The new dos and don’ts of effective meetings: Data from 1,000+ business leaders on what makes meetings work

Making fun of boring meetings is like complaining about the weather– Everyone does it yet nobody feels they can do anything to change it. But bad meetings aren’t just an annoyance. The pain of sitting through them has serious consequences on you and your team’s time, focus, attention, and motivation

The problem is that few of us have ever experienced a culture of truly effective meetings. Even worse, the common advice for how to run better meetings is usually high-level and never practical enough. (i.e. Have an agenda, book shorter meetings, etc…)

So how do you fix a problem when you don’t know what the solution looks like? You turn to data. 

After interviewing close to 1,000 business leaders, in-demand freelancers, and top developers, designers, and makers, we discovered what makes effective meetings work (whether remote or in-person), and what turns them into a colossal waste of time.  

The state of meetings in 2020: 1 in 4 people have so many meetings they can’t focus at all

Let’s start with how people currently feel about their meeting schedules.

According to previous research, meeting frequency and length has increased over the past 50 years. On average, executives now spend on average 23 hours a week in them (compared to 10 hours in the 1960s). 

This sounds like a lot of time. And it is. 

According to our survey, 25% of people say their schedule is so full of meetings that they have only small pockets of time to focus (or none at all). 

When you filter that data to just managers, the number of people overwhelmed with meetings jumps to 53%! 

Overall, the people we spoke to say they spend around 9–13 hours a week in meetings. And on average, they only have 4 hours or less a day to really focus on important work. (That doesn’t include time for breaks or the 30–35% of their day most people spend on emails and chat).

In the end, 34% of people say their meeting schedule gets in the way of doing their main job. While 61% say meetings are a serious interruption to their focus.

Despite all these stats, 62% of people say they feel fine about their current meeting schedule–showing just how much we’ve accepted the necessary evil of bad meetings. 

62% of people say they feel fine about their current meeting schedule–showing just how much we’ve accepted the necessary evil of bad meetings. 

The main issue is that some meetings are necessary. (And some can even be the most impactful use of your time possible!) We use effective meetings to solve problems, mine insight from a diverse group of people, and make hard decisions. 

But when meetings end up being used to present information that could’ve been in an email, answer questions that only really needed one person’s input, or end with no clear action other than to book another meeting that they feel like a waste.

More than just a waste of time, bad meetings eat up focus, productivity, and motivation. Time is zero-sum. The more time wasted in bad meetings, the less your team has for focused, creative, and innovative work.

The anatomy of effective meetings: How the most productive teams schedule and run meetings

Our data shows just how much of an impact your meeting schedule has on focus and productivity. But solving the issue of “meetings” is no small task. 

Building a culture of effective meetings comes down to three challenges: 

  1. Keeping the total number of meetings to a minimum 
  2. Batching meeting time to allow for longer stretches of focused time
  3. Running more effective meetings 

To understand how teams tackle these issues, we filtered our data by only those people who feel ‘in control’ of their time. Here’s what they said. 

Reduce your number of meetings by blocking out focused time in your schedule

Productive teams and leaders prioritize focused time in their schedule at the expense of being ‘always available.’

In fact, our data showed that 61% of teams only schedule meetings at specific times of the day. The most popular option is to only have meetings in the mornings or afternoons leaving the rest of the day for focused work. 

Meetings aren’t the only events that make it into the most productive team’s schedules. More than 50% of people actively block out time for focused work in their schedule.

Here are a few of the methods they use (in order of popularity):

  1. Time blocking
  2. Pomodoros
  3. MIT/Swallow the Frog

By limiting the amount of time available for meetings and booking dedicated focus time, these teams actively reduce their overall meetings and get more meaningful work done. 

Batch meeting time by following a set schedule

If you’re in a position to change your team’s meeting culture, one of the best things you can do is set a schedule. Rather than letting meetings be booked whenever set the expectation that certain times (or days) are off-limits. 

The best meeting schedule is the one that works for your team. However, our research found that the majority of people feel the same way about when you should have meetings. 

Here are our biggest findings:

People are varied about the best time of day for a meeting…

Over 60% of people said they prefer meetings first thing in the morning or in the late morning. 

…But more opinionated about the worst

Around 37% of people actually hate early morning meetings. While another 27% said the end of the day is the worst time.

Almost everyone agrees that the beginning of the week is best for meetings

The vast majority of people prefer meetings on Mondays or Tuesdays. While over 56% said you should never book a meeting on Fridays.

So what does this look like in practice?

If you stick to a meeting schedule of late mornings/early afternoons only on Mondays and Tuesdays, you’re more likely to keep people happy and productive.

Creating a set schedule like this can be especially helpful for remote teams who work across time zones.

By asking what sort of meeting schedule works for everyone, you ensure that remote teammates aren’t struggling to balance meetings with their most productive hours (or getting caught taking meetings during dinner or when they’re trying to disconnect and recharge!)

Run more effective meetings by keeping them short and staying on topic

Timing is only one aspect of fixing your meeting culture. 

When it comes to how to run effective meetings, our data found that high-output teams value purposeful, focused, and well-prepared meetings. 

Let’s dig into the top 3 ways these teams run more effective meetings:

  1. Share an agenda beforehand. Effective meetings have a purpose and a clear plan of action. An agenda lets your team get ready to contribute or even decline the invite if it doesn’t feel like something they need to attend.
  2. Keep the conversation focused on the main topic. It’s hard to recover from a meeting that goes off the rails. In order to run an effective meeting, you have to be prepared to steer it back on course no matter who gets distracted. 
  3. Be well prepared. This goes without saying. Every effective meeting needs a leader to drive the conversation but also well-prepared attendees to contribute. As an added bonus, being well-prepared also allows meeting planners to book shorter times (the next most important aspect of an effective meeting). 

When it comes to it, running effective meetings isn’t that hard. Be prepared. Keep the conversation focused. And give your team the tools and insight they need beforehand to contribute in a meaningful way. 

Meetings aren’t going away. But they can get significantly better with a few small tweaks.

Whether you’re a company of one trying to maximize your time each day or a manager at a massive company who just wants to keep their head above water, running effective meetings is one of the most important skills you can have. 

But this comes down to so much more than just what happens during a meeting.

Instead, as our data found, you need to think about your current meeting culture, create a plan that prioritizes focus, and then make sure every meeting has a purpose, leader, and intended outcome. 

What makes an effective meeting in your mind? Let us know in the comments below!

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

8 comments

  1. I can totally relate! I was stuck in a 2-hour team/client meeting recently — they hoped it wouldn’t go that long but it went OVER — and we didn’t get a bathroom break. Another meeting with the same team was spent in part catching up one person on details the rest of us already knew, and most of that meeting had nothing to do with my role in the project. I’ll be sending this article to them for sure. Thanks!

    1. Wow, that sounds terrible Erika! I hope our research can help make your next meetings a little bit better!

  2. Jory, as an avid RescueTime user I can wholeheartedly agree with this. You have to make the best of your meeting time. It all comes down to preparation (by all concerned not just the chairperson) and then the behaviour of everyone in the meeting – chairperson and attendees.

    I am not sure if it helps, and I don’t want to hijack your thread, but we have written a comprehensive Good Board Meetings Guide which covers lots of the basics of meetings from our experience of running 250 Board Meetings per year – Good, Bad and Ugly. Happy to collaborate with you on something relating to this subject if you like. (https://www.wellmeadow.co.uk/good-board-meetings-guide-pillar)

    1. Thanks for the kind words and for sharing your article, David! It’s often the simplest changes that can have the biggest impact on improving business processes. In this case, even just a few minutes prepping for a minute (by everyone, as you pointed out!) can be the difference between it being effective and impactful and a total dud. Can’t wait to read your post!

  3. I’m surprised (but glad) to see half of workers use time blocking! We wrote a comparison of free time blocking apps here that people might find helpful: https://www.getclockwise.com/blog/the-top-3-free-time-blocking-apps-compared

    1. Thanks Cathy! We’re big fans of time blocking as well (and wrote an in-depth guide on it here). Thanks for sharing those tools.

  4. We are fortunate enough that we have a mandatory 1 hour meeting every Friday morning, but we also have meetings with clients as well. But we never have more than 5-6 hours of meeting total per week. The main thing to keeping our meetings short is to stay focused on the task at hand and to not stray. We used to have 2 hour meetings every Friday, but ever since we’ve started focusing on a few items each week we’ve cut that time in half.

    1. That’s amazing Chad! It’s incredible to see the results of simply staying focused on task and realizing the cost/value of bringing together your whole team.

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