What to do when you have too many meetings

My coaching client Sara (not her real name) had recently taken on a bigger leadership role and things were going well with one exception: managing her time. At the root of the issue was that she had too many meetings.

“I’m in back-to-back meetings all day. There’s no time to get work done much less have time to think, plan and be strategic. In fact, I barely have time to go to the bathroom or grab lunch!”

And when an emergency or special meeting popped up, her assistant had to scramble to reschedule all those meetings. It was practically a full-time job that kept her assistant from getting anything else done.

Meetings are like weeds

Some of them spring up unasked for no matter how hard you try to protect your time. Others are ones you want to have, but they grow until they’ve taken up all your available time. And when you open your calendar, there they are, covering your entire day.

It can feel good at first. After all, being important enough to be in meetings means you’re “in demand”. And successful people are supposed to be “busy”, right?

But then you start noticing how little gets done in those meetings and you start to resent them. How do you make it stop?

Some meetings you won’t be able to do anything about – like your boss’s regular team meeting or a big client demanding you show up tomorrow morning.

But for the meetings you control or at least influence, there’s a strategy that we devised for Sara. Maybe it can work for you too.

Stop contributing to “too many meetings”

The strategy that helped Sara clear up her calendar is “zero-based calendaring”. It’s based on the accounting concept of “Zero-based budgeting” where you start from a “zero base” every period. So every department has to make the case for their requested budget from scratch every year or quarter, whether that’s headcount, funding or whatever else.

In essence, you wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

When applied to your calendar, it means you take all the recurring meetings out of your calendar – in this case, the ones you control. This resets your meeting count to zero. Only then do you look at each one and see if a case can be made for putting it back in. 

This is likely to feel scary and liberating at the same time. But as Sara found, it’s highly worthwhile.

For Sara, the zero-based calendaring approach looked like this

Sara took all of her regular recurring meetings – the ones she ran – and paused them over the summer. If people needed her, they could email or call to schedule an ad hoc session. She also created monthly “office hours” to ensure team members knew they could stop by if needed.

That gave her breathing room to get a lot done, plan ahead and even have time left for herself. No wonder Sara looked and sounded so relaxed when we met last week.

And to her surprise, she discovered that most of them didn’t need to happen at all. Very few people needed her office hours and the volume of ad hoc consultations added up to far less than all those regular standing meetings.

From “too many meetings” to happier and more productive

Taking this step to address the “too many meetings” problem was liberating not only for Sara, but also for her team. It turned out that her those weekly meetings with each team member were producing more work and less results.

Team members had been using valuable time and energy trying to come up with content for their regular meetings with Sara. Many created special update reports to try and impress her. And rather than being a real exchange of ideas, these regular meetings had become more of a “show and tell” session where Sara didn’t really get to know team members as people.

Zero-based calendaring also made life easier for Sara’s assistant. With more clear space in the calendar, she could fit in important events like the department head’s town hall meeting without constantly having to rearrange Sara’s schedule.

And finally, Sara had time to think strategically which allowed her to make more valuable contributions in her boss’s meetings and be seen as a senior leader on top of her game.

Instead of going from meeting to meeting all day, Sara was able to chart a strategic course for the group, build trusted relationships with external stakeholders and live up to the expectations of a senior leader.

Sara and her team went from “too many meetings hell” to being happier and more productive.

But how do you know which meetings to pause?

Not every meeting is a waste of time. And sometimes, the issue isn’t having a meeting but rather the way you’re having the meeting. So before you throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water, start by doing a dry run for yourself.

If you’re uneasy about putting all the meetings you run on hold for a month or two, then start by analyzing them first. Are there any that are clear candidates for a zero-based calendaring experiment? Remember, you’re not canceling the meetings forever. Just putting them on pause.

As you look for candidates, here are a few signs that your recurring meeting may be due for a pause:

  • People aren’t engaged – they show up because they have to, but you have to admit that they’re often distracted and even bored. They’re on their devices, passing notes to each other or daydreaming and can’t wait for the meeting to end.
  • You feel stressed just thinking about the meeting and how you can make it useful – maybe taking a break would give everyone the room to see what they miss about it. Maybe they could be shorter, less frequent or have a different agenda.
  • Very little gets accomplished – there’s lots of discussion but then nothing happens. And you end up having a similar discussion the next time.
  • Having a meeting is overkill – things do get accomplished, but you could get the same results in a shorter call or email exchange.
  • The meeting has outlived its original purpose – Too often, we start off with the right intentions and the meetings are useful, but then we allow them to drift on even after their usefulness is no longer there. Like the cross-departmental task force whose project is concluded or a daily crisis meeting that continues even after the crisis has calmed down.

Is it time to press pause on some of your meetings?

Pausing your meetings and forcing each meeting to be justified before it goes back on your calendar is a wonderful discipline.

It reduces the stress that comes with too many meetings, improves the meetings you keep and creates space for everyone to do their best thinking and work. And yes, they’ll probably be happier and more productive too.

Whether you’re comfortable going straight to zero-based calendaring like Sara, or choosing a few to experiment with, remember that your time and mental energy are hugely valuable assets. You owe it to yourself and your team to release as much of it as you can.

So protect yourself and those around you from the tyranny of “too many meetings” by reassessing the meetings you run.

This article is originally from May Busch.