• Thu, Jan 6 2011

Bullish: How to Get Out of Meetings, Permanently

If you live to be 85, you will get to be alive for 744,600 hours. If you have a forty-year career during which you spend about an hour a day in meetings 50 weeks a year, that’s about 10,000 hours, or 1.3% of your life, or 2% of your waking hours.

I don’t know about you, but if anything gets 2% of all the waking hours I get for my entire life, it really ought to involve liquor, orgasms, or receiving personalized trophies.

This year, liberate yourself from meetings! Just because you’re being paid to be there isn’t reason enough to spend your life that way. This year, set a goal to have at least two reasons before you spend your time on something (for instance, getting paid and actually making money for the company, getting paid and demonstrating skills to someone who has the power to promote you, getting paid and getting published, getting paid and getting paid so much that you can count it twice).

I’m not suggesting that meetings never need to happen; they do. But most meetings are far too long, far too frequent, and involve far too many people. For me (I work for a company, but I’m not in the office during regular hours), optimal meeting time is maybe 2-3 hours a month — enough to ask the questions I need to get things done, be sociable, and remind others that I exist.

As I wrote in Social Class in the Office, some of us find the mincing WASP-talk of most meetings insufferable:

[People from blue-collar backgrounds] had a hard time believing that meetings counted as work, or that the equivocation, circumlocution, and sheer word count of those meetings was really better than a boss just telling people what to do. In 2008, I had an office on West 35th Street, and had also volunteered to help put on a big event: let’s say it was a women-in-business seminar. I offered my conference room to the volunteer committee for one hour, and was very clear that the meeting had to get done within an hour. I was livid when the meeting dragged interminably. At every step, someone would say “How do you think we should do this thing none of us except Heather, who is not here, really know how to do?” I would say, “Let Heather do it however she thinks is best, since she’s the expert,” and then everyone would look at me as though I had just shot a pistol in the air as an act of dominance, and then they would keep going back in forth, all milquetoast-like, about how to do the thing that they didn’t really know how to do. I guess that makes people feel a sense of togetherness.

If your work and life are hampered by meetings, here are some ways to shorten those meetings, make them more productive, and/or escape from them entirely.

Take Charge, Keep It Short and Focused

The person with the printed agenda is in charge or at least looks the most prepared. It usually takes less than 5 minutes to type up something like this:

Project Z meeting 1/6/10

I. Manual writing
- table of contents
- assign tasks

II. Research platforms
- goals for new platform
- assign responsibility for research

III. Marketing
- update from Marissa
- new initiatives for summer?

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  • Thaler

    I had to deal with this issue running a theatre company in college. Every Monday, we had meetings with all the shows that were happening in the next four weeks–they were supposed to be 25-15 minute meetings each, depending on how close you were to opening, and it was to get the basic info the company needed: set plans, budgets, curtain times, et cetera. We would give basic information in response to these: here’s who approves that, you can’t buy this but you can buy that, etc. When I was just a staff member, however, these meetings DRAGGED ON. Any question a show had, we’d talk about in depth. We’d give people advice on specific technical things, give answers that were already in their information packet, etc. Meanwhile the following show would be waiting for 20 minutes, and the next one 40 minutes, and designers would have to leave and the later meetings wouldn’t even be productive because we wouldn’t have everyone. I had to put my foot down: we’d cover only what was on the agenda, stick religiously to the time limits, and other questions would be dealt with at another time, with the show’s Technical Advisors rather than the whole group. I actually got resistance at first, from the old guard, but in the end everyone was reasonable and happy with the change.

    I should add that this was before I was running the place–everyone was allowed to put in their opinions, and my efforts to improve how we ran things were basically WHY I ended up running it. So with some groups, taking a stand on this can really build people’s respect for you.