It’s thankfully been a really long time since I’ve been invited to a recurring meeting. But I heard a couple mentions of them last week, and it brought back terrible pre-Basecamp memories.
It reminded me that not everyone is so lucky — many people still have to attend those soul-sucking, brain-draining, pointless recurring meetings. You know the ones — they’re usually filed under euphemisms like “stand-ups”, “status”, and “check ins” and happen on a daily or weekly basis.
They’re terrible. Let’s discuss why and see if we can help each other get rid of them.
They force people to meet even when there’s nothing to discuss
Ever gone to a recurring meeting only to find a bunch of blank expressions and everyone just kinda looking at each other? Welcome to the recurring meeting.
For some reason the default corporate mindset is that there will always be something to discuss, so having a regularly scheduled meeting is good because it “gives folks a chance to catch up.”
But if you really think about it, is there always something to discuss? Aren’t there just some days or weeks where things have gone smoothly or people are just doing their work and there’s nothing to chat about?
How often are these recurring meetings actually needed? 10% of the time? 50%? I have no idea, I can’t see into the future — so why do meeting organizers think they can?
A common retort you’ll hear from organizers is that you should keep recurring meetings around because “you can always cancel them”. And sure, in a perfect world, that helps a little — it gives me back some of my day. But this also assumes that every meeting organizer is super vigilant in managing their meetings. And let’s be honest, they’re not.
Beyond that, canceling an instance of a recurring meeting doesn’t fix all the other problems they cause in aggregate. Keep reading.
They create a vicious cycle of meetings and overwork
Here’s what meeting organizers do: they look at everyone’s calendar and try to find the best time for everyone.
But because there are so many recurring meetings, blocks of time are hard to come by. So organizers start scheduling new meetings at inconvenient times because those are the only times available: early in the morning, late in the evening, over lunch. All times you should be relaxing, not working.
If a majority of recurring meetings were simply off the books and scheduled as needed, everyone would have more available time and fewer meetings overall. Imagine the possibilities!
This also shows why “just canceling” a recurrence doesn’t fix everything — a recurrence is already eating a block of time that other organizers can’t schedule against, so it has a cascading effect of breeding meetings at even worse times.
They hurt your team’s work and workflow
If you know you have a meeting in an hour, do you start your deepest, most complex problem solving work? I’d venture to guess most people don’t. I certainly don’t.
It makes sense — if you know you’re about to be interrupted in an hour, why start the really deep-thinking work you need to do. You’re probably more likely to tackle a few small, easy things. It’s a subtle effect, but imagine that happening multiple times a week. How much good, deep-thinking work is lost because of looming meetings?
If those recurring meetings weren’t there, people might choose an entirely different set of work. They’d have longer stretches of uninterrupted time, which are crucial for deep thinking and problem solving — things designers and programmers need every day to do their best work.
Oh and to address the magic bullet of “just cancel the meeting” again — getting a cancellation 30 minutes before the meeting gives me the meeting time back, but it’s already screwed at least a couple hours of my day’s work.
They become a dumping ground
The recurring meeting is the dumping ground of everything you don’t want to deal with now (probably because you’re stuck in another meeting).
How often have you seen this happen — you start talking with someone, can’t make a call, and then they say “let’s talk about it at the status meeting”?
Recurring meetings are a crutch — they let you defer decisions you probably should (and could easily) just make now. Remember, decisions are temporary!
“If circumstances change, your decisions can change. Decisions are temporary.”― Jason Fried, Rework
This is yet another reason why “just cancel it” may sound good on paper, but doesn’t work in practice. People tend to find ways to fill scheduled meeting times.
They drown out the important stuff
Recurring meetings can cause serious calendar overload for many people — they can be double or even triple booked at times. There’s considerable mental overhead to look at a busy calendar and try to decipher what’s important and what’s not. Ever missed an important meeting because you got things crossed up on your excessively noisy calendar?
And from a human perspective, meetings also make people think twice about scheduling important personal appointments. Yes, of course most of the time it’s OK to miss a recurring meeting. But have you ever thought twice about scheduling a personal appointment because there’s a meeting on your calendar? Of course you have, and so have I. It may be a small thing, but even the most unimportant meeting might make someone think “I should really go to this” instead of taking care of something far more important to them.
“Yes, awesome, another recurring meeting!”
I’m half joking, but honestly, have you ever heard anyone say this? Or is it more often a deep sigh followed by “Ugh, another meeting”.
Or how about this — remember the last time one of your meetings got canceled and how overjoyed you were that you didn’t have to go?
Doesn’t that tell you something?
Alright, so we’ve established I’m not a fan of recurring meetings. Maybe I’ve convinced you they’re terrible, or maybe I haven’t.
Either way, would you perhaps, pretty please consider trying a few things either as a meeting organizer or attendee? You might be pleasantly surprised by the results.
Organizers: Try reversing your default mindset
If you’re a meeting organizer, try this for one project—reverse your thinking and assume you don’t need one of the recurring meetings you usually schedule. Instead see how things go without it, and if a discussion needs to happen, schedule a standalone meeting with the fewest people necessary to make the call.
Things might be a little uncomfortable or harder at first, but in the end I bet everything will be fine (and your team a lot happier for it).
Attendees: Ask the meeting organizer if you can skip
This might be tough because a lot of times meeting organizers are in positions of power (managers, directors, your boss, etc.) But if you’re one of the people getting killed by recurring meetings, try asking the organizer if you can skip them unless there is something specific you’re needed for. Most of the time any reasonable person will be OK with that.
This still makes you a willing participant and available, but by default you get to do your real work unless they specifically call on you to attend.
Attendees (Bonus Points): Thank the never-calls-a-recurring-meeting organizer
They’re a rare breed, but if you ever notice someone who breaks from the mold and rarely calls a recurring meeting, thank them. No, seriously. They might chuckle, but they’ll appreciate that you noticed and it’ll validate how they run things. It will give them the confidence to keep doing things their way — recurring meeting free!
So hey, it’s nearly 2018 and it’s a great time to turn a new leaf. What do you say — can we cancel any and all recurring meetings and start the year fresh?