How to Stop Wasting Time in Meetings


I recently boasted about a client who has learned to forecast and achieve more goals, and to do so in a refreshing state of calm confidence. I claimed that a weekly meeting was partially responsible. How can this be? After all, meetings are the scourge of professional existence, right? Especially recurring meetings.

Like most people, I’m not a fan of meetings. Especially when they include unnecessary attendees, lack structure, are redundant, or deal with issues that don’t require a meeting. But I will grudgingly admit that we can’t do away with meetings altogether. One of the most common complaints we hear is about poor communication between departments and team members.

So how do you ensure good communication while reducing the time spent in meetings?

The answer is simple: Shift from FYI to NTK meetings. Sure, you can enforce punctuality, draw up a clear agenda, and agree to meeting outcomes. But until you eliminate FYI meetings and get to know NTK meetings, you are wasting time.

The premise of NTK–or “need to know”–meetings is that everyone in attendance needs to know what’s being discussed and/or has information that other attendees need to know.

Stop Wasting Time in Team Meetings

In the past, the default length of meetings was 30 minutes. That’s right, the current hour-long go-to is a relatively new and insidious concept. As Parkinson’s law laments, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

This means that even if there’s only 20 minutes of necessary information to exchange, teams will often continue meeting for the rest of the scheduled time. Those precious extra minutes are typically spent on idle or semi-relevant chit chat or “FYI” updates.

Because NTK meetings are focused only on what’s currently necessary, it’s not only acceptable, but a requirement that meetings end once all relevant information has been exchanged. On some glorious days, a meeting can even be cancelled if there is no need for discussion.

Boom! You just got your life back.

Hosting an NTK Meeting

The need to know premise applies to all kinds of meetings, but is particularly effective for longer-term projects or recurring team meetings, where repeating bad habits adds up.

This is the format I've found most effective for such meetings:

  1. First, resist the urge to schedule “all hands” meetings as the default. Not every team member is necessary in every meeting. Only those who fit the profile–that is, who possess or need the information in question–should be in attendance.
  2. Start the meeting by identifying what topics will be discussed. Read aloud a list of possible topics, and ask that anyone who has “need to know” information to share on a topic say so. Do not use this time to discuss the actual topic details. This step should take approximately five minutes.
  3. Briefly consider and excuse from the room anyone who does not meet the “need to know” criteria based on the identified topics. Also, quickly calculate the maximum time of each topic by dividing the number of topics by the remaining time. This won’t be necessary for long, as you will begin to get a feel for the appropriate time for each topic.
  4. Proceed with the meeting by discussing only “need to know” information for each identified topic. Avoid FYI or redundant updates and overly detailed discussions by empowering attendees to request that topics be taken offline if the meeting is wandering off course.
  5. Once all the identified topics have been covered, acknowledge any remaining time on the clock–you’ll likely have more of it the more you practice the NTK way–and reinforce the opportunity to use that unexpected time wisely.

It’s a different way of doing things, but I guarantee you’ll be pleased with the outcomes. You’ll find that attendees focus only on relevant information, reserve deeper discussions for smaller offline groups, and spend far less time in meetings.

And with all that efficiency in place, you’ll have even more time to get closer to your goals!

Image Credit: Andrew Magil