Let us start by reassuring you: if you feel overwhelmed by meetings, you’re not alone. Just about everyone dislikes meetings. Attending too many can become tiring and stressful, and managing invites and coordination adds another layer. Factor in Zoom fatigue and we are dealing with a real cultural problem. But what can be done? Turns out, you might have more control than you think. In this article our experts are discussing the very real problem of too many meetings, and what you can do to avoid meeting overload.
Related Article: Zoom Fatigue is Real: The Causes and Effects of Meeting Exhaustion
Too Many Meetings: A Productivity Killer
We weren’t exaggerating when we said most people dislike meetings. Though they have their place in a typical work environment, there can definitely be too much of a good thing. One Harvard Business Review survey found that managers stated that 83% of the meetings on their calendars were unproductive. Furthermore, US-based professionals rated meetings as “the number one office productivity killer”. Remote workers are also dealing with a very real phenomenon called “Zoom fatigue”, where being on constant online meetings or calls is also damaging in its own way. Taken together, it seems as though we just have too many meetings, and people don’t feel invigorated or productive despite the number of meetings. In fact, the opposite is true.
The Psychology Behind Too Many Meetings
If there is such a consensus that meetings can make us unproductive, why do we keep overloading our calendars? It seems as though endless check-ins, debriefs, status updates, all-staffs, and Zoom calls dominate the work landscape. Some psychologists may even say we have a sort of addition to meetings - even though we realize that such a propensity doesn’t serve us.
There is a psychological explanation for why we continue to bog our schedules down in meetings. Here are the reasons that many people hold and attend more meetings than they should:
1. Fear of missing out
FOMO applies to work too, not just fun. People tend to worry that their colleagues will judge them (or even worse, forget about them) if they don’t accept every invitation. Most people have deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be a “good worker”, and even in today’s environment of remote work, tend to equate presence with productivity. There is a fear that bosses use proximity as a gauge for commitment (and to be fair, many supervisors are guilty of this).
2. Applying “selfish urgency”
Everyone is guilty of thinking of themselves first from time to time; humans have a tendency to focus more on our own needs, desires, and perspectives. That can lead to what some experts call “selfish urgency”, where people schedule meetings according to their own sense of urgency. They may not take meeting attendees schedules or needs into account, instead planning meetings based on their own schedule or how quickly they need to get things done. Some people even knowingly plan meetings for times that are inconvenient for meeting attendees. It’s worth noting that this isn’t usually malicious, simply normal behavior for people who are desperately trying to get things done. Not only does this urgency make an individual more likely to schedule meetings, it can lead to team members responding “yes” to meetings that are inconvenient. Though they may have a conflict, they feel pressure to shuffle things around and attend, which adds another layer of stress.
4. Gauging commitment and tracking deadlines
It can be tempting to use meetings as a “commitment device” - that is, a mechanism for making sure people are on task and hitting milestones. People often schedule a meeting as a way to find out if people are following through on their commitments, when an email or quick phone call would likely suffice. Research does show that an external motivator (such as an upcoming meeting with your manager) can help people to meet deadlines. If there is a way for people to simply report on what they did or didn’t do, and give updates on the deadlines, that may be just as effective as holding a meeting. It can be a smart idea for managers to let project teams know that as long as a particular deadline is met, there won’t be a meeting to report on progress at all.
5. The “mere urgency effect”
This term refers to the tendency people have to complete seemingly urgent, but actually unimportant, tasks when they are stressed. This can manifest as a propensity to schedule and attend meetings in order to feel like we are accomplishing something. For this reason, many people are hesitant to decline or cancel them (even if they don’t really contribute to your larger goals).
6. Having meeting amnesia
Have you ever felt like you’ve been in a meeting before? Too often we end up sitting through the same sort of meeting over and over, with nothing new being accomplished. However, we consider holding or attending these meetings out of habit, or because it’s always been that way. This tends to happen even more in a virtual environment, where these particular touchpoints might be a team’s only interaction on some days. How carefully do your meeting attendees take notes and then recap the information to everyone? Make sure that everyone is clear on what was said and what was meant following a meeting. Find a format for sharing this information that makes it as accessible as possible, and you might discover that there’s no need for the next meeting on the topic.
7. A type of peer pressure
Otherwise known as “pluralistic ignorance”, is a phenomenon whereby even though we’re all experiencing the same thing, we assume that other people don’t feel the same way about it as we do. This means even though you may have sat through countless meetings that you find pointless, you assume other people find value in the meetings and don’t want to be the one to call out meetings that don’t add value. This bias causes people to schedule and attend meetings even when everyone secretly agrees that they’re useless, because they assume they’re the only ones who think so.
How Leaders Can Manage Meeting Loads
Creating a more effective meeting culture is a top-down initiative. It will start with the way that company leadership views and schedules meetings. Before we share tips on what you, personally, can do to overcome meeting overload, let's look at some things that team leaders can do to help their whole team.
1. Avoid encouraging FOMO
As we mentioned above, many people attend meetings mainly because they are afraid of the reaction or what will happen if they don’t. As a boss, make sure your employees know that you see value and engagement outside of meeting attendance. When planning meetings, carefully consider what you hope to find out or accomplish. Then, reach out to your team and see if they can provide these updates beforehand. Ask for input on the topic and see if you can find out what you need to know without holding a meeting. It’s also important to let your team know that leaving someone off a meeting invite isn’t an insult - you are just being respectful of people’s time. In fact, you can actually acknowledge to people when a meeting would be a waste of their time. In these cases, make the meeting optional and be very clear that people should use their own judgment about how to make the best use of their time.
2. Don’t use meetings as a commitment device
The amount that you personally interact with someone is not an indicator of their performance overall. If the remote trend has taught us anything, it’s that most people can do their jobs very effectively without being present in person. Don’t gauge someone’s commitment by how often they attend meetings. Similarly, if you can get the updates you need on projects without scheduling a meeting, try to do so. For example, rather than a weekly status meeting, why not try a check-in on a collaboration tool like Teams? Or, ask people to submit brief written updates on the same day each week. As mentioned above, you might make it a new policy that as long as deadlines are being met, there’s no need for a meeting. Even a quick group email asking if anyone has anything new to cover can go a long way toward limiting meetings that don’t add value.
3. Consider opportunity costs when scheduling
It’s important to be proactive in order to avoid the selfish urgency we spoke about. Beyond just being considerate of other people’s time, think about where they add the most value in your organization. What does it actually cost to bring certain people together for an hour? What else could they be working on in that time? Is this meeting really the best use of their time? These costs could be financial, such as the hourly rate for getting a group of managers together, or other forms like someone’s personal time or commuting resources. You can even use a meeting calculator like this one to figure out a monetary cost per meeting. You can also talk candidly to your team about the potential costs of meetings and how they impact their personal lives or work goals. Evaluate your meeting schedule and make sure the benefits outweigh the costs of each instance.
4. Make canceling the default
Don’t hold meetings just to feel like you’re making some traction in an area. We suggest evaluating each meeting and considering the benefit of canceling or ending early. For example, instead of holding a meeting where you ask “Does anyone have any updates?”, send an email prior to the meeting suggesting that unless anyone has an important update, the meeting will be canceled. If you have a regular meeting and you’re not sure it’s helpful, consider canceling it for a week or two and see what happens. You may find that you don’t even miss it.
5. Document and collaborate
Remember that meeting amnesia we mentioned? A lot of that could be avoided by having a repository of notes that everyone follows along with. For any meeting that does occur, make sure there is a detailed recap sent out. We suggest sending it not only to attendees, but anyone who is invited or maybe a stakeholder in the outcome. Then, rather than holding another update in the next week, ask everyone to add a brief status to the notes document. Too many meetings end up being held simply because people can’t really remember where everyone landed last time. Make it as simple as possible for people to review updates and deadlines and provide their own status in a format that’s easy to view and share.
6. Model healthy meeting behavior
One of the most important things you can do as a business leader is to set a great example. If you provide your staff great tips around not getting bogged down in meetings - but then schedule a ton of meetings - that’s not helpful. Do you find yourself attending meetings where you don’t know if you can add value? Do you make meeting invite lists that include people with very limited connection to a project? Do you attend meetings even if you know your time would be better spent elsewhere? If so, these are all behaviors to stop. Research from HBR shows that the most productive employees tend to attend fewer meetings and protect their calendars so that they can focus on more engaging work. Consider the fact that your team needs more time to actually get things done, and start making that happen by implementing meeting best practices yourself.
7. Ask for feedback
Not sure which meetings are adding value and which are a waste? Do you know your team’s real feelings about your meeting structure? Try simply asking them. You can do this informally in a conversation, or create a survey to send out. Teams should be encouraged to openly share suggestions and frustrations about meetings. You can even start by asking which meeting people are most likely to multitask during - and then try canceling it for a week or two and seeing what happens.
How Can Individuals Manage Meeting Burnout?
Even if you have the best company leadership in the world, you’ll still need to be proactive about managing your schedule and creating boundaries. The truth is that even the most progressive companies who try to limit useless meetings can still fall victim to the psychological elements we mentioned above. What are some things that you - personally - can do to overcome meeting overload?
1. Look for new ways to demonstrate value
You’ll be more likely to attend pointless meetings if you feel you haven’t done much worth boasting about lately. It’s hard-wired in our brains to believe that the more our boss sees us, the “busier” they will think we are. If you feel confident about your work and the value that you provide, you’ll be better able to decline meetings that you don’t need to be at. As you go through your workday, spend more time focused on ways to accomplish real organizational goals and less time trying to “show up” for meetings. Is your performance evaluated each year? If so, what are those evaluations based on? Those areas are the ones that should get most of your attention, with meeting attendance following those priorities.
2. Ask around (diplomatically) about how others feel
As we mentioned, it’s really common for meetings to continue because everyone feels that they are the only one who thinks they’re a waste of time. If you constantly sit in a certain meeting thinking it’s pointless, chances are others feel that way too. You don’t want to intentionally shake things up and undermine meeting organizers, but don’t be afraid to ask another person or two how much value they’re finding in the meeting format. If there seems to be consensus that a meeting is ineffective, look for ways to improve. That might be changing the format or scheduling, or changing the way information is shared altogether.
3. Take - and share - detailed notes
Great documentation can save a lot of time and reduce meetings. For each meeting, have a designated note-taker who documents important updates and next steps. This person should also be responsible for sharing these documents and then updating them each week. The more “in the loop” everyone feels, the less need there is for a meeting.
4. Block off your calendar
Pretty straightforward! Though we know creating such boundaries can be easier said than done. Try to manage your calendar in a way that limits your own scheduling stress. For example, if you have a long commute, could you block off your calendar from 4-6 pm each day to allow for it? Or, if you know you need a few minutes to get acclimated to the office each morning, block off that initial 30 minutes so that people will be less likely to schedule meetings first thing. Of course, every work environment is different and only you know how much autonomy you have over your schedule. In some cases it may be necessary to speak with your supervisors about how your schedule can accommodate the demand for meetings as well as other personal commitments.
4. Cancel what you can
For any meeting that you organize, ask yourself “Does this really need to be a meeting?” If not, cancel it. If an email or brief phone call can address any questions, go that route. Similarly, at the beginning of each week, review your meeting schedule and be judicious about which ones you really need to attend. Remember that the most productive employees limit the time they spend sitting in meetings. Any meeting you attend should ultimately contribute to the most important deliverables of your role in the organization. If you’re not sure if you need to be in a meeting, ask the organizer.
5. Don’t take meeting exclusion as an insult
Particularly at a company with a meeting-heavy culture, it can be tempting to feel like not being invited to a meeting is a slight. However, perhaps - especially as people become more respectful of people’s time - the organizers realized the meeting isn’t the best way for you to spend your time. If there are meetings you attend where you find yourself tuning out or multi-tasking consistently, ask if you might be removed from the invitation list. Or, if there are meetings happening that you think you should have some input in, try to connect directly with the meeting organizer or ask if you can be put on a distribution list for recap emails.
6. Minimize the meeting
When you schedule meetings, try to keep them as streamlined as possible. That means limiting the number of invitees and keeping them short. Don’t invite people defensively, because you are afraid they will feel left out. Instead, invite only people who can add real value or need to be in the loop for decision-making. At the same time, aim for 30 or 45 minute meetings vs. one hour. Some professionals make it a best practice to always leave a 5 or 10 minute gap at the beginning and end of meetings so that everyone can get where they need to be and get situated. Surely their colleagues appreciate this consideration.
Related Article: How to Curb Meeting Fatigue and Hit Refresh
In what is often a work-obsessed world, meeting overload is bound to happen. Fortunately, the modern era presents many opportunities to streamline work and remain productive without spending too much time in meetings. So much of what used to be accomplished in meetings can now be completed using other platforms. Shift is a productivity tool that can help you to streamline the apps and systems that you utilize every day, for work or personal use. It’s a desktop app that allows users to collaborate across accounts and workflows, saving valuable time and limiting the amount of in-person communication that needs to occur. Try implementing Shift as part of your effort to limit meetings and be more productive in your everyday tasks and communication. Download Shift and work across all of your apps without logging in and out.