(Fast Company) Done right, meetings provide an excellent structure for getting work done, making decisions, and moving projects forward. Done incorrectly, meetings keep you from focusing on your most important priorities and are a complete waste of your time.
One of the areas that I look at first in my time-management work with clients—especially those who have little to no time left at work to do work—is how we can get their time spent in meetings back into balance with their overall priorities. Here are nine hacks that can help you reclaim hours each week by eliminating, reducing, and streamlining your meeting time.
Don’t schedule meetings: The answer to every issue or to moving ahead every project isn’t scheduling a meeting. In an article I wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “Do You Really Need to Hold That Meeting?,” there’s a flowchart to help you think through your options. The bottom line is if you can accomplish your purposes in a less time-consuming, asynchronous way, such as an email, you should.
Don’t attend meetings: You don’t have to accept every meeting invite you receive. If you’re like some of my coaching clients, you can’t anyway, unless you have the ability to bi-locate or tri-locate. Go to and be fully present at meetings where you have something to contribute or learn, or where you want a seat at the table when decisions are made. Decline meetings where you plan on only half paying attention and don’t have anything to add that others in attendance couldn’t provide.
Don’t agree to meetings: If someone you don’t know emails you and asks you if you’re free today or tomorrow to talk, they are trying to create a scenario where you either agree to meet with them—or have to ignore the email. But that’s not the reality. The question behind the question is why they want to communicate with you. When I think I may want a call with someone but I’m not sure, I don’t answer the question of when I could talk. Instead, I request that they send over written material for me to look at first. Then if I think a meeting is necessary, I’ll schedule it.
Reduce frequency: Not all meetings need to be weekly. In fact, some could be more effective if you give people a larger span between meeting times to get traction before meeting again. Question the frequency of all your meetings and then try to reduce them to however often you need to stay on track—and no more. For some that could mean meeting every other week. Others may be pared down to a monthly meeting.
Reduce length: Although the default in many calendars is for one-hour meetings, you don’t have to default to that setting. Your default could be 30 minutes or 45 minutes instead. Personally, I schedule meetings for either 60 minutes, 30 minutes, or 15 minutes. I offer the time range that seems sufficient to me. If you struggle with people respecting the meeting end time, you can start out meetings by saying something like, “I have a hard stop at 4 p.m.” And then about 10 minutes before 4 p.m., you can say, “I’ve got to leave in about 10 minutes, is there anything else you need from me before we wrap up?”
Reduce drive-by meetings: Informal meetings can be valuable. But they can also be overwhelming when they take up the very limited amount of time you have between scheduled meetings. To reduce drive-bys, you may need to create physical space, like working from a conference room, shutting your door, or working remotely. Or depending on your role, you may want to institute “office hours,” where you encourage your staff to pop in during certain times of the day instead of any time all day long.
Have an agenda: Make sure that no meeting wanders aimlessly without clarity about why you’re meeting and what you’re hoping to accomplish. For more formal meetings, you’ll want to have an agenda printed out for everyone. For less formal meetings, whoever called the meeting can talk through the bullet points of what they are looking to achieve by the end.
Have a facilitator: For larger meetings, complex meetings, or historically unproductive meetings, you will likely need to designate a facilitator. The meeting facilitator can explain the agenda, keep the conversation flowing in the right direction, take notes to distribute, and make sure that everyone has clarity on next steps by the end of the meeting. This helps ensure meetings accomplish their purposes and have enough documentation for constructive follow-up.
Have an out: You can set time expectations verbally (like I shared above) in order to reduce the meeting length. But if you find that you’re struggling to stick to those end-time boundaries, try to schedule your meetings in such a way that you have a true out. This could mean scheduling back-to-back meetings or scheduling something at a time where you or the other person attending has to leave for something specific like catching a train. Having a real ending point can ensure the discussion remains focused.