Psychological studies confirm what we all know: Long meetings are a waste of time

Meetings

Psychological studies point out one more reason why long meetings are no fun and get less done:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are facing a very difficult decision about which of two job offers to accept. One position offers good pay and job security, but is pretty mundane, whereas the other job is really interesting and offers reasonable pay, but has questionable job security.

Clearly you can go about resolving this dilemma in many ways. Few people, however, would say that your decision should be affected or influenced by whether or not you resisted the urge to eat cookies prior to contemplating the job offers.

A decade of psychology research suggests otherwise. Unrelated activities that tax the executive function have important lingering effects, and may disrupt your ability to make such an important decision. In other words, you might choose the wrong job because you didn’t eat a cookie.

Research by University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues indicates that we have a limited amount of what they call executive resources. Once they start to get depleted, we make bad choices.

And how do you consume your executive resources? In three ways. You use them every time you:

  1. Exercise commitment (as in not eating that cookie you really wanted because you’re on a diet)
  2. Focus your attention (as in listening to someone speaking, though you’d rather check email on your Blackberry)
  3. Make a decision (as in choosing which of two possible projects to approve)

A-HA!!!!!

Business meetings require participants to commit, focus and make decisions – with no acknowledgment of the fact that in doing so they’re consuming a finite resource. Once this resource runs out, people make worse decisions!!!

Suddenly those three-hour project meetings aren’t looking so smart, are they? Not that they ever really did, but you know what I mean.

The article left me with a few questions:

  • How do we recharge our executive resources?
  • Can we increase our executive resources over time by exercising them? The way physical exercise makes you tired right now but increases your fitness over time.
  • How quickly can they be recharged? Once they’re gone, are they gone for the day? The week? Or can they be recharged in time for the next meeting?

If you know the answer to any of these questions, I’d love to hear it!

Your take

What do you think? Have you noticed this kind of thing in meetings? What do you think is the cut-off point beyond which meetings just devolve into pointlessness and no good decisions can be made? An hour? Two? 15 minutes?

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20 thoughts on “Psychological studies confirm what we all know: Long meetings are a waste of time”

  1. This is a good topic. I work in an org where meetings dominate our schedules heavily. I’m not anti-meeting as, run properly, they are a very effective means of collaboration. But too many meetings without careful consideration as to their purpose, the process by which they are run and the desired outcomes, can quickly yield the levels of frustration often seen with e-mail (incidentally, another major area which needs a strategic approach).

    It’s not the timing. I’ve been in 2 hour meetings that are excellent, informative and yield good decisions. I’ve also been in 60 minute meetings that do the opposite. The worst was probably an all day one in a windowless room in a hotel in the US which, for some bizarre reason had carpets on the walls, and where we were subjected to a slow death by slideshow.

    So, plan the meeting like you might plan a dinner party, a date or an outing. Time is precious, people are busy so make it worth their while. Make sure you know what you want from the people there. Make sure you know why you are there if you are the invitee. And don’t say yes to every meeting invitation.

  2. My wife’s staying home this year to be with the kids, and I think her executive resources are getting depleted very quickly. I think the experience is very much like a day-long meeting which is repeated every day, and no noticable progress is being made.

    I’d love to hear suggestions on recharging her fuel cells.

    Personally, I work in an IT department near some train-tracks. With I’m worn from work, I take a walk on the tracks. That seems to do the trick for me (outside, large industrial machinery, plants, and wind).

  3. I used to think long meetings were a waste of time. Then I had a conversion of sorts, and now I no longer worry about long meetings. I became self-employed and rarely have to go to meetings anymore.

    Sadly, long meetings are a natural part of any work environment, simply because the more players there are the less efficient a group will be. However, there are some creative tactics to keep meetings short. One of my favorites is to not purchase chairs for the meeting room. Not only does this save you money purchasing furniture – and make the cleaning staff’s job easier – but it is guaranteed to shorten meetings to t length they actually need to be.

    David Leonhardt

  4. I don’t believe long meetings are a natural part of the work environment. I do believe David’s no-chair suggestion would shorten meetings considerably, it shouldn’t be necessary.

    Now that we have email, much of what is discussed can be covered ahead of a meeting and reserve the meeting just for things that require discussion and about which action will be taken. I recently retired from college teaching after 20 years. There were some issues that were recycled year after year and very little progress was made toward resolving them.

    As I neared the end of my career, I elected to skip division meetings that were held on the day I didn’t have classes and therefore I wasn’t on campus even though I was docked two hours pay for missing them. (Yes, the dean expected me to travel to campus just for these meetings.) Missing them was worth the loss in pay.

  5. I’ve read something in New Scientist a while ago about first decisions being correct – I’ve didn’t get too much info on how they tested this, but the mains reasoning leads you to second guess and fuck up your life.

  6. In the 14 years prior to 1983 when I became self-employed, I worked for a major corporation and was involved in many long meetings. Most were too long for two reasons. First, there was no set agenda with a time allowed for each item. Second, the person running the meeting often lost control and allowed other topics to be discussed. Meetings are important but need to be controlled.

    By the way, I first heard of the “no chair” policy in Robert Townsend’s book “Up the Organization.” It was a book that I think was ahead of its time. I think the idea has some merit.

  7. The only way I know to recharge the executive resources is to leave the environment, remove the distractions, and do something physical. Most of the executive resournces are lost using our brains; doing physical tasks such as yard work, helps restore some balance.

    But, it is tough to do something like that after a two-hour long meeting…when the next meeting and the next meeting and the next meeting are right after that first one. It’s a killer.

    I’m interested in hearing about recharging; it’s a critical skill to achieve.

  8. I have to not agree with the way these studies are being interpreted: A certain type of long meetings are a waste of time, and some are not.

    Because what is a meeting if it not simply people who stick their heads together and work? And is the most efficient working culture necessarily one in which people sit at each their table and crunch code?

    Of course not, and everybody needs meetings, because when you talk job on the job, is that not a meeting?

    In the department I am heading, we use meetings extensively to share knowledge and borrow each others’ brain power, and I can not see that we could be anywhere as efficient without them.

    My company will never do it, but I have repeatedly suggested that we redesign the offices to have fewer workstations than employees, so that we change the perception that in order to create results, you must sit alone in front of a PC.

  9. I think meetings can be very productive, and often quite essential to the success and productivity of a team/organization. Combined experiences and knowledge go a long way to achieving corporate goals, most definitely.

    I think there are a few things that should be considered and put in place to guarantee (as much as that is possible) the success of a meeting… ground rules of sorts. Definitely, a prepared agenda. It’s very helpful and efficient of all members can go in knowing what the meeting is about and what direction it would take. This way, they can come prepared.

    Of course, it will be expected that in discussing the agenda, other ideas, topics, issues will present themselves. This would be a good reason to add “arising topics” as a final point on that agenda. The understanding here is that if time allows, in order of priority, these new topics can be explored.

    Another element of success is designated Chair. The Chair can and should ensure that people are not speaking over each other, that time is used efficiently, and the general productivity of that meeting.

    From what I’ve seen and have read, somewhere between 60-90 minutes is the limit of optimum brain power… meaning, that meetings should not be over that time, without a 15 minute break. Participants should physically get up and out of the room (when possible) and walk, or do something physical. This helps recharge and reset, bringing (almost) all participants mental powers to peak levels.

    Personally, what I did while working in the corporate world, every 2 1/2 hrs approx., I would leave my desk and emails, and get out to walk around the block for about 5mins or so. Once back, my perspective is usually much better and my mind quicker… if it’s raining, well, that’s what umbrella’s are for.

    I don’t think “no chairs” are all that necessary, provided you have a strong lead and direction for that meeting. However, I don’t advocate for LONG meetings, and especially, when they are often back-to-back, all day, most of the week… heck, when does anyone have time to get their work done :)

    Thanks for the chance to share,
    Sam
    copywriting business

  10. Most corp meetings are a waste of time (in my experience) without:

    a- a published agenda sent out a day or 2 beforehand.
    b- a chairperson who will run the meeting.
    c- someone to take minutes
    d- a set start and finish time.

    If most of the consensus building and arguments were thrashed out via 1-1 calls, email and the odd water-cooler gathering, then the formal meetings were usually a doddle.

    I love the no-chair suggestion.
    Sitting zazen style might be another fine approach worth trying.

  11. I couldn’t agree more with you. Evey meeting needs to have strict objectives and desired outcomes… I love people who can master a detailed recap of the action items. Those people are priceless.

    In answer to your question of how to recharge executives – this company provide unique reward and recognition programs based on experiences – fun pernsonal and exciting. So you don’t even have to take time off to recharge, you can do it on the company! Check it out at
    http://corporate.redballoondays.com.au/

  12. If only more people understood this concept. I don’t think there’s a real number that meetings should be pigeonholed into. I’ve been in 2 hour meetings that were extremely productive and 30 minute meetings that were a complete waste.

    What I think helps keep the meeting on track is having a clear agenda that is communicated to everyone in a meeting. Then to follow that agenda. It’s hard to keep track of what needs to be discussed otherwise.

  13. I once worked for a company where we had weekly meetings in department, bi-weekly with VPs and monthly with every one.

    They all were a tedious bore. You were either being praised, condemned or lied to.

    As the company was owned by CPAs (Complete Personality Absense or Cerified Public Accountant), boring was an understatment and most meetings quickly degenerated into 40 anal, egotistical idiots blaming each other.

    When I was given the task of running the weekly departmental meeting, I implemented the 4:00 pm on Friday weekly meeting. Staff had to email their agenda before hand, so that I could allot specific time to each item and we were usually done and out by 4:30.

    Amazing how little the petty stuff comes up when the complainers want to get the weekend on.

    Efficient meetings with actual accomplishments and little politics, ahhhhh peace.

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