How to make meetings more bearable

Every month in our Life Lab Work Experiment, Oliver Burkeman invites you to try out a new concept


How to make meetings more bearable

The project

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone, from chief executives to juniors, who doesn’t think meetings are tedious, inefficient, and a distraction from getting stuff done. Some firms have abolished them – but even if that’s not an option, there are tactics to make them more bearable, whatever your status at work.

The aim

Meetings are poorly designed for the job they’re intended to do. It’s the loudest and most confident, not the best-qualified, whose opinions hold sway. Everyone wants to look like they’re contributing, so meetings drag on while each person has a say, no matter how unhelpful. Before any meeting, clarify what it’s meant to achieve, and what you need from it.

The theory

There are three basic species of meeting. The most maddening is the ‘status report’, where people update each other on progress. This rarely needs a meeting: consider group emails, internal wiki pages, or Google Docs instead. The second is the brainstorming meeting, to generate ideas. Studies suggest these rarely work: a better technique is for people to list ideas alone, then share them, maybe by email. The third is for making decisions: these can’t be avoided, but they’ll go more smoothly if someone begins by clarifying the decision and options to be considered. Knowing which kind of meeting it is will help you to get the most from it – or let you conclude you’re safe to daydream instead.

Try it out

  • Get on your feet. In one study, meetings held standing up were on average a third shorter – yet decisions made weren’t any worse. Standing was sufficient to stop people burbling pointlessly on.
  • Eliminate one meeting. If you’re the boss, ask yourself if there’s one regular meeting you could do without. If you’re not the boss, suggest this. If you present it as a way for people to get more done, you’ll get a two-for-one benefit – enhancing your reputation while making your life easier.
  • Always end with who and what. Spend the last few minutes defining specific ‘next actions’ – to avoid everyone being so confused that the only recourse is… to hold another meeting.

OLIVER BURKEMAN is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (Canongate, £8.99).

More inspiration:

Read Why you get triggered at work and how to stay calm by Obi James on LifeLabs