So on a scale of 1 – 10, with 10 being “they’re my favorite part of the day/week,” how much do you love meetings? If you’re like most people, you’re probably pretty low on that scale, believing that they’re a waste of time and often quite annoying, especially if you’re an attendee rather than the someone who organized the meeting.
Think back to those pre-pandemic days when coordinating and accommodating everyone’s schedule for an in-person meeting was so challenging, but now we have programs like Zoom and Google Meet. They have made it possible for us to see our family and friends during the lockdown and continue doing the work we do, but they also made it possible to have many more meetings.
I’ll bet you probably have more meetings now than ever before the pandemic. I’m also going to guess that many of those meetings feel like a waste of time and completely unproductive.
As accountants, we obviously know that meetings are necessary amongst ourselves, other professionals, and our clients, but if we’re being completely honest, they aren’t always as necessary as we make them out to be. With technology making it easier to have meetings with anyone, anywhere, we have become “meeting crazy,” but unfortunately, this creates a lot of productivity and time management issues.
If you’re not on board with the issue of too many meetings and believe that meetings don’t affect your productivity, think again. There have been various studies and surveys done, and they paint a different picture – in one survey, managers reported that 83% of the meetings on their calendars were unproductive, and the overall sense of U.S.-based professionals who rated meetings said they were the “number one office productivity killer.”
Research has also shown that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the last 50 years, to the point that executives spend an average of at least 23 hours a week in meetings. Just so you understand the impact of this, in the 1960s (think about the era of the show “Mad Men”), the average hours spent in meetings was only 10 hours a week – that’s an increase of 130%!
And that 23-hour-a-week average has probably increased since our hybrid work situations have also increased our perceived need to connect more frequently. We have become an anxious workforce, and meetings have become our go-to in order to have some semblance of control and connection.
But I’m actually not here to bash meetings or teach you the typical things like to make sure you have an agenda, that you should start and stop on time, or that you should have only the people necessary in the meeting because you probably already know that. What I want to help you with is what to do to handle meeting overload.
I want to help you understand the reason why we hold and attend way more meetings than we should. Hopefully, you’ll see that there is a better way to handle meeting overload so that you don’t have to dread the sense of fatigue that can affect your time at work and your time at home with your family.
This week I’m going to discuss the reasons why we schedule and attend too many meetings and how to handle meeting overload.
The reasons why we schedule and attend too many meetings
In the world of accounting, the name of the game is productivity and efficiency, so why would we schedule and attend so many meetings that have been proven to reduce our productivity and efficiency? What’s the deal with having so many meetings?
Besides the cost in productivity and time not spent working on your primary job, also consider the financial cost of a meeting by multiplying the salaries of all attendees times the time spent in one meeting. As accountants, we love math, and so do the math – it’s pretty staggering.
Since I am a professional and time management coach for accountants, I think one of the most detrimental things about meetings is that they interrupt workflow and don’t allow for Focus Time, a pillar of my Balanced Accountant coaching program. When you don’t give your brain uninterrupted Focus Time, you pay the price in wasted time, less productivity, and less efficiency.
So if meetings cut into our productivity and are often not time well spent, why do we schedule and attend so many meetings? The Harvard Business Review published an article titled “The Psychology Behind Meeting Overload,” and they came up with the following 6 reasons why we have too many meetings:
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “FOMO,” it stands for Fear Of Missing Out. So when it comes to meeting overload, one of the reasons why we attend so many meetings is because we’re afraid of our colleagues judging us or forgetting about us if we aren’t in all of the meetings.
When we have meeting FOMO, we’re also afraid that if we’re not in the meeting, our opinion won’t be heard, that things might go in the wrong direction, that we’ll miss something, that we won’t look like a team player, or that we’re not doing our job. We have so much fear of missing out that we make not attending mean something negative about us and our future.
We also equate facetime with how committed we are to our job. It’s important to understand that our lower, primitive brain makes not attending a meeting mean something horrible is going to happen to us, so just be aware of when you are having meeting FOMO, and in the next section of this episode, I’ll share some strategies for how to deal with meeting FOMO.
This is when leaders schedule meetings whenever it’s convenient for them, without necessarily considering their colleague's needs or schedules. In my coaching experience, I would say this happens with those who have not learned the skill of managing their minds, managing their time, or haven’t worked on their emotional intelligence.
It’s often not done maliciously or even consciously. It’s just that most leaders aren’t as aware of the impact that meetings have or what they can cost a company or an accounting firm, not just in productivity, energy, and efficiency but also in money.
One company that looked at how much meetings were costing realized that the meetings of middle managers cost the organization $15 million a year. As I mentioned before, most people don’t consider the hourly rate of most employees attending those meetings and what that could add up to.
Meetings As Commitment Devices
If there’s one thing that accountants are very familiar with, it’s deadlines. Besides having to deal with so many deadlines, we also assume that deadlines are a great motivator, and left to our own devices, we wouldn’t get as much done if we didn’t have so many deadlines.
While that might be true for some accountants, it’s important to understand how not to confuse meetings as commitment devices. When we use meetings in this way, we’re using them to help ensure that people follow through on their promises.
The issue is that behavior science shows that an external deadline, like a meeting with your boss, can be an effective motivator, but the meeting itself is often unnecessary. The reason it’s unnecessary is that people are typically reporting on how they did or didn’t achieve the agreed-upon target.
The Mere Urgency Effect
When we are super stressed (let’s be honest, what accountant isn’t?), completing seemingly urgent yet unimportant tasks can make us feel better. This is known as the mere urgency effect – scheduling and attending meetings tricks us into believing we’ve accomplished something.
Even if meetings aren’t objectively as important as our other work, when we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, meetings can bring a welcomed relief. The mere urgency can trick us into feeling like a meeting is a productive use of our, and others', time.
Meetings can also become a habit, often having them at the same patterned day or time, whether they’re necessary or not. The researchers explain that if we’ve always held a certain meeting at a certain time, it’s a lot easier just to keep doing that than to reevaluate whether it’s actually a good idea.
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray’s character keeps reliving the same day over and over again, you’ll understand what meeting amnesia is all about. It’s when you end up in the same bad meeting over and over again because no one remembers what was discussed in the last meeting.
The need to remember the point of the last meeting, what was discussed, and the purpose of this current meeting wastes so much of everyone’s time. It leads to confusion, and do you know what’s not helpful for productivity and efficiency for accountants? A confused brain.
The more your brain tries to make sense of where you are so you can figure out how to get to where you want to be, the more exhausted it becomes. When people are confused or overwhelmed, meeting amnesia is more likely to be present and can become very depleting for everyone involved.
The final reason we schedule and attend too many meetings is because of pluralistic ignorance. This means that even though we’re all experiencing the same thing, we assume that other people don’t feel the same way we do. For example, you’re sitting in the second hour of a meeting that was only supposed to be one hour, and you’re thinking, “This is ridiculous that it’s still going on. This is a waste of my time. Why am I the only one who sees how pointless this is?”
When that happens, you’re assuming that no one else realizes that it’s ridiculous that the meeting is still going on and that it’s a waste of time. Our ignorance of what others think translates to us scheduling more useless meetings.
No one is willing to speak up and say the thing that everyone is thinking.
So now that you know the six reasons we schedule and attend too many meetings – meeting FOMO, selfish urgency, meetings as commitment devices, the Mere Urgency Effect, meeting amnesia, and pluralistic ignorance – I’ll share some suggestions on how to handle each.
How to handle meeting overload
While you might not be dealing with all of the mentioned reasons why we schedule and attend too many meetings, I still think it’s important to know how to deal with each one, just in case your situation changes in the future.
When dealing with meeting FOMO
So if you can relate to the issue with meeting FOMO, the Harvard Business Review article suggests that declining the invite and providing your input before the meeting will still allow you to feel present, useful, and visible without actually attending the meeting. They also suggest that the meeting organizer should put more thought into inviting only those employees for which the meeting is genuinely relevant.
Whether you are typically an attendee or an organizer, you might be interested to know that research has shown that the most productive employees attend fewer meetings and protect their calendars for deep work. I can tell you from my experience that the more meetings I have, the less productive I can be when I sit down to do my work.
To deal with meeting FOMO, I first ask the organizer if it’s absolutely necessary that I attend and explain my reason for asking because I feel like my time might be better spent getting whatever I’m working on done. If they say the meeting isn’t mandatory, I check in with myself about why I’m saying no to attending a meeting and make sure I like my reasons.
When Dealing With Selfish Urgency
If selfish urgency is an issue, the article suggests that leaders consider the opportunity costs associated with asking their teams to attend a meeting. Whether it’s the financial cost to the company or more personal costs such as lost commute time, mental energy, or the logistics for working parents that might need to get extra help.
They suggest figuring out the financial costs of the meetings and speaking to your team to find out how meetings affect them professionally and personally. If you are a leader, ensure employees know there’s no downside to being honest about what meetings are costing them and then making a more informed decision about what meetings might be costing you.
If you are an employee, you might want to mention this podcast and have them listen to it or read the show notes. They might not be aware of the problems with meeting overload.
When Dealing With Meetings As Commitment Devices
Let’s face it, sometimes meetings do get people to take action to avoid being embarrassed in front of others when they have to report what they did or didn’t do. Unfortunately, this can become an ineffective way of ensuring everyone is doing their job.
One of the ways they suggest dealing with the issue of using meetings as commitment devices is to tell your team in advance that the meeting will be canceled if the deadline is met. So, in essence, you are framing the cancellation as a reward for reaching the goal.
Instead of holding a meeting to hold people accountable, find other ways that don’t waste everyone’s time, especially the ones who do get things done on time.
When Dealing With The Mere Urgency Effect
For this issue, the researchers have found it helpful to make canceling and ending meetings early the default, especially for recurring meetings. They offer that instead of asking, “Does anyone have any updates,” say, “Unless anyone has anything new, let’s cancel, and we can all get an hour back.”
Just for a second, imagine all the work you could get done if you were given an hour back that you thought would be spent in a meeting. You’d be amazed at what you can get done when you give others the gift of their time back.
They also suggest that if you aren’t sure if a meeting is necessary, try not having it and see what happens. Make it a regular practice in recurring meetings to ask whether you need the next one.
When Dealing With Meeting Amnesia
For this issue, what the article suggests is that you can provide a brief synopsis of the key points in a format that makes the information as accessible as possible. There is no need to make a long, drawn-out summary that wastes the time of everyone involved.
A brief synopsis lets everyone know what was said, who is expected to do what, and by when. This helps alleviate any confusion for those in attendance at the meeting and those that weren’t.
In a virtual environment, they suggest you schedule a short five-minute team debrief after key internal and external calls. With fewer opportunities to connect informally, it can be challenging to pick up on cues that someone left the Zoom call confused.
When Dealing With Pluralistic Ignorance
For this final issue, they suggest that leaders should encourage their teams to openly discuss their frustrations and offer feedback. They should also work together to regularly identify and eliminate unproductive meetings.
Of course, that might sound easier said than done, but to reduce meeting overload, leaders need to be genuinely interested in what their team members and employees have to say. They need to allow a safe space for honesty and not take it personally.
When I coach on leadership, one of the most important topics I cover is emotional adulthood versus emotional childhood – emotional adulthood is where you take 100% responsibility for how you feel, and emotional childhood is when you blame others for how you feel. To combat pluralistic ignorance, leaders must welcome feedback and manage their emotions.
So that’s what research has discovered about why we schedule and attend so many meetings and what they suggest for dealing with each issue. Whether you’re a leader or a participant, I hope you take these issues and suggestions to heart and implement them yourself.
- As accountants, we obviously know that meetings are necessary amongst ourselves, other professionals, and our clients, but if we’re being completely honest, they aren’t always as necessary as we make them out to be.
- Research has also shown that meetings have increased in length and frequency over the last 50 years, to the point that executives spend an average of at least 23 hours a week in meetings.
- There is a better way to handle meeting overload so that you don’t have to dread the sense of fatigue that can affect your time at work and your time at home with your family.