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This post was refreshed on December 11, 2022

American workers spend a LOT of time in meetings. My clients tell me they often feel frustrated and annoyed in these meetings, so they multitask during the meetings, especially if the meetings are virtual.

This raises several questions about how to make meetings more effective. How can you ensure that the meetings you do hold help your team members accomplish their most significant results, rather than waste their time and increase their risk of disengagement and burnout?

I’ve spent the past two decades helping global leaders be more productive. Over that time, I’ve come up with my top tips for how leaders can hold the most effective meetings possible.


1. Determine if your meeting is necessary.

3 people at meeting

If you’re holding a meeting, ask yourself if there are other means available to solve the problem, given how busy you know everyone is—and how much you know that everyone dislikes meetings.

Ask yourself if meeting synchronously (either in person or via video conference) is really necessary to achieve your purpose. For example, let’s say you’re trying to collect feedback on a new website design. Could you create a feedback document to share comments asynchronously instead?

Or maybe you want to gather opinions on what topic should be the focus of the upcoming retreat. Consider sending a survey that your team members can fill out at their convenience. You can use Google Forms or Survey Monkey to create your survey for free.



2. Set a meeting goal and share it in advance.

If you determine that a meeting is the best way to move forward, then ask yourself, “What is the GOAL of the meeting?”  Fill in this blank:  “At the end of the meeting we will have/know/do ___________.”  

Share the goal of the meeting in your invitation to attend. Informing you invitees that you have clearly thought through the objective will reassure them that you will not waste their time.

If you’re invited to a meeting planned by someone else, but the meeting organizer fails to outline the intended meeting goal, ask for clarification before you agree to show up. The other invitees will thank you.


3. Create the meeting agenda and share it in advance.

When you’re organizing a meeting, another way you can communicate that you value everyone’s time is by sharing the agenda in advance.

Not only is an agenda important, but take it a step further by adding time limits to each agenda item. The meeting itself should have a start and end time. But each agenda item should also have an allotted time. This helps in two ways: 

First, you will be able to see whether all of the discussion points will fit within the scheduled time. 

Second, if someone tries to hijack the meeting, you can point back at the agenda and say something like, “I’d love to discuss this further, but we need to move on now to stay on schedule.” 

An agenda with time limits empowers everyone in the room to keep the meeting on track without hurting anyone’s feelings.


4. Choose the right time of day.


A fascinating study of prisoners seeking parole in Israeli courts found that the parole board was more likely to grant parole to prisoners whose cases were heard first thing in the morning.  Scholars found that the early-birds fared better due to the mental exhaustion of the parole board members who suffered from “decision fatigue” as the day wore on. 

In other words, by afternoon, parole board members were too mentally exhausted to think through the cases of the prisoners and so defaulted to not granting them parole.

While psychologists are now debating whether decision fatigue is real, I know it is for me. Accepting that this is a real phenomenon, I suggest scheduling meetings when people are often higher on energy, like early morning, but not first thing. (Giving workers a chance to make progress on their task list first thing can contribute to feelings of accomplishment.) Conversely, avoid setting meetings to discuss important issues at times when people are often low on energy— like right before lunch or at the end of the day. 


5. Start and end your meetings at off times.

Illustration of people meeting with a clock behind them

People are always late to meetings. There are a variety of good reasons ranging from needing to return a personal call to desperately wanting more coffee to needing to use the bathroom.

Whatever the reason, scheduling back–to–back meetings and expecting them to all start on time with all attendees ready to go is unrealistic. Instead, schedule your meeting to start at 10 or 15 minutes after the hour. Alternately or additionally, consider ending your meetings 5 or 10 minutes early, in case attendees’ next meeting starts at the top or the bottom of the hour. 

You’ll see that people will arrive more refreshed having had a short break to take care of whatever it is that they needed to do. They will appreciate the opportunity to stretch and refuel, and will likely be more attentive at your meeting, and they’ll be grateful for a few extra minutes to make a mindful shift into their next meeting.



6. Use a meeting scheduler app to find the best time.

Illustration of a schedule with a checkmark on it

Take advantage of technology to help you schedule your meetings when the people you would like to attend are most likely to be available. Avoid using email as it requires excessive messages and therefore is inefficient for this purpose.

If all attendees work in the same company, check the calendars of the decision-maker and the subject matter expert (see #8 below) and then try to find times that work for others who you’d like to attend.

If you’re scheduling the meeting with people who are outside of your organization (and so you don’t have visibility into their calendars), try sending out a Doodle poll.


7. Only invite people who are absolutely necessary.

Open envelope with invitation inside

Only invite people who are absolutely necessary to achieve the goal of your meeting. Don’t invite people just because you don’t want to hurt their feelings by leaving them out. (More likely, the people you leave out will thank you.) Or at least if you invite them, let them know they are being invited only as “bystander” (see #8 below).

Also, avoid redundancies: Don’t invite two people from the same team when only one is the real decision-maker. 


8. Assign each attendee a specific role and share it in advance.

Assign each person whom you’re inviting to play a specific role in the meeting, and let the person know in advance, so that they can come fully prepared. Here are some common roles:

Timekeeper/scribe Someone who can keep the agenda on track and record the minutes
Information gatherer/representative This person will speak on behalf of a particular team and report back to that team on the results of the meeting.
Subject matter expert If the meeting requires specific expertise that other attendees don’t have, the subject matter expert will provide it.
Information sharer This person can provide a historical perspective on your meeting topic, if this would be helpful to moving the conversation forward.
Decision-maker The buck stops with this person regarding any decisions made at the meeting.
Bystander A bystander is someone who doesn’t have an active role in the meeting, but may be invited for the purposes of learning more about the topic. 


9. Send directions for the video conferencing platform in advance.

Paper airplane

These days, it’s more than likely at least some of your meeting attendees will be remote. Don’t assume that everyone knows how to use your chosen platform. 

Instead, send out directions ahead of time on how to use particular video conferencing features, such as blurring the background and hiding self-view. Also, explain how attendees can weigh in with feedback using the applause or the raised hand icon.

You might assume that post–pandemic, everyone knows this already, but I host virtual meetings with clients every week, and I can assure you that this is not the case. Even if your participants are very tech-savvy, it bears repeating and can help clarify expectations (see #11 below).


10. Start and end your meetings on time. 

Illustration of three people at meeting

Be sure to role-model the importance of sticking to the clock. If you don’t, people will no longer be sure when meetings actually start or if they are going to blow up their calendars by running late. Meetings that don’t respect the clock contribute to an unproductive work culture. And if your meeting runs longer than an hour, be sure to incorporate a break.


11. Explicitly request that your meeting attendees put away other devices, or close out other programs (for virtual meetings).

Illustration of smartphone

Research is clear that multitasking is a myth. When people think they can multitask, they are really just shifting attention from one item to another, accomplishing neither task as well as they would if they performed one to completion and then performed the next. 

Meeting attendees who multitask do so because they feel that the meeting will waste their time and so they need to accomplish something else simultaneously. A study by Dr. Steven Rogelberg and found that 70% of meeting attendees multitask. 

But if you’ve taken the steps outlined above, you’ve ensured that your meeting will be productive for everyone in attendance. That gives you every right to request that attendees now put away their other devices to focus on the agenda.

Ask people to put their phones out of reach and take notes by handwriting on paper or on a handwriting app on a tablet. These techniques are less distracting and help ensure that everyone is mentally present.

Also, you can remind attendees that there is a scribe at the meeting who will send notes about the important tasks and follow-up items in short order.



12. Start with a 5-minute connecting activity.

If your office is hybrid or fully remote, people may be looking forward to connecting socially, and while this is important, it can divert from your agenda. Connection is critical for a well-functioning team, one with members who feel energized rather than burnt out.

So start your meeting with a quick connection activity. Ask a fun question such as “What famous person do you wish you could meet?” and put people in pairs to discuss for two minutes. (If the meeting is remote, put each pair in a breakout room.) Then get back together and report the results.

Sharing a  good laugh bodes well for a good meeting.


13. Ask the scribe to promptly send a summary of key decisions and action items with the minutes.

Illustration of stopwatch

The meeting scribe plays a critical role because one of the key reasons people are afraid to decline meetings is that they don’t want to inconvenience others by asking for a summary afterward. 

It’s likely that someone who intended to attend your meeting will have a conflict or be out sick. Someone else you’ve invited will be afraid to decline. This is why you need to assure everyone that there will be a scribe assigned to take notes, including any action items required. 

If the scribe is not you, then be sure the scribe is prepared to write a brief meeting summary that includes: 1. Decisions made in the meeting; 2. Action steps agreed to in the meeting; 3. People responsible for these actions; 4. Due dates for the actions.

The scribe should include the meeting summary in the body of the email and not as an attachment. This way people are more likely to read it. It’s also important for the scribe to send out the notes as soon as possible after the meeting ends.


14. Allot 15 minutes of processing time for every one-hour meeting.

Illustration of Hourglass

Back-to-back meetings are inefficient for a variety of reasons, including that you may fail to process what was actually said in each meeting. That defeats the purpose of attending the meeting in the first place.

Instead, a good rule of thumb is to allow 15 minutes of processing time after every one-hour meeting that you attend. Processing time is for taking notes, recording action items that you’ve agreed to take, scheduling follow-up conversations, etc. This allows you to make a thoughtful and intentional shift, mentally closing out one meeting and preparing for the next meeting. 

This rule holds true for longer meetings and conferences, as well. Block out an hour of processing time on your calendar immediately following a half-day meeting and two hours of processing time following a full-day meeting. Following this step will help you feel less frazzled during your work day.



15. Give team members permission to decline meetings.

It’s rare for leaders to explicitly discuss with their team members that sometimes it’s okay to decline a meeting, and also tell them exactly how to do it.  

Dr. Steven Rogelberg found in his study that employees often accept a meeting they’d rather decline. Leading reasons for doing so include fear of offending the meeting initiator, or worrying they’ll be kept out of the loop if they don’t attend.

Your team members will likely feel more comfortable declining invitations from peers than from leaders, and from people outside of their team rather than within their team. 

But as a leader, you can empower your workers by telling them you trust their judgment, and that they can decline any meetings from anyone if they feel there is another way to get the information or the meeting will interrupt their focus on moving forward on their most important goals.

Teach your team members how to identify a meeting that will be worth their time: one that has an explicit goal, agenda, roles, and is likely to be followed up with an email that summarizes action items. This information will help attendees to prioritize their days by comparing the meeting and its relative importance to them with their important tasks for the day. 

If the meeting organizer can’t be bothered to deliver the planning upfront, then your team member shouldn’t need to feel obligated to attend.


Productive Meetings are Planned With Care

I hope it’s clear that effective meetings are planned in advance so as to be productive and value everyone’s time. Of course, since planning a meeting takes time, it’s wise to limit the number of meetings you hold, and only attend those meetings for which you can adequately prepare. 

Aim to cut down on the number of meetings you hold and attend. Do so by leaning into sharing information asynchronously. This is bound to increase your team’s overall productivity.