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
– update from Marissa
– new initiatives for summer?
If you’re a very junior person in the meeting and you feel that printing out agendas for everyone would be taken the wrong way, trying emailing a “suggested agenda” to your boss ahead of the meeting, and emphasizing that you just wanted to make sure all those things get discussed so you have enough information to do your work. Or, just don’t call it an agenda — name it “Discussion points for 1/6/10” or something. Personally, though, I’ve found that no one’s ever been offended by my bringing copies of an agenda to a meeting; if someone feels that they’re above you, they’ll regard your efforts as secretarial rather than commandeering.
Even if your agenda attempt doesn’t allow you to seize control of the whole meeting (undoubtedly there are things other people want to bring up), there’s a good chance that your effort will get the items on your agenda discussed first, after which it may be possible to escape once “your” portion is done.
Stop Powerpoint Robots
I recently attended a conference in which a man began reading every word off his Powerpoint. This is rule #1 of presentations: unless you are making a presentation to blind people or toddlers, DON’T FUCKING DO THAT. After about 8 slides, the man caught himself (he seemed quite nervous), and said, “Well, I’m sure you can read this yourself. Let me just add….” Problem solved, right? Until a woman in the back of the audience spoke up, “Hi, can you please read all of the slides to us? I can’t see back here.”
Unfortunately, I was there representing a company, or I would certainly have suggested (aloud) that bringing her glasses might have kept her from wasting one hundred people’s time. (I’m also the person who “reminds” people in the subway to “Stand to the right, walk to the left!” And, as long as we’re talking about speaking up, here’s a column about shutting down street harassment).
In any case, here are some more socially acceptable suggestions to stop people from reading their Powerpoints to you as though you are a child and they are Teddy Ruxpin.
After a meeting in which this occurs (ideally, a meeting in which there is more than one offender, so it looks like you are arguing against a practice rather than a person), suggest via email or to a superior that, in the future, all Powerpoints be emailed at least 2 hours in advance of the meeting. If you can get this to happen, that won’t necessarily stop a Powerpoint robot from reading it to the group, so pre-empt that behavior by saying — very early on, before the person begins — “I’ve read your Powerpoint, thanks for sending that. Since we’ve all already got what you sent, I was really hoping you could elaborate on X in slide 3.”
If still faced with a Powerpoint reader, try to politely interrupt every time the person starts reading by jumping ahead and asking a question — “I see that your next bullet point is ‘increase sales by 20%’ — can you give us more information about that?” Maybe they’ll get the hint.
Many meetings are far, far longer than they have to be because, for some people, meetings give them a bigger audience than the area immediately around the water cooler for sharing industry-specific anecdotes. At nearly every job, there is some class of people everyone has awful stories about — often, the clients. Hearing funny stories about them is often the most pleasurable part of a meeting; however, it is socializing, not moving the meeting efficiently towards its natural end. When viewed in the context of the rest of the meeting, such anecdote-sharing seems really fun. But when compared to actually socializing after work with your actual friends (which you would get to do more of if you could get the same work done in less time), it doesn’t seem so fun anymore.
So, look out for anecdote-sharing and ruthlessly redirect. As soon as someone starts telling a story, other people smile and are generally thinking of their own similar story to follow with. This will seriously derail a meeting. You can keep it on the rails. Try to pull this off politely: “That’s hilarious! I’m sure we all have awful client stories. So, are we all agreed that we’re moving forward with item 2 on the agenda?” Or how about, “We have so many terrible client stories around here that we could start StupidClientStories.com. Ha.” That makes it kind of obvious that you really can’t be hearing all of those stories today.
Drive-By Meeting Attendance
In almost every job, there are certain activities — such as actually selling something or otherwise making money directly — that are considered sacrosanct. No one would reschedule them so you could participate in a team-building ropes course. So, try to schedule one of these activities exactly one hour after every meeting (or, if possible, instead of the meeting).
Drive-by meeting attendance is often the best of both worlds, and you can often avoid irking people by actually submitting something useful to the meeting, hence contributing your fair share in a currency other than meeting time — for instance, “I can’t stay today, but here’s my research; I’ll go with whatever you guys decide.” Half an hour doing research to drop off to a meeting builds your reputation for expertise far more than does an hour of sitting obediently in place.
Another important part of extricating yourself from stupid meetings is to decline to be a part of decisionmaking on topics on which you are not an expert (unless you can use the call for your opinion as a way to show support for your boss or an ally). Meetings sometimes have the unsalubrious effect of forcing people to have opinions about things they don’t really care about and have no expertise in. For instance, do not ask me what color to make the fucking logo. My opinion is truly irrelevant. If you want me to research what color we should make the logo, then I’ll look into what colors people most associate with our industry, with happy feelings, with spending money, whatever, but either ask me for my educated judgment and then take the advice, or leave me the hell alone and ask someone who does know what they’re talking about.
I’m not suggesting that you hoard your time by professing ignorance in all things. I am suggesting that you can actually enhance your credibility, and even make allies, by tossing decisions in other people’s area of expertise back to them. Saying “I’m not an expert in that topic” implies that you are an expert in some other topic, the one that actually is your career. I say “I don’t know” all the freaking time. If I say “I don’t know” to five questions about differential calculus, medical school admissions, the Korean educational system, what the weather will be like this weekend, and how to use Quark, then when I do answer a question about the GRE, I think more people might listen.
Also, every time you say, “Kayla is really the expert in that — I’m behind whatever she decides” means that Kayla is pretty likely to later toss a decision you actually care about back to you.
Commandeering Your Public Calendar
If you work at a job with one of those awful public calendars where other people can schedule your time, take charge of that situation. A colleague of mine was approached in the hall by a coworker who said, “Hey, I noticed that you’re really busy, but you had this empty spot between noon and 1, so I scheduled you into our meeting.” She said, “Um, that’s my lunch.” Since then, she’s had to actually schedule her own lunches into her calendar so no one steals them. So, fine, do that if you must. Let’s take that a step further.
When people schedule your time in the public calendar, try emailing them with “I am really slammed this week and need to do X by close of business on Friday. Can we just arrange this over email or with a phone call? How about now?” Suggesting that your participation be moved up (to “now”) rather than postponed eliminates the idea that you are shirking, and can have the effect of intimidating people into realizing that your time is important.
Next, use your public calendar to schedule uninterrupted work sessions — start with two hours a day, like 10-12 or 1-3 (pick a stretch that has few meetings in it, so as to minimize objections). Make sure you get a lot done — if possible, email your supervisor something important that you did during that time. If no one objects to your scheduled blocks of work, then increase those scheduled work sessions (for instance, 1-5pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday?)
Telecommute, Go Freelance, Effect Your Own Professional Manumission
Many of the suggestions above are dependent on the idea that, in your job, you have important work to do that needs to get done by a certain time. If things are a bit mushier, I think you might actually benefit by requesting deadlines. “When do you need this by?” What boss would ever deny you a deadline? Once you have a deadline, you have a solid reason to abjure meetings or other distractions that would prevent you from meeting that deadline.
Having deadlines also makes it much easier to extricate yourself from the 9-to-5 working world. I’ve written many times about arranging telecommuting. Once you arrange even a partial work-at-home situation, this gives you license to emphasize that your time is zero-sum — “Would you rather I spend three hours commuting to and attending this meeting or stay home and finish [important project]?” You can even point out that you will be available by phone or Skype at that time, should anything in the meeting specifically require your input.
Time is zero-sum, of course. While meetings are often a waste of time, commuting is usually an even bigger waste of time. Anytime your work products are clearly valuable and you have firm deadlines to meet is a fine time to negotiate a complete absence from the office. I’m writing this column from Quito, Ecuador, where, strangely, I get a lot more done boiling my drinking water and hanging my clothes on a clothesline than I do in New York, where my groceries, new clothes, office supplies, and cases of beer are delivered to my door. I’ll miss four meetings while I’m here; I’ll return having (I hope) written a book.
This week, I had the pleasure of visiting the zoo in Guayllabamba, where I watched monkeys hit, groom, lick, wrestle with, and steal fruit from each other. We’re monkeys. We’re social creatures, who will happily waste hours, days, or our entire lives in petty squabbles or trying to get rubbed in exchange for rubbing others. Somehow evolution has allowed us to partially rise above this behavior — if we can extricate ourselves from endlessly repetitive gatherings of yapping in little rooms.
You know what you can’t put on your resume? “Attended 200 hours of meetings in 2011.” You know what you can put on your resume? Nearly anything else that you can get done instead of attending those meetings.