The True Cost of Meetings

How and why to improve your meetings, or avoid them altogether.

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be meetings.”

Meetings are wonderful.

You get to share your ideas and opinions instead of just keeping them to yourself.

You get to show that you are visibly busy and clearly contribute to the progress of your company instead of sitting by yourself working on who knows what.

You get to collectively make grand plans and share your abstract thoughts instead of working on concrete things.

You get to just sit there and not accomplish anything, while still getting a false sense of being productive.

Wait, what? Something’s wrong.

Actually meetings often aren’t all that wonderful. Nor particularly productive.

In their book ReWork — Change the way you work forever, ultra-succcesful entrepreneurs and programmers Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson (DHH) go as far as calling meetings toxic.

I recently experienced this first hand.

One Friday evening not too long ago, I looked at my calendar and counted how many meetings I had that week. The result: 26!


And I should add that I recently started working remotely in the mornings, avoiding meetings whenever possible during that time. It says it in my calendar for everyone to see.

So that means that over five afternoons, I accumulated 26 meetings of some kind or another.

Sounds extremely productive, doesn’t it?

Well, turns out that looking back at that particular week I actually don’t feel like I accomplished much at all. I could think of many single days in which I accomplished more. Often working remotely and by myself, free from distraction and interruption.

At least I still had my mornings to get some actual work done. Or did I?

The problem was that as soon as I woke up, my head was both still buzzing from the previous day’s meetings as well as preparing for that afternoon’s meetings.

Focused and undistracted work was all but impossible.

And even during some of the meetings, I found myself distractedly staring at my calendar thinking about other upcoming meetings, or my email inbox with new invitations coming in. Rarely was I actually fully present in the moment.

On that Friday evening when I looked back at the week, I felt completely drained, mentally and physically, and couldn’t wait for the weekend to start.

So why exactly are meetings such a problem? Why can they be toxic?

There are several reasons.

The “information rate” of meetings is often extremely low. We spend an hour or more and in the end realize that barely any (useful) information has actually been shared between the participants.

This problem is made worse by the fact that a large number of meetings is lacking a clear agenda.

Regular meetings are held for the sake of being regular. Other meetings are scheduled because there is “probably something to discuss”. Yet others are just to vaguely brainstorm. Or even worse, just to get a false sense of accomplishment when stuck with a difficult and urgent problem and wanting to get some distraction.

Meetings tend to be about very abstract ideas. These can be important, but more often than not, the concrete and actionable things are what really matter.

Abstract ideas sound great in the moment, but are often forgotten again shortly after their inception and rarely lead to progress. Particularly when shared between people. Private contemplation until they turn into more concrete ideas is often the better choice. Concrete ideas directly drive progress.

Talking about an issue or idea feels great, but it is not the same as executing on it. And often we just choose it as an easy alternative to postpone doing the hard thing that would really help us advance.

Besides, as Fried and Heinemeier Hansson note, “meetings procreate”. One meeting leads to a follow up meeting, which spawns yet other meetings involving additional people, and so on.

We also rarely schedule meetings for the duration they actually deserve. Outlook and Google Calendar make it extremely easy to schedule meetings in 30 minute slots, so we default to that. But maybe 12 minutes would actually do? We’d never schedule a 12 minute meeting though, and would probably get strange comments if we did.

This all sounds quite bad. And it is.

But there is one more problem, and the true extent of this only became clear to me recently.

Let’s assume we schedule a one hour meeting involving ten people. That is ten man-hours of productivity lost.

And this is only the directly visible amount. Add to that the time cost of preparing for the meeting, the cost of follow up tasks created by the meeting, and potentially worst of all the cost of attention switching, and you easily end up with a multiple of those ten man-hours lost.

Just by a single meeting.

Let’s be extremely conservative and say this one hour meeting effectively cost twenty man-hours of productivity. Now do the math. If you had to make a budget estimation for a client that involves those twenty man-hours, how much would it come to?

Chances are that the number is going to be quite shocking. It certainly was to me when I thought about it, which prompted me to write this article.

All the points above are important, but many are hard to quantify. This one however is a single, clear number. And probably quite a painful one.

That’s how much this one meeting just cost you.

Was the result really worth that amount?

In some cases the answer will be yes. But in most cases probably a very clear and definite no.

Meetings are not bad per se. And simply removing all meetings is neither desirable, nor realistic.

So how can we avoid the issues discussed above, or at least minimize their impact?

A clear first step is to simply ask ourselves if this meeting is really necessary? If no, good, problem solved.

If yes, the next question should be who actually needs to be involved. Chances are out of the ten people, only three really needed to be there.

Also does it really require a full hour? Maybe it can be done in 45 minutes. Or 30. Or less.

The key thing in reducing the time, and actually making a meeting useful, is having a very clear agenda. Why is this meeting required, what is the specific problem at hand, and what is the goal?

Then be as concrete as possible. Actionable steps and problems that need to be addressed, instead of abstract ideas. Yes, abstract brainstorming sessions can be useful, but nowhere near as often as they are usually employed.

Finally, the meeting should end within the specified time limit, and result in clear outcomes, tasks, and responsibilities (and ideally not directly require additional follow up meetings).

Keeping these points in mind when considering the need for a meeting or planning the details of one can dramatically reduce their potential downside.

But what if we are on the receiving side and are simply invited to a meeting?

There is (almost) always the option to simply decline the invite.

Saying no can be difficult, and we are often afraid of people’s reaction if we don’t agree with them on the necessity of the meeting they deem important.

But in the long term, besides freeing up tremendous amounts of time and reducing distraction, saying no more often actually tends to lead to more respect, not less.

Another good strategy is to collectively agree on meeting-free times, be that mornings or particular days of the week. With everyone being aware of such times, less friction is created, and clear periods free of attention fragmentation can be established.

Back to my 26 meeting week.

I’m certainly not trying to brush of all guilt and just blame others. Several of the 26 meetings were either scheduled directly by myself, or because I asked to have them.

I also didn’t always do the best job with a clear agenda. I very vividly remember about half an hour into one of the meetings I initiated, a colleague asked what the goal of that meeting actually was. Oops…

Earlier I mentioned that at least my mornings were free during that week. But that actually wasn’t completely accurate.

While my calendar says that my mornings are reserved for remote work, it also says that if someone let’s me know by the day before, I’ll be in the office. So I still regularlty get meetings scheduled in my mornings.

Maybe I need to become stricter and reinforce my sacred mornings more. Maybe I need to by default decline any meeting scheduled during this time, unless there is a good reason to have it at that time.

It’s always easier to talk than to actually do.

But becoming aware of and clearly naming a problem is a first step towards a solution.

Then next step is action.

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Max Frenzel, PhD

AI Researcher, Writer, Digital Creative. Passionate about helping you build your rest ethic. Author of the international bestseller Time Off.