Meetings are the Anne Hathaway of the working world—moderately annoying, but entirely unavoidable.
Enough already. Meetings, like Hathaway, are here to stay. You can minimize them, shorten them, or add whimsical policies like “all meetings last five minutes” or “all meetings are held standing up,” or “all meetings are conducted in the sounds of barnyard animals,” but at the end of the day—or, on average, 62 times a month—we’re still going to shuffle into a room and talk about things while looking at each other’s faces.
Sometimes those days will be especially bad. Some days your calendar will be packed with meetings—not to mention urgent Slack messages, 97 unread emails, and a hard stop at 7:30pm because if you don’t go on this first date, then your mom is right and you really will end up alone with six cats and and a robot butler. For those days—here’s some advice on how to get out alive.
In a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 38% of Americans reported unintentionally falling asleep during the day. (Fun fact: You are least likely to day-doze between the ages of 35 and 44.) But while plenty of important people have nodded off at meetings—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Joe Biden, the pope—it’s still a general faux pas, and you probably shouldn’t do it. Get a solid night’s sleep before a big day of face-to-face interaction. (And if push comes to shove, a power nap takes only 15 minutes.)
You can thank Mark Twain for this productivity hack. The idea of “eating the frog”—or taking on your worst task first—originated with a Twain quote that goes something like, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.”
Likewise, if your schedule is packed with meetings, carve out an hour before everything kicks off and use it to tackle something super productive, maybe the kind of thing you would usually put off. That feeling of accomplishment sets a nice tone, and will buoy you through the rest of the day.
Going into a day of meetings is like vacationing (or being stranded?) on a remote island: You have to let people know that you’re fine, and definitely not kidnapped or trapped under a heavy object.
Anyone who might expect a prompt reply from you during the day—direct reports, colleagues, supervisors—should get a quick heads up that you’re going to be in and out of meetings, and will respond in X fashion around Y time, or would prefer to be reached via Z method. With those communications sorted, you won’t feel as compelled to check messages mid-meeting, and no one has to worry that you’re locked in the supply closet.
Even on a productive day, most of us cede time to unnecessary tasks. By the estimation of godfather-of-management Peter Drucker, the average employee could toss “something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.”
During a day with limited free time, that quarter can be particularly important to identify. You can start by asking yourself, What would happen if this were not done at all? As Drucker writes—drolly, in my opinion—“If the answer is, ‘Nothing would happen,’ then obviously the conclusion is to stop doing it.”
If meetings are like remote islands, then the stretches of time between them are ships passing by just out of flare range. Your typical 15- to 45-minute window isn’t enough time to catch up on everything you missed, so don’t try to. Instead, think specifically about what you want to accomplish in the time you do have.
One useful trick might be the Pomodoro Technique, designed by developer and entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Choose a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and keep working on that task until the timer goes off (no distractions!) When 25 minutes (aka one pomodoro) are up, take a five-minute stretch break, then repeat with as many pomodoros as you have time for.
Meetings can be notoriously directionless. When you’re the host, it’s good to set an agenda, but there are ways to feel organized even as an attendee. During or after each meeting, jot down your action items—a project-management euphemism for “to-do list.” Identifying those next steps as you go will save you having to remember everything at the end of a long day.
A good meeting can be great—ideas mesh, perspectives complement, solutions are realized, harmony reached. Everyone walks away (or logs off) feeling motivated and enthusiastic, and happy to be a part of the team. But a bad meeting can be terrible, and the worst meetings have a Hydra-like ability to regenerate and expand, until we do something crazy like invent a meeting that lasts multiple days.
Just remember: The power of meeting mastery lives within you. Take a deep breath, gather your strength, and fill up your coffee mug—you got this. And anyway, Anne Hathaway was great in The Princess Diaries.