There's No Cure for Meetingitis

Someone, somewhere spent 18 consecutive hours in surgery yesterday and saved a life. A diplomat halfway around the world spent 38 hours mediating between two conflicting parties. Another selfless individual stayed awake for 27 hours straight to care for an ailing family member. A mother delivered a baby after 16 hours of labor. A group of firefighters fought a powerful blaze for 72 hours with little sleep to save a block of homes.

What did I accomplish this week? I spent exactly 34.7 hours in meetings.

I work in operations for a fairly complex non-profit organization that has numerous staff and volunteers and a very expansive vision. What does this mean? Some days I feel like don’t do much except coordinate the heck out of all these things through back-to-back meetings.

(Let me share a secret that might guide future career choices: When you get to some management levels, you no longer do any actual work. All you do is meet with other people and coordinate their work. You organize people and projects. You never really do anything. But you have to be good at running meetings or you won’t make it very far.)

Don’t get me wrong—I love my job. I get my kicks out of managing complexity and working with a great team. But sometimes I suffer from meetingitis. As an example, on Wednesday this week I was scheduled to be in meetings literally from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm—12 hours straight—and I wasn’t even attending a conference! I had an 8:00-9:00, a 9:00-12:00, a 12:00-1:00, 1:00-2:00, 2:00-3:00, and so on. The pinnacle: a planning meeting from 4:30-8:00 pm. The problem with this kind of schedule? When do you eat your protein?

For years, I have been trying to manage meetingitis. The topic has come up in discussions with colleagues about how to work smarter, not harder. Unfortunately, there is no vaccination, no pain management program—you are really on your own to figure out how to survive with this horrible disease. But I have come across some ideas that do help:

Schedule a No-Meeting Week. This idea is thanks to my friend Sue, who insists that setting aside a week where you do not schedule any meetings gives everyone necessary time to catch up to their work lives. Imagine having five whole days to file the monstrosity on your desk, to read that stack of dusty industry magazines, to develop long-term plans! (Granted, this means that all your meetings get packed into the week before or the week after. But having a breather in there somewhere, even if it makes your schedule a bit more jam-packed before and after, is still a great thing.)

Protest the 1-Hour Meeting Habit. We hold this weird belief that meetings have to be an hour, or scheduled in half-hour increments. Microsoft Outlook is to blame. And maybe our linear, production-line brains have something to do with it. Why can’t a meeting be 20 minutes? Or 38 minutes? I have a goal to change all of my meetings to 45 minutes, so if I do have back-to-back meetings, I’ll still have 15 minutes in between. Universities figured this out a long time ago—you have to allow for travel time (unless you have teleporting abilities). You also have to let people to go to the bathroom! Ever get to the end of the day and think, “I’ve been thirsty since 2:30, and haven’t had time to fill my water bottle.” One of the symptoms of meetingitis is dehydration, and a gnawing feeling in your stomach from lack of food. (A snack drawer helps, but that’s another story.)

Stand-Up Meetings. Innovative thinkers figured out a while ago if you get rid of tables and chairs, meetings become a lot more efficient. They take half the time that they would otherwise (and a quarter of the time than if you provide coffee, ice water, and bowls full of hard candy). So out with the candy! Out with the coffee! Out with the chairs! Let’s stand in discomfort and see how long those long-winded people will go! Stand-up meetings obviously work best for smaller issues or shorter subjects; you can’t do a strategic planning meeting that way.

Get Your Meeting Act Together. Meetings generally get a bad rap, because many are unproductive. They should be designed to assemble people around a specific purpose. So have a point, and make sure everyone knows what that is before they show up. Use Outlook to schedule it (don’t email people to ask when is the best time to meet—that’s what “Calendar” is for!). Include a few sentences in the notes field about what you hope to accomplish and you may not need to print an agenda. I learned this a long time ago—if you try to get people to come to a meeting without telling them what it is for, they get really cranky. I once worked at an organization where one of the senior managers regularly sent appointments with vague subject lines like “Touch Base” or “John and Kathy meet” and it used to stress out employees, because they’d then imagine all the different, terrible things the meeting could be for.

Finally, assuming you have read this far, you must currently have some time where you are meeting-free (unless you are reading this on your iphone during a particularly draggy meeting). So there is one more important thing to consider in battling meetingitis:

Schedule Meeting Time With Yourself. One staff person I know puts “Me Time” in her calendar. She blocks out an hour each day where she works out. If she doesn’t block it out as “Busy” in Outlook, her well-intending coworkers try to snag it. So set aside the time you need to do what you need to do and block it out in your calendar. That’s putting the big rocks in the glass jar before you put in the little rocks, and finally, filling in with sand. You can’t put the sand in first—if you do, your big rocks won’t have a chance to be part of your life.

Now that we’ve covered all the highlights, can I have a motion to adjourn? See you Monday at 9:30 am in Conference Room B.