Meetings are a fixture of corporate life. A recent survey by Wrike, which makes online project management tools, found that 50% of professionals have two to five meetings a week, and 35% have six or more. The higher you go, the more frequent they become. Case in point: Lorraine Twohill, Google’s senior VP of global marketing, shared with us that she has 17-20 meetings a day.
Even if you aren’t committed to that kind of schedule, you’ll likely face a scenario at some point where you’ve got eight or more hours of meetings back to back. If so, here’s how to manage your time and your energy so you don’t wind up as an incoherent blob by the end.
Get in the habit of taking time on Thursday or Friday to look at your calendar for the next week. Study your meetings. Do any seem unnecessary in general, or for you? Could they be shortened? Can you send someone else? If any don’t have a detailed agenda and objective, ask for these. If no one can produce them, that’s a good reason to postpone or cancel.
If they can, you can study up to be ready. “If the meeting starts with a discussion of why you’re meeting, that means people haven’t done their homework and you’ve already wasted valuable time,” says Andrew Filev, founder and CEO of Wrike. In a mere 20 minutes of triaging, you can buy back hours. But even if you only buy back one hour on a day with 8 hours of meetings, that means you get a lunch break. It’s worth doing.
Look at your list of the day’s meetings, and identify any involving one to two other people, and more casual conversations. Ask to turn these into walking meetings. Physical activity adds to your energy levels. If you don’t have any breaks built into your day, a walking meeting becomes the functional equivalent of one.
Of course, not all meetings need to be boring. Talking with people you like about topics you care about is energizing in its own right. Amy Feirn, a Houston-based principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, says, “Every day, I’m reminded that leadership is about making connections, and meetings are the best way to do that in a group.”
A little laughter and sharing goes a long way. “I like to kick off meetings with personal anecdotes to help energize each other around important issues,” she says. “This ensures that you help people get to know each other, not just through the agenda, but by respecting each other, and creating friendships. We need to respect the agenda, of course, but what’s different about this approach is that making connections outside of the agenda–and having some fun–engages an executive throughout the day.” You don’t endure, you enjoy. That mind-set shift can make a lot of difference.
People will ignore a clock. But most won’t ignore an alarm that goes off. Many people also need a sign that it’s time to get to the point and achieve whatever change in the world the meeting was called to achieve. If you’ve got an hourlong meeting, have your phone or watch beep at :42. That should get you out the door by :50, so you can walk the halls, stretch, and get to your next meeting on time.
“I know myself well enough to know that I’m less effective if I’m hungry or have low blood sugar, so I make sure to schedule breaks long enough to grab a bite to eat if I need it,” says Filev. Decision making burns energy; bring a few healthy snacks with you so you don’t attack a vending machine out of desperation. Drinking plenty of fluids is also smart. You stay alert, and (bonus) the bathroom trips those drinks will necessitate will give you an excuse to get out of your chair.
Jennifer Van Buskirk, president of Cricket Wireless, says, “I think 12 hours of back-to-back meetings is the record for me,” and any given day can feature five to seven hours. To keep things straight, she brings an old-fashioned paper notebook: “The simple act of distilling and writing key pieces of information helps me remember,” she says (see “How To Master The Art Of Taking Better Notes”). Tempting as it is to check email or edit memos during boring stretches, don’t. “When I’m in a meeting, I limit multi-tasking and focus on being present–focus helps with memory,” she says. “And I interact–a lot. Asking questions and really engaging with not only those presenting but those in attendance helps me remember as well.” A good rule of thumb: If you’re able to do something else during a meeting, you shouldn’t be there.
It’s always possible that a meeting will be canceled or end early. True time management masters are able to make the most of unexpected time. Make a list of the top three non-meeting priorities for the day. If a spot of time opens up, tackle one of those tasks, so you don’t end up with a late night after all your meetings are done.
Take a few minutes at the end of the day (or on your commute, or at night after the kids go to bed) to review notes and action items from the day’s meetings. Figure out when you’ll do them. Because if nothing comes out of eight hours of meetings, then that’s eight hours that could have been better spent.