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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 August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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