Before I became a people leader, most of my time at work in my corporate day job was my own. I spent it working at a microscope in the lab or in my office analyzing data, writing reports and sending communications to clients. Occasionally there would be a meeting or 2 throughout the week, but rarely more than 2 on a given day. Some of them were simply impromptu and happened based on clear necessity to discuss results and get someone's opinion on some data to determine next steps for a project.
This all changed when I became a people leader. Suddenly I was missing my blissful time to myself to look at data and simply think. The hours of free time that I could fill to my choosing soon became blocked with back to back meetings starting as early as 7 am and sometimes extending beyond 6pm. There were days I barely had time to go to the bathroom let alone eat lunch. Hopping quickly from meeting to meeting and shifting topics was exhausting. How was I ever going to get anything done at this rate?
The thing that surprised me was that the worst perpetrators of this meeting madness were other leaders. Often people would arrive late to the meetings and let them run over the scheduled end time making you perpetually late to each meeting all day. There were also lots of changes at the last minute with meetings being canceled, rescheduled and then the issue with double booking, and sometimes triple booking.
One time someone set up time with me, was 45 minutes late and then expected me to arrange my schedule to accommodate them. As enraged as I was at their lack of awareness that there were other people on the planet besides them, I politely excused myself from the conference room because I had to leave and pick up my children. The look of shock on their face was simply astounding. No shows, late arrivals, disorganization, meetings running late and people requesting meetings during dinner with my family. One time I had a meeting get put on my calendar 10 minutes after it had already started while I was on a call with another person. Nope. Just Nope.
What I found most fascinating was that these meetings were largely under control of the people who set them up. That's right, leaders. Leaders complained about not having any time to do anything during the work day, but were the cause of their own misery. If I had to continue playing this game I was going to lose my mind. Burn-out was on the horizon if not already here and I wanted to scream, "Time Out!" Was I the only one who felt like what we were covering in meetings didn't require a formal meeting for the duration allocated to be successful? There had to be a better way than "how we have always done it."
It was time to change the game and create new rules and boundaries. I started declining meeting notices that didn't work with my schedule and blocking more time on my calendar to think. It wasn't always easy and I kept getting push-back, but standing my ground was well worth the peace it gave me.
My favorite example was a 60 minute meeting invite I received to discuss thoughts on a resource option for a project I needed done. I knew that was overkill so I politely replied that I could give them 20 minutes. Guess what? They talked for 15 minutes non-stop about background details that had already been communicated previously via e-mail. Once they were done, I replied with 2 sentences of what I thought would work for the project in about 1 minute. They talked for the remaining 4 minutes again recapping details. Then the meeting adjourned.
Here is what I learned from that: people fill the time you give them and will likely be able to make things fit when you establish boundary conditions. That meeting could have been a 5 minute phone-call, giving me 15 minutes to follow-up with my team on things they needed from me to actually get moving on the solution. There is certainly benefit at times to have conversations that build trust in these situations to make things go faster in the future. You need to decide when that is the case and when you can trim the meeting. If you are in a meeting marathon situation, you must be bold in freeing up time to get started.
I know I am also guilty of not being the best meeting host, forgetting to set up an agenda and not communicating the desired outcomes. I have also been a slacker attendee at times when I am invited to meetings that are lacking clarity of purpose. I have used that time to clean my office, organize my briefcase and even paint my nails. It would have been better to just decline rather than disengage. The reality is that you cannot stay focused perfectly when you have back to back meetings all day long.
I set up a meeting with myself for creative problem solving around this issue. Having time to reflect on these mistakes inspired me to create a meeting playbook, Fewer Meetings Greater Impact: Playbook for Hosts and Attendees. You will learn tips for how to master your meetings like a pro and take back your time. You can snag your copy today from my website. Not sure you have time? Then perhaps it is time to set up a meeting with yourself with the desired outcome of learning how to design a meeting strategy that is just right for you.