Have you ever stopped to think how much of your life you spend in meetings? Done well, they can be incredibly powerful, but very often they end up being inefficient and a drain. Having both attended countless meetings myself, and coached many senior executives who spend a large amount of their time in meetings, I have compiled some practical tips within the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology that should help avoid that horrid feeling that comes from being trapped in yet another pointless meeting.

For most people, their one trusted system is their calendar. Take it away, and they’d be lost. Yet this quickly turns into the syndrome that, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Thus “meeting culture” is born in an organisation—where in order to feel on top of a project or initiative, endless “check-in” meetings are booked into the diaries of everyone involved.

There is a better way. Using the GTD project and next action lists to manage the critical components of an initiative allows you to manage a team to outcomes without necessarily tying up everyone involved in repetitive real-time meetings. Going further, the agendas list can be used to build ad-hoc items for discussion, grouped by person, which avoids the “ambush in the elevator” syndrome as well as, often, the need for a formalised and scheduled meeting.

In short, when you have a full tool kit a la GTD, meetings become just one option, and people often naturally start to reduce the number of meetings they initiate when they find other, more appropriate means to managing their outcomes.

That said, meetings can be very powerful for the “human factor” of coming together to establish trust, build relationships, and remind one another that we are all in this together. This can also be brilliant for pooling the wisdom of the group to spot gaps in a plan up-front, offer key expertise, and help everyone to feel engaged and aligned.

To make that possible, first be clear and explicit about the intended outcome of each meeting. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined meeting is not worth attending.” Well, not really—but close.

Getting clear about the intent of a meeting sometimes makes it evident that a meeting is not the best approach. Is the point just to give an update? Maybe that would be better handled in a less time-intensive way. In fact, one cheeky individual has printed blue ribbons that say “I survived yet another meeting that should have been an email.” That’s how little anyone likes commuting across town or dialling into that conference bridge with the annoying hold music just to hear someone read out a status update.

Other lower-order meeting behaviours besides the dreaded status update include debate and discussion just for the sake of it, or political posturing. Even some so-called “working sessions” could have been better handled separately with good asynchronous communication parameters in place.

Setting a clear desired outcome is a critical first step to both avoiding unnecessary meetings and making sure that you have the right people in the room, focused on solving the right problems. The next key behaviour is to take the last ten minutes of the meeting to ask, “So, who is taking away what projects and next actions as a result of this meeting?” It will bring the conversation down to the actionable level, and ensure that changes get made outside the meeting room. It guarantees that the meeting ends up being more than just a nice conversation.

To recap—what can you do about meetings? First and foremost, learn to manage outcomes with a complete GTD tool kit, so that you can quite frankly minimise them. When you do have them, think about encouraging higher-order behaviours such as pooling the group wisdom to spot gaps in a project plan, rather than getting everyone together to hear an update read aloud. Be clear about the purpose of the meeting. At the end, take the time to ask what projects and next actions people are going to take away.

Knowing when to call a meeting, and how to make it most effective, is an art. Using a wider range of GTD tools can add new colours to your palette.

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