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5 Alternatives to Time-Wasting Meetings

5 Alternatives to Time-Wasting Meetings

5 Alternatives to Time-Wasting Meetings

    Nobody likes meetings. Well, not “nobody” – that older guy with the beard that nobody seems to know personally that comes to every meeting? He likes meetings, because he gets a free donut and a nap. But other than him, most people see meetings as way too unproductive and time-consuming to be likable. Necessary, sometimes, but not likable.

    There are a lot of reasons why meetings can waste more time than they’re worth. Of course, meetings can be ill-planned, without an agenda (or worse, with an unclear agenda) and no real goal in mind. Meetings can often become the battleground for intra-office politics as well, with everyone’s time wasted while the office Alpha and Beta chest-thump at each other.

    Other ways meetings waste time have to do with factors external to the meeting. They interrupt whatever you were working on at the time, regardless of whatever kind of flow state you might have been in. There’s always someone essential who runs late, forcing everyone to cool their heels waiting, or to start and then waste time when they finally show up and need to be filled in.

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    And, finally, there’s the structure of the meeting itself. Brainstorming meetings stall as people on whom the concept of brainstorming is lost run feasibility checks on each idea thrown out. Informative meetings stall when leadership encounters resistances they hadn’t foreseen and fumble, unprepared, for responses. And meetings overall fall down as voices and egos raise in a clamor for everyone to be heard – and to be right.

    Five Alternatives to Meetings

    Like I said, sometimes meetings are necessary, but rather than a first-response, meetings should be reserved for special occasions, when only a face-to-face meeting will do the job. In other times, try one of these five alternatives and see if they don’t save some time and some hassle.

    Instant Messaging

    While Instant Messaging (IM) is likely to be viewed more as a time-waster for teenagers and lonely geeks, a lot can get done via IM. IM allows you and your partners to maintain a long-term virtual “presence” as you work, posting questions, updates, and ideas as they strike you or as you come across problems in your work. Since IM programs maintain a full record of the chat session, there’s no danger of missing anything or losing it – just scroll up.

    There are a couple of rules to follow for productive IM’ing.

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    1. Cut the chatter. To keep things focused, each person should speak only a) when they have something important to add, or b) in response to a question.
    2. No frills. Today’s IM software comes with voice and video capabilities, avatars, face-morphing functions, multi-colored fonts, and more. Leave those for your twelve-year old daughter – you’re working, not playing IM.

    Alternatives to IM include private chatrooms like Campfire or even Twitter if you can resist the siren call of your friends’ tweets.

    Teleconferencing

    If more personal contact and real-time sharing is needed, try a teleconferencing system like Adobe’s Acrobat.com or GoToMeeting. Most services allow screen sharing, collaborative whiteboarding, and other substitutes for same-room presence – without the commute to the meeting (even if it’s just down three floors), the incessant interruptions for coffee and bathroom breaks, the face-to-face socializing, or the forced absence from your desktop while you wait for that crucial email. Since most also create a transcript, you don’t need someone taking minutes, either.

    Wikis

    Wikis provide a collaborative environment that is ideal for the development of working documents and statements, as well as material that will need to be referred to again and again. For one-off projects, an online wiki like WetPaint or PBWiki are ideal: free, easy to set up, and easy to use. For more mission-critical material, especially when you plan to use it repeatedly, and where security is a major concern, your organization can fairly easily set up an internal wiki on your intranet, using advanced software like MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia.

    Wikis are self-organizing and easy to create and edit, and they keep track of changes made along with a record of who is responsible for each edit (no more dickering over credit!). Where real-time interaction isn’t a necessity, building a wiki over a long period of time can be far more productive than a chain of meetings – but make sure to assign responsibilities and allow time for wiki work.

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    Email Lists/Groups

    Another solution where real-time interaction is not a factor is the old-fashioned email list. Somewhat out of fashion these days, email lists can still be quite productive ways to get things done as a group – and both Yahoo and Google offer services that are free and easy to set up.

    An effective email list should probably have a moderator – not to approve messages, but to remind people when they’re going off track. Good etiquette is essential in this environment; something about the medium encourages flame wars. But with a few precautions, email lists can still be quite effective tools, allowing for thoughtful, considered exchanges and automatically maintaining a searchable archive of past discussions.

    Collaboration Apps

    Finally, effective use of a project management application can forestall the need for most meetings. Systems like Wrike and Basecamp allow notes to be exchanged, tasks to be assigned, and files to be shared. They also offer a number of ways for users to interact: SMS, email, online, RSS, or using a third-party application through Basecamp’s API.

    If full-fledged project management is too much, consider using online services like Google Docs (which can be installed to your own domain via Google Apps) alongside Google Talk or another IM – you can share documents, add to and edit each others work, and create a repository of materials at the same time.

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    Let’s Adjourn

    I am not trying to claim that all meetings can be replaced through online services or desktop applications. Sometimes an in-person meeting is the best and most eficient way to get things done.

    But don;t let meetings become the default mode of itneraction. All too often, meetings represent a failure of communication, not the advancement of it – they’re called when nobody’s on the same page anymore, or worse, when the [stuff] is about to hit the fan. More effective planning and use of resources can often prevent the need for meetings, and let everyone involved spend more of their time doing work rather than talking about it.

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    Last Updated on April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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