14 Tips for Holding a Productive Meeting.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 14 tips for holding a productive meeting.

Nothing drains happiness faster than a long, unproductive meeting. You’re bored; you’re not getting anything done; emails are piling up while you sit, trapped. Just think: if you cut out just one hour of meeting time each week, you’d have an extra week for work – or fun – by the end of the year.

On the other hand, I disagree with people who argue that we should have no meetings. A productive meeting can be tremendously valuable, a big time-saver, and even exhilarating.

Here are some strategies I try to deploy:

1. Very obvious: Start on time, and end on time. Once people see that meetings are starting late, the bad habit builds, because people see there’s no point in showing up promptly. Here’s one solution: a friend worked at a law firm that fined partners $100 if they were late to a meeting, which turned out to be very effective. If the meeting has to run long, say, “We’re not through with the seven points, so can everyone stay fifteen extra minutes to wrap up?” That way, people know that the end is in sight.

2. At the same time, remember that it’s helpful to spend a little time in chit-chat. For a long time, I didn’t believe this to be true, and I tried to be hyper-efficient, but now I realize that it’s important – and productive – for people to have a chance to relate on a personal level. People need to build friendships, they need a chance to show their personalities, they need to establish rapport. Meetings are very important for this process.

3. If some people hesitate to jump in, or stop talking if interrupted, find a way to draw them out. Ability to grab the floor doesn’t necessarily correlate with capacity to contribute.

4. My father once gave me a brilliant piece of advice: “If you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you the responsibility.” Meetings often involve blame-giving and blame-taking, and although it’s not pleasant to accept blame, it’s a necessary aspect of getting responsibility (if deserved, of course). Proving my father’s point, one of my best meeting experiences ever was a time when I took the blame – rightly – for something done by a team of people working with me. Doing this ended up dramatically increasing my organizational credibility on all sides.

5. Share the credit. Along with blame, a meeting is also a great place to give people credit. Be quick to point out great work or to call for a round of applause for a colleague. People often act as though credit is a zero-sum goody, and if they share credit, they’ll get less themselves. From what I’ve seen, sharing credit not only doesn’t diminish the number of gold stars you get, but adds to them – because people so admire the ability to give credit. (Gold star junkie that I am, I pay close attention in this area.)

6. Making people feel stupid isn’t productive, and it isn’t kind. A friend has a good suggestion: “Be cheerfully, impersonally decisive.”

7. Have an agenda and stick to it. If possible, circulate the agenda in advance, along with anything else that needs to be read to prepare for the meeting. Make sure people know if they should bring anything. Along the same lines…

8. Never go to a meeting if you don’t know why you’re supposed to be there! This seems obvious, but it’s a situation that arises surprisingly frequently. I just made this mistake recently.

9. Regular meetings should be kept as short as possible and very structured. Have rules for canceling the meeting when appropriate – if such-and-such doesn’t happen, if only a certain number of people can attend, etc.

10. Don’t say things that will undermine or antagonize other people. Guess what? Turns out they do in fact notice this, and they don’t appreciate it. If you wonder if you’re an offender, check yourself against this list.

11. If a meeting is long, schedule breaks when people can check their email and phones. Otherwise, they get very distracted by feeling they’ve been out of touch for too long (for some people, this takes about ten minutes), and they start sneakily emailing under the table. As if no one will notice. Which they do.

12. Meetings should stay tightly focused. If people want a chance to discuss side issues, theoretical problems, or philosophical questions that aren’t relevant to the purpose of the meeting, they should meet separately.

13. Here’s a radical solution: no chairs. In Bob Sutton’s terrific book, The No A****** Rule, (written that way not out of prudery but to avoid spamblockers), he points to a study that showed that people in meetings where everyone stood took 34% less time to make an assigned decision, with decisions that were just as good as those made by groups who were sitting down.

14. Perhaps most important: Be very specific about the “action items” (to use the business-school term). Who is agreeing to do what, by when? Make sure someone keeps track of what is supposed to happen as a consequence of the meeting, and at the meeting’s end, review these items so it’s crystal clear to everyone. I now never leave a meeting without my own list of what I need to get done, for whom, and by when.

What am I missing? What are some other strategies for improving meetings?

* For an amazing visual display of information, check out this fascinating, encouraging video about the health and income trends of the last 200 years — animated graph and animated discussion.

* Need a good book? Need a gift idea? Please consider The Happiness Project (can’t resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).
Order your copy.
Read sample chapters.
Watch the one-minute book video.
Listen to a sample of the audiobook (read by me).

  • What a fantastic post. It could actually work to disprove the unspoken motto of our office “Meetings: Because none of us are as dumb as all of us.” Unfortunately meetings have become synonymous with time wasters, almost a form of obedience training for corporations. Now I have to find a way to post this at work without creating the need for a meeting about how to hold effective meetings…

  • reset required … if I have to remember 14 things prior to going into a meeting … it will be anything but productive 🙂

  • I like #2 and #3. I think it’s a good idea to periodically ask a question that engages everyone in the room… even if it’s just “raise your hand if you agree with this” Especially if there are one or two people who are doing most of the talking.

  • Timothy Wysocki

    One big one that I think should be mentioned is that just because you have an hour doesn’t mean than you need to take an hour. I have a standing meeting that takes us about 15 minutes to complete the business at hand. Being the meeting host I always sense a certain hesitation when I actually end the meeting when we’re done. There are several consequences associated with super short meetings: you can’t be late or you miss it, people are more likely to phone in because they know it is short, and the people who actually show up are the ones who have something to say. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the meetings I attend drag on for indeterminate periods while all the cows chew their cud over and over again.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve noticed this — as much as people don’t like meetings, once a meeting
      has started, a certain inertia sets in, and often people seem to drag it
      out. That’s why a good leader jumps in as soon as it can be declard

      • Chris

        I cringe whenever I hear the phrase “We still have X minutes left….” A sure sign that it’s time for everyone to stop talking and start acting on those action items.


    LOL! 8. Never go to a meeting if you don’t know why you’re supposed to be there!

    Lady, do you know how many meetings are held in the REAL world where you are obligated to attend (by bosses, parents, teachers, etc.) and you have no clue as to why there!

    When is the last time you had a job?

    • gretchenrubin

      My job right now as a writer has a surprising number of meetings. (Though I
      must say, because I work alone so much, I now enjoy meetings much than I
      used to.) When I worked at the FCC, I realized after several months that
      actually my job mostly WAS to go to meetings (I met a guy last night who had
      said the work of his job was answering emails).

    • CPJC

      Methinks there is a troll lurking about.

      Regarding #8, I always ask my boss why he wants me to attend. Occasionally, it’s attending for the sake of attending.
      But most of the time he provides some background and information about how he would like our organization represented.

      It does irritate me that I have to ask him for this info – but we have a good working relationship so it is a minor irritation on the whole.

  • Thanks for this great post; I’m sharing it with my managers and team leaders. I learned some of these lessons from a great mentor who guided me early in my career. But I find that I’m still learning the even today. The journey seems to be a continuous one. ~Heidi

  • JenP

    Those tips are great if you’re the person calling the meeting and running it. But what about those meetings that we’re obliged to go to through work, that someone else is running, usually very inefficiently?

    I have a new job and have to go to a meeting once a week. It’s usually a complete waste of time and every week I leave feeling cross and considering whether the job is really for me!

    Being bored is one of my pet hates and I often get bored in meetings….

    Any tips?

  • I will never sit again during a meeting. This is so powerful and so underutilized. Great tips!


    • GetReal

      And which planet do you reside on? Either you are superrich and don’t need a job OR you have never had a real job!

  • Thanks for your helpful tips!

  • This might seem trivial, but meetings always seem to go better when there are some refreshments. Everybody loves food, and I get a mild mood boost when a meeting involves something to munch on. This is probably not ideal for the waist line, however. 🙂

  • Hold the meeting at the beginning or the end of the day. Meetings sandwiched in the middle of the day make it harder for people to be productive in the morning or the afternoon. To get things done, you really need a solid block of time — without major interruptions (like meetings or appointments or lunch dates).

    • That’s a great schedule maximizing tip! I also find that these rules help save time on meetings:

      If a phone call would be as effective as a face-to-face, call.
      If an e-mail would be as effective as a call, e-mail.

      The less time you spend in transit and over communication, the more you can get done.

      To your brilliance!
      Elizabeth Saunders

  • Laurel

    I love #13, and I believe it would help my weekly team meetings, but one of my colleagues uses a wheelchair, so I don’t think this is an appropriate solution for us. Another member of our team is older and has bad knees, so she would not appreciate this either.

  • Ejthorbu

    For anyone who says they’d get fired for suggesting/implementing these amazing suggestions needs to start looking for a new job… a company that doesn’t encourage – expect – this kind of innovation isn’t a company worth working for.

  • Pingback: 10 Tips For Productive Office Meetings | Toggl Blog()

  • Ismail Stanikzai

    holding the posted tips much better, but some times no meeting is good meeting, making trouble and arguing creating by participants, if no organizing standardly

  • Raymond James

    Meetings are nevertheless most important aspect for any business needs. At the same time, managing each meeting for better productivity and efficiency is quite important.

    Many employees become a sandwich in between these meetings as such a good time management software becomes a necessity. We had been using Replicon time management software which is really a simple yet hassle free application that can be accessed from anywhere using a web browser.