The 50-Minute-Meeting Revolution and the End of Back-to-Back Meetings!

[Image description: Two tiny little birds, perched on the rim of a terra cotta bowl that’s filled with some sort of liquid, hopefully water. The birds are bluish and yellowish. They are facing each other, and the one on the right has their beak opened, seeming to be communicating something. Image by aitoff on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. Confession: I don’t hate most meetings. I mean, if you think about it, in our sector meetings often mean we get to spend time with usually awesome people to brainstorm ideas on how to make the world better. This is something our ancestors, who likely worked long hours doing manual labor, probably dreamed about for us: “One day, our descendants will be paid to sit, eat tiny oranges that are easy to peel, and talk while others write stuff on the walls.”

However, it seems lately that meetings have been out of control. The pandemic, which should have slowed us down, somehow increased the numbers of meetings we each have. It’s so easy and acceptable now to have virtual meetings. Not having to drive, find parking, shower, and brush one’s teeth means many people end up with more frequent back-to-back meetings. I’ve had days when I’ve had 5 or more. One colleague I know said she had 12 in one day!

A while ago I wrote “12 New Rules for Virtual Meetings, Since We’re Still In a Pandemic” which included “Rule 2: All one-hour meetings will now default to be 50 minutes. The therapists got the right idea. Having 50-minute meetings prevents the stress of back-to-back meetings without breaks and will give us all time to run to the bathroom, grab a snack, take a rapid test, or stare out the window and shake our fists at the sky in futile resentment.”

And now there’s research to back this up. Thanks to colleagues on LinkedIn like Beth Kanter, you may have seen this recent study done by Microsoft that shows having back-to-back meetings is bad for our brain, creativity, productivity, etc. Going from one meeting right into the next places a lot of stress on our noggins. There’s evidence that having breaks allows our brains to reset, focus, and engage.

Of course, this study just confirms what most of us already knew. The problem is how do we change habits that have been ingrained in us over hundreds of years? Capitalism culture has us equating having tons of meetings with being productive and effective. And also the reverse: That having breaks and doing “nothing” is “lazy” and “bad” and “Vu, it’s been 37 minutes; can you get back to facilitating this workshop on ‘The Golden Girls as Leadership Styles’ that we paid you a lot of money to do?” (Such a Sophia thing to say!)

Anyway, all of us need to start unlearning ingrained stuff and shift our habits. Especially supervisors and others who have formal power at organizations, you have a particular responsibility to create change. Here are some things I encourage us all to do:

Discuss the above article with your team: Have people read the above article in advance and then add it to your next team meeting agenda. Here are some questions you can use in your discussion: “Which of the study findings surprised you the most?” “Which solutions do you think we should implement?” “OK, did anyone read this article at all?” “I am very disappointed in us…”

Do a quick org-wide and individual “meetings audits”: Run through all the standing meetings that you have. See if some of them are even necessary. Maybe a few can be less frequent. Or shorter. Or can just be an email thread or Slack discussion. Then ask each person to do a personal meetings audit by scanning through their calendars and seeing how frequently they have back-to-back meetings. Look at the person who has the most back-to-back meetings. Look at them! Those haunted eyes! Is that what you want to look like?!

Agree to turn all 1-hour meetings into 50-minute meetings: Get everyone to indicate that all one-hour meetings, virtual and in-person, if they need to happen at all, will now be 50-minutes. Get an artistic staff member to design a manifesto on a piece of easel paper, and then have everyone draw outlines of their hands, write their names in their hand outlines, and decorate the outlines to serve as signatures. I saw my kids’ preschool do this for their classroom rules, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for adults.

Create accountability mechanisms to ensure meetings stay under 50 minutes: Breaking out of the tyranny of the one-hour meeting will be difficult because that’s what we’ve been so used to. Have some things in place to encourage it to happen. For example, a “swear jar:” a jar filled with cusses and insults written on slips of paper that people can use on the meeting facilitator when meetings go over 50 minutes: “Your mother was a hamster, and your father also couldn’t end a meeting on time!” Or, if you want to be boring, assign a timekeeper at each meeting who will give ten- and five-minute warnings.

Encourage everyone to take breaks during breaks: People need to do something non-work to “reset” the brain between meetings: walk, meditate, get a snack, use the restroom, etc. Do not, if at all avoidable, use this time to catch up with someone over something work-related, because that’s basically just another meeting. Supervisors in particular need to set good examples by taking breaks instead of working between meetings. You can cry softly in the supply closet about funding issues, that’s fine as long as it’s away from your colleagues.

Change your Calendly or other scheduling app settings: More and more of us are using scheduling apps like Calendly, which have been extremely helpful. On the other hand, because they are so effective at helping schedule meetings, the result may be more meetings! To counter for that, list the 30-minute meeting as the first option people see, decrease your 60-minute meeting option to 45-minute, and have parameters in place such as automatic 15- or 30-minute buffer between meetings, and a maximum number of meetings per day (like 5). Have at least one blackout date per week when you don’t take ANY meetings and can just watch Beef and take naps.

Give people warnings that you need to leave ten minutes early: Until the 50-minute meeting catches on, people will continue to have hour-long meetings. If that’s the case, you can keep to your 50-minute goal by announcing at the beginning of the conversation when people are doing introductions and check-ins: “Apologies in advance, I will need to leave 10 minutes early.” You don’t need to give a reason. In fact, don’t. It’ll make you seem mysterious and your life exciting.

Our work is vital, and while meetings are an important tool we must use, tools often need upgrading. The one-hour meeting has served its purpose. It’s time we make way for shorter, more focuse meetings, with breaks in between to let people take a breather and reset their brains. The data clearly show it’ll make us and our work more effective. Dorothy would agree.

Sign up for Unicorns Unite encore global conversation on April 18th. This is a reprise of the UU 5-year reunion event, but this time aimed at colleagues outside the US.

Buy Vu’s book. Proceeds until June go to supporting earthquake relief.