Meetings Don’t Get Work Done

“Meetings don’t get work done. Meetings create work.”

I’ve said that so many times I’ve almost convinced myself that I originated the aphorism. But probably it came from my predecessor, Jim Sire. (Unless he stole it from someone else.)

It’s true, of course. Most of the time I come out of a meeting with a list of to-dos that I’ve jotted down. Am I able to cross anything off my list when I come out of meetings? No. Certainly decisions were made (we hope) at the meeting, but as far as getting something done, that’s about the extent of it.

Meetings are the butt of many jokes, and deservedly so. Probably 90 percent of all Dilbert cartoons are devoted to meetings in one way or another. Similarly, programmer Paul Graham wrote:

For one year I worked at a regular nine to five job, and I remember well the strange, cozy feeling that comes over one during meetings. I was very aware, because of the novelty, that I was being paid for programming. It seemed just amazing, as if there was a machine on my desk that spat out a dollar bill every two minutes no matter what I did. Even while I was in the bathroom! But because the imaginary machine was always running, I felt I always ought to be working. And so meetings felt wonderfully relaxing. They counted as work, just like programming, but they were so much easier. All you had to do was sit and look attentive.

Meetings are like an opiate with a network effect. So is email, on a smaller scale. And in addition to the direct cost in time, there’s the cost in fragmentation–breaking people’s day up into bits too small to be useful.

Sometimes (not often enough) I come home from the office and say, “Today was a great day at work. No meetings. I got a ton done.” That’s why Graham proposes (as have others) that one day a week be set aside when meetings are forbidden. Not so tongue in cheek, he suggests calling it “Work Day.”

The whole meeting thing is complex, of course. Some things can only be done in collaboration. Morale, personality types, priorities and other factors also come in to play–and much more needs to be said. But let me at least affirm one key idea: Having regular or irregular blocks of uninterrupted time are essential for getting the highest quality and most efficient work done.

I’d say more on that now, but I have to run to a meeting.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

8 thoughts on “Meetings Don’t Get Work Done”

  1. You’re right that personality types are a key factor. Some folks love meetings for the interaction and sense of community. Others hate them and find them useless. I enjoy meetings more often than not, but I wouldn’t want to have them all the time. I suppose it’s like anything else – meetings can be done well, or poorly. And each day or week needs an appropriate level of collaborative contexts as well as individual time, and that ratio/amount will vary depending on the worker and the job.

  2. To subdivide even more, there are well-run meetings, with good participant advance preparation, a tight agenda, and a strong chair who keeps things on track and gives clear assignments, due dates, and work product expectations. Then there are poorly-run meetings… Another bifurcation I find is the difference in stress in meetings at which I attend vs. those I am required to lead. One of life’s challenges is to increase the correlation between meetings I lead and well-run meetings!

  3. Speaking as a) an extrovert who b) used to work in a “normal” 9-to-5 office environment and c) works from home (for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network), I miss meetings. I’ve found that, if I don’t schedule a couple of face-to-face meetings each week, I start turning to things like Facebook and Twitter to get my relational fix.

  4. Vince, that is absolutely not fair. You’re taking all my material for my next blog!


  5. That is one of the drawbacks to telecommuting. I’m an introvert but find the stimulation in the hallways — well, stimulating. It’s also amazing what you learn that is helpful not only about what is going on in the office but what is going on in (for us) the wider publishing industry and the church. But I guess that just shows that you don’t have to have meetings to get a social fix. Water cooler conversations and the lunch room can do the trick. The challenge is (especially for extroverts) to make sure non-productive extroverting doesn’t get out of hand. The challenge for introverts is to make sure they stay connected.


  6. Great thoughts, Andy.

    Have you read Death by Meeting by Patrick Lencioni? This book really shaped the way we look at meetings on campus. He talks about different types of meetings to target different organizational needs and about the significance of healthy conflict (great meetings have conflict).

    The book’s worth a look, especially if you want to – as Vince said – “increase the correlation between meetings I lead and well-run meetings.”

    I constantly step away from team-work and operate independently, especially when meetings are run poorly. If we’re working with teams, though, something has to change.


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