Meetings are (often) a waste of time

The title is common knowledge, at least publicly. Everyone always talks about how many meetings they have with disdain.1 There's a huffing and puffing in the corporate world about how many meetings one has to endure, and one google search for "meetings are a waste of time" brings up countless articles. Research has somewhat sunken its teeth into this problem (or at least society has tried to) and yet we still seem to be stuck in its embrace.

Funnily enough, although people share the sentiment outwardly that meetings are a pain, the majority of people seem to agree that meetings are productive.1 Even so, many of us would agree, as would half of that study's participants, that most meetings can definitely be improved.

Since much of this topic has been discussed, I don't want to go too in depth with repetition, but instead try to aggregate some of the common trends of advice I've found and sprinkle in some food for thought.

Change your mindset around meetings

Many articles start with some large statistic to draw you into the large amount of time people often spend in meetings. I'm going to take a different route. However many meetings you attend, you should be trying to minimize the time you waste and optimize the time you spend working on meaningful projects. In other words, you want to try to maximize the amount of time you are using productively, whether that be inside or outside of meetings. The amount of time you spend in meetings just serves as an indicator of how much time you could potentially save by cutting back on the parts of the meeting that are not productive. Even if this number is small, you could be saving valuable time, and that's not something to overlook.

We want to make meetings as productive as possible and cut away all the junk time spent in meetings. 50% of the time spent in meetings is unproductive.5 Think about how much time you could've spent doing something else. Bottom line: do what's best with your time.

To break down the art of meetings, I'll be investigating some changes that can be done in the macro or high level view. Namely, when and how often we should actually utilize meetings. That means first looking at what meetings do well that other forms of communication don't. Then, when a meeting is scheduled, I'll be looking at some tips on how to make full use of that meeting. To make meetings productive, it's important to think about meetings as a way of taking time out of everyone's day to accomplish a (shared) goal and sticking to our intentions as we execute meetings.

When to schedule meetings

Many articles overlook this detail and go straight into the advice of canceling meetings when you don't need them. But how do you know if you need them? To answer this, we have to look at what meetings do well.

In general, the type of meetings we are talking about are events when multiple individuals meet to exchange information, often with a goal of achieving some agenda. Here, I'm mainly talking about the general work meeting that happens daily between coworkers, although special meetings (like those involving million dollar deals) will also share similarities.

Meetings are not the only form of communication in the workplace: email, Slack, and instant messaging exist. I've narrowed down the key differences of meetings into 3 specific aspects:

  1. 1. Community
  2. Meetings involve having attendees together all in one place
  3. 2. Time
  4. Meetings involve having attendees together at the same time
  5. 3. Attention
  6. Meetings can be a great way to get the attention of someone and present something face to face

The key differences between asynchronous communication and meetings are the synchronicity of having everyone meet at the same time and place and having people's attention for a period of time. The combination of these aspects are what makes meetings so valuable, and we can leverage each aspect to achieve our goals.

Meetings are great for gathering groups of relevant people where the task benefits from having multiple people together at the same time. If the goal is to brainstorm about a project, for example, we can see how all three aspects make scheduling a meeting a potentially good choice. We can have all the key players for the project together (community) under one goal and allow everyone to discuss and bounce ideas off of each other (attention) to come up with some proposal by the end of the meeting (time).

We can also see how brainstorming for a project might not need a meeting. If there's not a need for an urgent proposal or conclusion surrounding the project and everyone is willing to chat offline, it might be advantageous to just have a group chat where everyone is typing out ideas. This also has the advantage of forcing everyone to clearly articulate ideas and gives time for others to clearly evaluate everyone's idea and respond when they are ready. But, if people are clearly busy and there needs to be attention drawn to the project, or if there's a deadline coming up in time that might not be met, or if members of the group just respond better to brainstorming with everyone together in a community setting, then a meeting might be a great choice.

It's important to clearly evaluate each goal and task to see if a meeting is truly the best choice. In some company cultures, meetings are scheduled without much thought: if you need something, just schedule a meeting. This often leads to the grueling problem of too many unproductive meetings.

Remember the costs that you pay for scheduling a meeting. You are taking time out of your day to schedule the meeting which usually means looking up everyone's calendar and finding an acceptable time and then planning time to prepare for that meeting. It's also easy to overlook that meetings take time out of everyone's day. Meetings scattered throughout the day make it difficult for people to get into focus mode, and once a meeting is nearing, there's an inability to start on new work or finish an ongoing task (think of that lull period where you are waiting before a meeting). This often leads meetings to take out more productive time than expected.

Assuming you aren't just kicking rocks with your time, the best way to save time from being in meetings is to not schedule meetings in the first place.

Side notes:

I find that meetings are helpful when other people don't care as much as you do about a specific task or problem. In these cases, having a quick meeting can help save time from sending a message and waiting for a response. But, if the person isn't interested in helping in the first place, a meeting might not do much without outside reinforcement.

Some of these aspects lose their effect when meetings are done online. In that case, online meetings might devolve into a podcast and lose face to face and non verbal communication (which can miss out on benefits that result from actually seeing people). A key thing to note with any presentation or group interaction is that attention is always waning, and you should expect less of it than you'd want. When meetings are done online, it's very easy to work on something else while someone else blabs.

Macro Tips

These tips focus on changes surrounding meetings at a high level without getting into the mechanics of a meeting. Company cultures and rules around certain practices like meetings vary drastically and can be difficult to influence, but it's nice to just look at the data and pinpoint some high level changes that can benefit everyone.

1. Introduce no meeting day

Studies have shown that having at least one designated day with no meetings boosts autonomy, communication, engagement and satisfaction.2 Other studies have shown the same result with two to four no meeting days and eliminating meetings entirely.3 This factor is not often in our control as these are company-wide policies, but within teams, change is definitely possible.

2. Only schedule necessary meetings

If we only schedule meetings that we need, there can only be benefits to reap, as suggested by the studies above. Eliminating meetings can lead to no meeting days, and who doesn't like that?

Micro Tips

These tips focus on some of the pitfalls of organizing and executing meetings. The overarching goal of these are to introduce guardrails to maximize the amount of productive time used in meetings and cut out time that could be better used elsewhere. These are related to focus and productivity: making sure the meeting stays on track and that people stay engaged and benefit from the meeting. It's also important to note that some of the effects of these tips are not only to maximize productivity but to make sure that all attendees of the meeting (including you) are less likely to walk into the meeting with poor spirits. Making meetings enjoyable can end up boosting productivity and make it less of a chore to sit through.

1. Always have an agenda, preferably crafted in collaboration with the members of the meeting

The best way to save time on meetings is to not have one. If one must be had, then there has to be an important agenda: make sure that agenda is known and written down. Share this agenda when you create the meeting invitation and make it explicit.4 A good way to frame an agenda is to pose them as a set of questions to be answered: this has the bonus effect of making sure you think clearly about what you need.5

According to Steven Regelberg, agendas in themselves do not improve meetings: they have to be important and relevant to the attendees for them to care. Agendas should be a result of what the members of the meeting want to cover because meetings are shared experiences.5 Some meetings are organized by one particular person for a set of particular goals specific to that person. In this case, it doesn't make much sense to include other people's input into the agenda of the meeting, but the attendees should still agree on the task at hand. In other meetings, we are furthering multiple goals of multiple members. It is advantageous and logical in these cases to consolidate the goals of other members into an agenda. Either way, providing an agenda will not only help focus the meeting, but will also instill confidence in attendees about the importance of the meeting and show respect for their time.

2. Include reasons for the meeting

I think it's also important to clearly state why a meeting is needed in the invite. This allows potential attendees to follow up with you prior to the meeting if they have any concerns about the plan or provide you with information that can solve your problem prior to the meeting's inception. The other side of this is that if you are invited to a meeting, you should prioritize your time to do what's needed and try to avoid meetings if you have more important things to do. If you see a problem that can be worked out ahead of time without a meeting, go ahead and do so. This kind of mindset will shortcut the mistake of showing up to a meeting and realizing you could have just settled the problem offline.

3. Stick to the (evolving) agenda

During the meeting, state the agenda early and make it clear what the agenda is. Stick clearly to completing and checking off all the boxes of the agenda. In many cases, your agenda will change and evolve as new information is brought up during the meeting. Make sure these new goals are known and not forgotten, and settle them during the meeting if it feels good to do so or remember them for future meetings and next steps.

I feel like these tips involving having an agenda seem intuitive, but, surprisingly, most meetings that I've been in don't have any sort of written agenda.

4. Keep the meeting shorter than you think

Parkinson's Law states that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it. If a meeting is scheduled for an hour, the work in that meeting will take an hour; if the meeting is scheduled for ten minutes, the work in that meeting will take ten minutes. Whatever time you think the meeting will take, shorten it: you probably don't need that much time.4,5 Working under a time crunch also keeps people on their toes and cuts out unfocused work. Also don't shy away from assigning meetings that are not rounded by the hour or half hour.6 13 and 7 minute meetings are great.

Obviously, you have to make the assessment on how much time a meeting will need, and in some cases, there needs to be potential buffer time for whatever reason. In all cases, don't be scared of ending the meeting short.

5. Only invite people you need

You don't need everyone: more people will increase the likelihood of a meeting becoming dysfunctional. Stick to the people that need to be there and include people optionally if they want to attend.5 To decrease the risk of a meeting going off the rails, you, as the meeting facilitator, should make sure that no one is hijacking the conversation and that the conversation stays on track. Side conversations and tangents are not always a bad thing and can lead to great insights, but not all meetings should have them. Don't be afraid to jump in and steer the course, using the agenda or lack of time as an excuse. Establishing clear grounds of what everyone's role is during a meeting is great,1 if that's possible, but it isn't always feasible to do ahead of time (it's also sometimes awkward). Usually these roles end up developing organically over the course of several recurring meetings, but establishing them ahead of time can help prevent people's feelings from getting hurt. Asking people directly for input is particularly powerful for steering a conversation, especially in a virtual setting. With cameras off, your voice is your gaze.

6. Finish with next steps

Make sure the relevant members of the meeting know what the next steps are (these should follow nicely from what was discussed in the meeting). This can include any follow up meetings or agenda items that need to be finished asynchronously. It's also often beneficial to finish with a recap of what happened during the meeting to really nail down what's been discussed.

7. Send a followup email

Send a followup email afterwards detailing what went on during the meeting, what agenda items were finished, what new agenda items were added, and what new goals or requirements need to be fulfilled in the meantime. This again reiterates what happened in writing, and creates a place for everyone to refer back to for reference, even those who didn't attend the meeting.

8. Receive feedback on the meeting and iterate

This might be the most unused and yet the most important tactic, especially for recurring meetings. The only way to get better at facilitating and organizing meetings is to gather data of what's working and what's not. It's important to collect data and monitor the health of meetings.1,4,5,7 In the followup email, ask for any suggestions on how the meeting went. This could be in the form of just a simple question (and them having to reply) or it could be a survey link. In either case, keep it short (especially the survey). Few people want to spend another 10 minutes making a writeup about how a meeting went unless it went horribly wrong. It's often more successful to have people rate the meeting from 1-10 and ask for one improvement and move on.

Last piece of advice

A last piece of advice is to have a clear idea of what your role is as a meeting facilitator or attendee. All too often people take a passive role in meetings. If everyone works together, the process is a lot more enjoyable for everyone. If you notice yourself constantly tuning out during meetings and not saying a word, maybe you shouldn't be there. On the flip side, if you are constantly controlling the conversation and not letting members speak, maybe you aren't really facilitating a meeting.

Although meetings are ultimately meant to facilitate a goal, organic side conversations or jokes during a meeting can liven up the mood and make for a better experience. If every meeting was a rigid march, little camaraderie would be built. Meetings where you learn about a coworker's hiking trip to Mount Si with that extra 5 minutes at the end can be a really great thing. Make meetings productive, but don't stifle the human aspect in the process.


  • Meetings take up much of our time, but even if they didn't, we should be making an effort to minimize the amount of wasted time and maximize our productive time.
  • When scheduling a meeting, think clearly about what goals need to be accomplished and whether a meeting is truly the best tool for the job. Goals that benefit from gathering people at the same place and time make for good meeting candidates. Think about how the aspects of community, time, and attention can be leveraged.
  • At a high level, establish no meeting days and only schedule meetings when needed.
  • When it comes down to planning a meeting, craft an invitation that includes an agenda and reasons for attending, keep the meeting length shorter than you think, and only invite relevant people. During the meeting, stick closely to the agenda and finish with next steps before everyone leaves. Afterwards, send a followup email and receive feedback on how the meeting went so you can continue to improve on meeting execution.

  1. [1] Rogelberg et al.: The Science and Fiction of Meetings
  2. [2] The New Statesman: Why your meetings are a waste of time
  3. [3] MIT Sloan: The Surprising Impact of Meeting-Free Days
  4. [4] Vowel: Are meetings a waste of time?
  5. [5] Forbes: Half of All Meetings Are A Waste Of Time
  6. [6] Medium: Yes, Meetings Are a Waste of Time.
  7. [7] Harvard Business Review: Stop the Meeting Madness