forget. If you send too close to the meeting, people might not have time to open and read the email. If there are a few participants that you are more worried about because they are presenting or they could be disruptive or detractors, send them a personal message ahead of the meeting.

#16 Avoid technical & logistical issues

It’s Murphy’s Law at work here. It seems the higher the stake at a meeting, the more likely a technical issue will happen. In the era of in-person meetings, there are endless fights with projectors and screens. In the era of Zoom, it is the “connecting audio,” frozen screens, videos that don’t play correctly, or the key participant who’s five minutes late because they had to install Zoom for the first time or their audio wasn’t working. There are also non-technical issues at meetings. People who forgot the meeting had changed dates. A key participant had a conflicting meeting and didn’t let the meeting organizer know. The attendees who underestimate how long the commute, walk, or whatever other activity they were doing before the meeting was going to take, and now they are late. Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.

#17 Take notes

It’s very frustrating to have a meeting where lots of excellent discussions take place, lots of decisions are made, lots of action items are raised, and that information goes into the ether and is lost. Take notes. Ask someone to take notes. Ask two people to take notes and merge those later. In general, people overestimate their ability to remember meetings’ content because it’s fresh in their minds (recency bias). Then it’s not anymore, and most of it evaporates.

#18 Icebreakers

Keep this tool in your tool-belt. In many types of meetings, icebreakers are phenomenal. It can be as simple as asking one person to share an adventure they had over the weekend. It can be a more structured type where you go around the (virtual) room and ask each person to name their favorite food. You can even combine an icebreaker with an introduction if some attendees don’t know each other. I would steer clear of jokes unless you are extremely good at them.

#19 Start with context (and an anti-agenda)

Meeting title -> Invite description -> Priming message -> Intro context. You should start every meeting as if you are officiating a wedding. “We are gathered here today to _____ (desired outcome). We’ll talk about _____ (agenda)”. It’s the perfect time for you to lay the ground rules and phone use rules, participation expectations, breaks, etc. Finally, if you feel things might go in a direction or open a door that you don’t want it to open, spell it out: “X, Y, and Z are important, but we aren’t covering it in this meeting.”

#20 Be the leader

If you are the leader of the meeting, be the leader. Control the crowd, set the pace, move agenda items along to make sure they get covered, etc. Consider engagement—are the domain experts being allowed to speak or only the people with the big titles? Are you controlling the “interrupters”? Are you using good listening skills and rephrasing questions to reduce ambiguity? Being a meeting leader is a challenging skill for many. All that I can say is, learn it or don’t run meetings.

#21 Use a parking lot

The easiest meeting hack ever: Set up a parking lot, either in the whiteboard’s corner or a note that you take for all the out-of-scope points raised in the meeting. It doesn’t matter if they are critical points; if they are out-of-scope, they go to the parking lot. After the meeting, send the attendees the list in the parking lot to create the opportunity to do something about them.

#22 Wrap up the meeting

Often, the feeling that a meeting wasn’t a good use of time is because you didn’t get a sense of progress and closure; there wasn’t a wrap-up. Wrap-ups are at the last few minutes of the meetings, and it has a few ingredients: 1-2 Key takeaways, key decisions, action items (+owners +due dates), and open questions (to follow up). One of the cardinal rules of giving a presentation is to “tell the audience what you’re going to say; say it; then tell them what you’ve said.” Meetings are just like that. Tell them the agenda and desired outcome; have the meeting; tell them what the outcome was.

#23 Follow-up

If the meeting’s content only existed in the meeting, you wasted many people’s time. Send a follow-up email with the takeaways, decisions, open questions, action items (and assigned owners), and anything in the parking lot. If one of the action items was to schedule another meeting, schedule it soon. Tag the people who are the owners of their action items. Finally, people feel the need to be in many meetings because the discussions and outcomes aren’t adequately communicated to those not present. Tell people who might be affected by the discussions about what was decided. Also, be the role model, so you don’t feel the need to get a small bit of information in every meeting.

📬 If you have thoughts about this piece, even if you disagree with me, shoot me an email.

A few disclaimers:

  • Most of the ideas above are just a combination of things I learned over the years. Some of the tips are from my experimentation.
  • All my experience comes from tech companies.
  • Finally, these tips are primarily for those who run or participate in many meetings every week. If most of your work is about being a “maker” doing individual contributor work (e.g., an engineer or a designer), these might not be the best tips.
  • Subscribing to the Bad Meeting newsletter creates the Spacing Effect. Spaced repetition (that invokes the Spacing Effect) is a proven technique to help people retain and recall information, thus improving your rate of learning.
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Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.