Meeting Reminders Kill Time, Too

tl;dr: Use 5-minute meeting reminders unless people have more than a five minute walk/travel time to the meeting site.

The Problem

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Meeting reminders are just as much an impediment to productivity as meetings themselves are. Ok, fine, meetings aren’t always an impediment to productivity, but they do prevent attendees from accomplishing their own individual tasks, etc…

Anyway… back to meeting reminders. What happens when your Outlook pops up a reminder? One of several things happens:

  • You completely ignore the reminder.
  • You acknowledge the reminder but go back to what you were doing.
  • You dismiss the reminder, hoping that you’ll actually get another for this meeting you’re supposed to attend.
  • You fully acknowledge the reminder, attempt to go back to work until meeting time, but you focused on not missing the meeting.

As you can see, the only option that gives you a solid chance of making the meeting means that your focus cannot be on something else. Add to this the setup/teardown time involved in switching contexts from your normal tasks and being engaged in the meeting. (This assumes that you are only going to meetings that you actually engage in—I’m sure that’s not an issue for anyone, right?)

A Solution

All of this brings me back to the problem of the meeting reminder. Think of the meeting reminder as a part of the meeting as well. If you have a 15-minute and no one has to travel more than a few feet to attend (or just has to boot up GoToMeeting), then don’t make the reminder 15 minutes as well (or worse, AN HOUR before). A five-minute reminder should be enough for a 15-minute meeting. Realistically, five minutes should be adequate for anything that isn’t going to block out a significant portion of the day.

Actually, no… reserved reminder more than 5 minutes for abnormally early meeting start times. And make them end-of-day reminders for the previous day.

The Collateral Damage of a Meeting

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Meetings, much like 1-hour credit lab courses in colleges, carry a much higher price than their appointed time indicates.

We’ve been over this before:  A 15-minute meeting is more disruptive than a 3 hour one elaborated on the 15-minute meeting agenda:

The 15-Minute Meeting Agenda

  • 5 minutes travel time/dial-in time/waiting for people to realize their clock is out-of-sync
  • 5 minutes of greetings
  • 2 minutes of status
  • 3 minutes of disconnect beeps or leaving early for a restroom break

Collateral Damage

There’s more to it than that this.  There is also collateral damage.  Everyone assumes that calendar openings = free time, so you often end up with every hour filled with at least a half hour meeting.

Appointment Backlog

Half-hour meetings rarely run under on time.  In fact, the greeting, handshaking, and orientation portion of the meeting may take 10 to 15 minutes, unless you have an incredible facilitator for the meeting.  Therefore, if the subject matter was worth 30 minutes, the meeting will be closer to 45 minutes in length.  This expansion of appointment time is similar to the reason why your doctor’s appointment runs an hour behind.

Anticipation Frustration

With good fortune, your hourly half-hour meetings will only take 40-45 minutes, leaving you with free time in between.  In this space of time you will worry about being prepared for the next meeting, take care of things (like eating) that you’ve not been giving other time for, and sit in the frustration of not being able to start anything in the amount of time you have left.

Action Items

Effective meeting facilitation will draw out a to-do list of action items that are to be resolved outside of the scope of the meeting, often to prevent the delay in their resolution from holding up the meeting itself. In principle, these are effective tools. In practice, combined with fully booked schedules, they can be like spending 8am-5pm working on adding items to your personal to-do list–it just keeps getting bigger.

Compound Multitasking

With the backlog of to-do list items and meetings, people begin doing “other work” in their meetings. Therefore, as meetings themselves impact the productivity of other work, meetings become less productive and end up running longer to get the same amount of work done–a downward spiral of productivity destruction.

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Types of Meetings

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Meeting before the meeting – A select group of people, usually from the same team, decide what the “correct outcome” of the main meeting is supposed to be. When the main meeting comes, the co-conspirators stick to their guns about what must be done.

Meeting after the meeting – Often, the people who were run over by the pre-meeting decision will have a meeting afterward to discuss what just hit them. Especially true when the main meeting involved a large vendor.

Meeting just to make sure we keep having this meeting – An agenda-less meeting that occurs during the only available weekly time slot on the calendars of all participants, so everyone shows up and fakes it through the meeting aimlessly until the time is up.

The mutually ignored meeting – Sometimes coincides with the “meeting just to make sure we keep having this meeting.”  Usually, however, this meeting has a more organized structure.  Everyone participates in the meeting by speaking in turn, yet no one actually hears anything that the other participants are saying.  Often coincides with the “project status meeting”.

Pep Rally Meeting – These meetings are supposed to replicate the glory days of the tech boom, complete with an enthusiastic leader leading the cheering.  These can be fun if the overall culture of the company fits.  They can also be the source of YouTube videos.

Sub-Meeting – A complete side discussion that starts by distracting major participants in the main meeting, and eventually overtakes the main meeting purpose, either by acoustics or by importance.

“Party” Meeting – This may be a special occasion to recognize a milestone birthday, anniversary, retirement, etc., and is often characterized by a lot of standing around in odd clusters of people.  People from each of these clusters take turns migrating to the focus of the party to say a good word, and then drift back to their clusters or to their desks.  Social aptitude generally determines how long a person has to wait to for a turn.

Project “status” meeting – A regular project “update” meeting where everyone gives an “everything’s okay” status, regardless of what part of the project is crashing and burning.

Virtual Meeting – A remote meeting that everyone dials into and immediately mutes, proceeding to spent their time more productively, such as by watching Sportscenter or playing ping-pong.

Meeting to teach someone how to run a meeting – This is generally a status-type meeting where a less-experienced team member learns how to start a meeting, stick to an agenda, and write down and assign “action items”.

The iPhone Method of Better Meetings

I’m not a huge fan of people checking their email during meetings, but I have to admit to doing it or worse. However, there are two sides to the smartphone inattention problem during meetings: people’s OCD or lack of etiquette and the lack of value or engagement of the meeting presentation.

I propose two solutions:

For small/serial meetings, the smartphone should never be responded to inside the meeting room. Ask those who use their phone in the meeting room to leave the meeting for 5 minutes on the first offense and expel the person from the meeting on the second offense. The lack of engagement of the distracted person wastes everyone’s time, including that of the person who is absorbed in the phone. This also serves to remove non-contributors from meetings and gets the attention of those who actually need to contribute.

For larger meetings, the minute more than 1/3rd of the audience pulls out their smartphones, that should be a two minute warning to end the presentation. If that many people aren’t paying attention, what’s the point of continuing the presentation to that audience? Either the audience is a bad fit or the presentation is.

Meeting Personalities

  • Off-mute chewer – Chews on (lunch?) audibly into the microphone.
  • Absent-minded mute button user – Starts responding with the mute button on for about a minute or more before realizing that no one is hearing the response.
  • Mute button blamer – Wasn’t paying attention.  Had to have name called several times.  Blames mute button for not having a clue what’s going on.  See also:  How the Mute Button on Your Phone Actually Works
  • Clock Watcher – Spends more time checking watch that actually participating in meeting.
  • Filibusterer – Single handedly talks the meeting into oblivion.  Not to be confused with the derailer or rambler.
  • Derailer – Somehow manages to bring up tangential topics that get everyone completely off topic for the next 15 minutes.
  • Rambler – Responds to any question with a barely intelligible introspection on the topic.  Responses to follow-up questions for clarification grow at an exponential rate.
  • Hedger – Treats every remote possibility as likely and stays non-commital unless you accept the exceptions noted.
  • Side Conversation Starter – Either completely oblivious or too rude to care that another meeting is going on.
  • Overhead speaker – Not an actual attendee or person, but an object which causes an echo in speakerphones and disrupts the meeting until it becomes silent again.
  • Tattle-tale – At the first of not getting his or her way, threatens to go tell a more powerful person to whom the tattler is connected.
  • Foot propper – The meeting is a lounge to this person:  Feet are propped up on the table and behaves generally too relaxed to actually be engaged in the meeting.
  • Multitasker – Furiously typing on the keyboard, but obviously not to take notes on the meeting.  Don’t bother asking this person questions unless you want to rehash the entire meeting.
  • Referee – “Sees the merits of both sides” of an intense debate.  Tries to make everybody play nice, regardless of their agendas.
  • Idea killer – Always has a negative scenario for any proposal.  Never has an idea himself.
  • Yes man – Would say no pants Friday at the office was a good idea, provided the right person proposed it.
  • Interrupter – Jumps in mid-details and often freaks out about half the story or asks questions whose answers were already on their way.
  • Belittler – Often pulls rank or “experience” to shut other people off.
  • Saboteur – Is either annoyed at the assignment or annoyed at not getting the project lead, but plays nice during the meeting, silently plotting the slow death of the project.  Can also accomplish goals as an inciter.
  • Inciter – May jump communication chains to create the illusion of one person hiding information from another.

How the mute button on your phone actually works.

I guess I had made some incorrect assumptions about the function of the “mute” button on my phone.

I’ve always assumed that when properly activated, the mute button prevents other people from hearing things that are on my end of the line, and not like how the TV mute button works, which prevents me from hearing things from coming through the phone.

After comparing notes with several other people, I’ve determined that, at least for conference calls, the mute button works quite differently.  While the mute button is activated, not only can people not hear their names being mentioned during a call, but they apparently hear very little of what’s actually going on during the conference call.  Only after being prodded by several alternative methods can a person whose phone was on mute actually realize that the rest of the participants on the call are waiting for feedback.  More importantly, the last 5-10 minutes of the meeting have to repeated for the benefit of the person on mute.

A side effect of the mute button is the rendering of the feedback provided by the person who was on mute completely useless.  The best remedy for such feedback is a verbatim quoting of the feedback in a mass email to all participants of the call.  At this point, one of two outcomes will take place:  Either there will be a complete retraction of the erroneous feedback or there will be a written record of commitment to the feedback provided.

Hope this helps.

A 15 minute meeting is more disruptive than a 3 hour one.

A possible fictionalization of the history of meetings:

A long time ago, possibly before the invention of electronic calendars, meetings were scheduled in one-hour blocks.

Then, someone noticed that the electronic calendar could schedule meetings for 30 minutes, and so, half-hour meetings were born.

Finally, someone really, really, smart realized that you could schedule meetings that went from 1:03 pm to 1:34 pm…

Fortunately, no one else’s brain worked that way, so a happy medium of 15 minute increments for meetings was agreed upon.

The Lilliputian Meeting Tyranny

While the Brobdingnagian 3 and 4 hour meeting still strikes far more fear in the heart of productivity, the truth is that the ominous giants rarely have openings in the schedule walls that they can fit through.  Aside from brute force ramming into everyone’s schedules, the giants stay isolated in the wilderness.

The real danger lies with the 15 minute meetings.  These Lilliputian meetings are not a threat because 160 15-minutes status meetings can squeeze into an open 40 hour schedule.  *shudder* They are a threat because  20 15-minute status meetings can fit into your lunch hour in a week, with none of them causing enough of a threat to be individually defended against.  Even worse, 40 more 15-minute meetings can be scheduled in the small bits of daylight in your schedule.

Of course, the 15-minute meeting is too small to actually say “no” to.  It’s like making someone return their lunch because they’re 2 cents short of $2.89: What kind of person are you to make someone do that?  Are you that greedy with your time that you can’t spare 15 minutes?

So, what do we accomplish in these meetings?

The 15-Minute Meeting Agenda

  • 5 minutes travel time/dial-in time/waiting for people to realize their clock is out-of-sync
  • 5 minutes of greetings
  • 2 minutes of status
  • 3 minutes of disconnect beeps or leaving early for a restroom break

Inspired yet?

Meeting double-tax

Everyone’s favorite meeting is the meeting to prepare for a meeting. It’s like a double tax on your already overtaxed time.

When our work is behind schedule, and someone calls a meeting to discuss creative ways to get back on track, why does our team need a meeting to prepare for that meeting?  Because it’s not about creative solutions, that’s why.  It’s about agreeing on who we can blame for sucking worse than we do.

And when the project is done and the project manager schedules a “Lessons Learned” meeting, why does our team need a meeting to prepare for that?  You guessed it … it’s not about the lessons learned.  It’s about being prepared to deflect all criticism and prove that everyone else on the project sucked worse than we did. Thanks, but I’d rather have my time back, so I can do more and suck less!

Here’s the point:  meetings to prepare for meetings always contribute to the suckiness of the workplace. Without them, people would have more time to do real work, and could actually have real discussions in the real meetings.  So please, stop double taxing my time.
Hmmm… reminds me of the Types of Meetings.

Hot Potato Status Meeting Game

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Originally posted at

Object of the game: Don’t be caught giving your status update when the potato goes off.

Requires: Hot potato timer or random timer smartphone app.  If you know of a link to a good one, please leave it in the comments.

Rules of the game:

  1. A different person starts the status meeting every week.
  2. The random “Hot Potato” timer starts when the first person begins his or her update.
  3. When an update is complete, the person picks a random person to hand/toss the “hot potato” to.
  4. Repeat giving updates and handing off the potato until updates are complete or the hot potato goes off.
  5. If the potato goes off during your update, you must buy coffee and donuts/bagels/etc. for the entire team the next morning.
  6. If the entire meeting goes off without the potato going off, the manager buys the food.
  7. Interrupting an update means that you get to hold the potato next, or if you’ve gone already, until the person giving the update is finished talking.