(Illustration by Marco Goran Romano)

Meetings! Ah, that stark fact of life in the workplace.

Personally, I have come to a basic conclusion: They take up too much time, produce too few results and need to be made shorter and more focused, if not curbed altogether.

As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson note in their book Remote: Office not Required, meetings “require multiple people to drop whatever it is they’re doing and instead do something else. If you’re calling a meeting, you better be sure pulling seven people away from their work for an hour is worth seven hours of lost productivity.”

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what it would take to make meetings that worthwhile and productive — or, alternatively, how to diplomatically cut many of them out of our calendars. Of course, doing something about this state of affairs is easier said than done, but here's how I've been trying to put it into practice.

Most of us leave any given meeting knowing immediately if it was successful and useful or not, but rarely do we step back and take a full audit of all our recent meetings. I've started doing this, though — setting aside time at the end of the week or the end of the month to look at my calendar, identify all the meetings I attended and then grade them. A green mark means the meeting produced some valuable outcome for me and my team, a yellow mark means it was a reasonably good use of time, and a red mark means I hope to never have that sort of meeting again.

Then I look at the red meetings and dig a little deeper. Did I or someone else request these meetings? Could I have done something to make the meetings more productive? How important were these meetings and my participation in them?

This relatively quick exercise helps me drop future meetings that are unnecessary in the week or month ahead, and think twice about scheduling others. It also helped me to establish meeting criteria. I've started suggesting that meetings involving information-sharing can be handled via email, or that we have brief discussions on a less formal and time-consuming basis.

In an effort at personal efficiency, I now take an extra few minutes when a meeting invitation appears in my inbox to decide whether to attend or decline the request. It adds a little bit of time in the short term, but saves me hours of wasted meeting time in the long term.

I then always clarify the decision with whoever is sending the invitation. If I think a meeting is unnecessary, I've started saying so and suggesting an alternate approach. I'll write something like, “Can you send an email to share information?" Or, "Would we be better served to have you research a topic, collaborate with your teammates, and then prepare a decision memo or email for review?”

Of course, sometimes meetings are essential, in which case it really pays to develop effective strategies for producing the outcome you're after.

If you have information-sharing or coordinating meetings where one person is doing most of the talking, recognize that the format has to be tailored to keep the staff from nodding off. If you are having a group problem-solving or brain-storming session, put your effort instead toward figuring out the conversation structure and techniques that are most likely to yield good ideas. If you need to make a collective decision, your focus ahead of time should be on planning a method for effectively and efficiently determining the shared course of action.

Most of all, just make sure your meetings are to the point and as short as possible.

Do you have any meeting tips or nightmare experiences? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below, or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

 Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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