“Inconsequential!” you think to yourself as the familar faces across the room (or the familar voices across the phone line) go on and on about stuff that, frankly, you just don’t care about anymore. Wait, didn’t we already talk about that two meetings ago? Why is this conversation going on, and on, and on… Time to get back to work and get something done, by golly! Can’t everyone just. please. stop. talking!!??

I want to talk to you about how to have productive meetings. Actually, I just liked starting off an article with the word Inconsequential. Cool word, right? Secondly, I want to talk to you about how to have productive meetings. The first rule is not to repeat yourself. Oh….

Seriously, we all know what bad meetings smell like. People going off on rabbit trails. Loop-de-loop deliberation that never resolves itself. A total lack of expectation of what the meeting will accomplish. Topics that don’t really involve some (most?) of the people there.

But what makes for a good meeting? Before you shout “oxymoron!” let me remind you that some of the best work and best thinking around hard problems come from collaboration, and, like it or not, collaboration requires meetings. That’s where most well-intentioned people start. “Hey, this seems like a difficult problem to solve. Let’s go grab Room X and persons A and B and we can hash it out.” Sounds innocent enough, right? And then you think of more people who should be involved. And then it becomes a “thing” on Tuesday afternoons because it didn’t get finalized the first two times. And pretty soon, you’re in meeting hell.

Here are some helpful “hacks” that you can use to stave off too much pain and feel like the meetings you’re in are useful, productive, and—possibly, just possilbly—a little bit fun!

  1. Ruthlessly timebox. If you have some authority in the meetings, then you are in a great position to say “Hey folks, we only have a half-hour here. Let’s nail this issue and then get back to work.” If you are in a subordinate position, then you need to get clever. Say something like “Hey, Boss C and D are both waiting on me to finish up my presentation, and I really want to make them happy on this one. I can stick around until 2:30 but then I really need to go. Thanks!” Or there’s always the butter-them-up trick. “I’d love to attend your meeting, but I can only stay until 11:45 because I want to finish up that awesome idea you came up with last week before we all head out to the company lunch party.”
  2. Identify the drop-dead goal of the meeting. You can only solve so many things in a single session. What’s the one thing that, if left unsolved, will seriously mess up the whole project? Make sure you keep coming back to that. “Hey Leo, that seems like something we should really go over more in-depth, but right now we have this huge issue to figure out, and if we don’t, we’re dead. So let’s focus on that for this time around. Sound good?”
  3. Who’s responsible? Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. They require food (brainpower) and housing (people’s effort) in order to thrive. So every time ideas start getting thrown around and the meeting feels like it’s going sideways, time to take responsibility. “Hey Sabrina, I love the passion you have around that idea and it seems like a great thing to discuss further. We’re pressed for time right now—can you take charge of setting up another meeting just for working on that concept…maybe reach out to one or two other key people who you think might be interested?” If Sabrina’s really gung ho and it’s really a good idea, it’ll live on. If she forgets about it, or decides later on to shutter it, or no one else is ready to jump on the bandwagon, then Yippee! You just saved everyone’s time.
  4. Take notes. I’m rather terrible at this one, and unfortunately most people seem to be. A meeting’s impact is doubled or tripled when there are clear, actionable tasks that come out of the meeting. Requiring a meeting to produce clear, actionable tasks itself is a productivity hack, because it focuses people’s attention and eliminates fluff. “Hey Brody, I’m not quite sure how to translate that into a clear, actionable task. Are we really ready to run with this now? Otherwise, maybe should make a note to discuss it further at our next meeting and table it for now.”
  5. When you really need to, disappear. I hate to say this because it sounds terribly cynical, but sometime’s it’s necessary. If you feel like you really need to get out of a meeting, at least for this once, then just do it. Don’t let guilt and pressure make you miserable. Think of a legitimate (or semi-legitmate!) reason to bow out and make it know. If you’re generally a responsible, forthright person who functions well when in meetings, then the occasional miss won’t be perceived as negligence or apathy. (Unless you have a crappy boss/co-workers, in which case you have bigger problems on your hands than any old meeting.)

“Well Jared, that all sounds very well, but you don’t know my workplace/my client/my boss/my schedule/my job description…” That’s true, I don’t. And it’s true, I’m talking about things you can do in somewhat ideal scenarios. Let me tell you, I’m just finished a big milestone on a project and some of the issues that came up required me to be on the phone with my client for several hours. Did we have a blissful, stress-free, short meeting? Heck no! There was all kinds of stuff to deal with. That’s life.

However, I think it’s healthy to ensure those kinds of long, intense confabs stay rare. Do everything you can to find a sustainable pace and promote logical work processes so that meetings can stay concise, meaningful, and successful. Ultimately, everyone wants (or should want!) the business to be a success. Meetings should serve those noble business goals. The business shouldn’t serve the meetings.