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The Simple Thing That Can Totally Transform Time-Suck Meetings

You probably spend nearly half your workweek in meetings, and most of them have no agenda. Here's seven steps to make them less painful.

[Photo: Syda Productions via Shutterstock]

Meetings are like burpees: They drain your energy and nobody likes them. About 40% of the average workweek is spent in meetings, and more than half of participants would rather be waiting in line at the DMV or watching paint dry, according to a poll by software company Clarizen.

Part of the problem is that meetings aren’t properly planned. In fact, 67% are held without an agenda, according to a Microsoft study on productivity. But an agenda is essential for holding an effective meeting, says Michael Fritsch, president of the management-consulting firm Confoe.

"Agendas set expectations and provide participants with the needed guidance to prepare," he says. "A good agenda will help you enforce good meeting practices."

The minutes you spend writing an agenda can save you hours wasted in ineffective meetings. Here are seven things to know about creating and using an agenda.

1. Make A List Of What You Want To Accomplish

First and foremost, identify your objective, says Neal Hartman, management senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "Be critical about paring your agenda," he says. "List key items that need discussion, a vote, or whatever other action is appropriate."

2. Identify Who Should Attend

Too often, people have a tendency to invite too many people for fear of leaving someone out, but a good agenda makes it clear who should attend and who should not, says Fritsch.

The agenda might also identify people outside your department that should be included, adds Hartman. "Based on what you want to accomplish, you’ll know if you need a combination of expertise to accomplish the agenda items, and if there are discussions or decisions that need certain people," he says.

3. Assign An Estimated Amount Of Time For Each Item

Having a limited amount of time will help you stay on topic and prepare, says Hartman. "This can be useful for avoiding going off on tangents," he says. "It also helps frame how much time is available, and how much detail is needed for each topic."

But don’t use these time windows to make the meeting complicated. While it can be tempting to ask certain people to attend the meeting only during agenda items that are relevant to them, Hartman says it can be disruptive to have people going in and out. "That can lead to wasted time during meetings, and it goes back to really thinking about what you want to accomplish," he says. "Make sure issues have relevance to everyone in the meeting. If there is a topic that only involves a couple people, have a different meeting."

4. Beware Of "Standing Agendas"

They can quickly become outdated or irrelevant, says Fritsch.

"Take the time to really think through the agenda for every meeting, even regularly scheduled ones," he says.

5. Send The Agenda In Advance

This is critical, says Hartman. "If you send out the agenda 15 minutes before a meeting, it’s fairly useless," he says. "Half the people aren’t going to see it. You also have to be careful not to send it too far in advance where it can get lost in the flood of everything."

Instead, give people enough time to prepare, but not too much time, such as a day or two.

6. Run The Meeting From The Agenda

Designate someone to be the timekeeper. If you’ve allowed 15 minutes for the first item and you aren’t finished discussing the item, vote on whether you want to give it five more minutes, suggests Hartman.

"You don’t have to be absolutely rigid," he says. "But if an item isn’t resolved, you can decide to move on and address it at a later time."

7. Use The Agenda After The Meeting Ends

A good agenda can provide an outline for minutes and action items. Formal meetings will have minutes that are approved, but for routine meetings, Harman says a follow-up agenda is extremely helpful.

"Follow-up agendas put thoughts into writing and eliminate misunderstandings or errors," he says. "It can be fascinating to go to a meeting, and in your mind you understand what’s been decided, while someone else at the same meeting has a different idea. Within a 24-hour period, verify what has been agreed during the meeting, and identify who is responsible for tasks designated during the meeting."


Are You Managing Meetings Efficiently?

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