“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
The Washington Post columnist George Will was once asked to explain his long-standing distaste for American football. The sport is, he responded, “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” To my mind, this is a savage condemnation not so much because of the violence, but because of the meetings.
If you, like many people, think work meetings are a huge waste of time, that might be because most meetings keep employees from, well, working: One survey of 76 companies found that productivity was 71 percent higher when meetings were reduced by 40 percent. Unnecessary meetings waste $37 billion in salary hours a year in the U.S. alone, according to an estimate by the software company Atlassian. And in case you’re wondering, COVID made things worse: The number of meetings required of employees has risen by 12.9 percent on average since the coronavirus pandemic began.
But the real problem with meetings is not lack of productivity—it’s unhappiness. When meetings are a waste of time, job satisfaction declines. And when job satisfaction declines, happiness in general falls. Thus, for a huge portion of the population, eliminating meetings—or at least minimizing them—is one of the most straightforward ways to increase well-being.
According to user data from Reclaim.ai, a calendar-app company, the average full-time white-collar professional in the United States spends 21.5 hours a week in meetings. According to scholars who specialize in the topic (who no doubt have research meetings about their research on meetings), work meetings generally center on one or more of four purposes: to “share information,” “solve problems and make decisions,” “develop and implement organizational strategy,” or “debrief a team after a performance episode.”
I should clarify that these are all potentially good reasons to have meetings. You have probably attended many that didn’t fit into any of these categories. For example, many meetings occur during a regular time slot as a matter of routine, without a specific reason. Another motive for meetings is what some scholars call the Mere Urgency effect, in which we engage in tasks—such as a meeting where each person recites what they’re working on, whether others need that information or not—to help us feel like we are accomplishing something tangible. If your spouse asks you, “What did you do at work today?” and you answer, “I had six meetings,” this might be why.
Excessive and unproductive meetings can lower job satisfaction for several reasons. First, they generally increase fatigue as well as our subjective sense of our workload. You have probably experienced a day of meetings after which you are exhausted and haven’t accomplished much—but where you have gotten a bunch of new assignments. Second, people tend to engage in “surface acting” (faking emotions that are deemed appropriate) during work meetings, which is emotionally draining and correlated with the intention to quit. Finally, researchers have found that the strongest predictor of meeting effectiveness is active involvement by the participants. If you are asking yourself, “Why am I here?” you are not likely to think that the meeting is a good use of your time—which is obviously bad for your work satisfaction.
Taken together, the research on meetings shows that if you want to be happier at work (or want your employees to be happier), you should fight against the scourge of time-consuming, unproductive meetings at every opportunity. And when they actually are necessary and unavoidable, there are a few steps you can take to make them less draining and more useful.
1. Ruthlessly avoid and cancel meetings.
If you are plagued by unnecessary meetings where little is accomplished, find ways to avoid them if you can. Schedule work trips or important client calls to coincide with them, for example. In many cases, you can skip very large gatherings without anyone noticing. If you are the convener, cancel all meetings that don’t have a clear agenda or purpose.
Take this advice with caution if you are an employee, of course. It is not likely to be helpful, if your boss asks you why you are skipping all the staff meetings, to say, “Because I read an article in The Atlantic.” If it’s too risky for you to skip meetings, maybe your boss will schedule fewer to begin with if you slip a copy of this essay under their office door.
2. Create meeting-free days.
If possible, bosses should create a policy of guaranteeing whole days without meetings. According to scholars writing in the MIT Sloan Management Review, productivity and workforce engagement are maximized at four meeting-free days; stress is minimized at five meeting-free days. (In other words, stress is minimized when there are no meetings at all.) In an era when many are working in a hybrid format, if people come to the office three days a week, a good policy might be to hold all meetings on just one of those days.
3. Keep meetings to half an hour or less.
In 1955, the British naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson coined what he called—and which has since been known as—Parkinson’s law: We expand a task in order to fill the time available to complete it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in staff meetings. How many times has a meeting started with the words “This shouldn’t take the full hour” only to take the full hour?
So, what is the right meeting length? Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, famously held micro-meetings that lasted 10 minutes. One productivity expert says that 25 minutes is ideal, based on what research says is the optimal amount of time for people to focus. But the point is clear: Make meetings more efficient by having a tight focus and getting right to the point, and make a commitment to finishing within a short window.
4. Don’t invite everybody.
According to what is called the Ringelmann effect (named after the French engineer Maximilien Ringelmann), as the size of a group increases, the average individual effort falls. Scholars differ on the ideal number of people in a meeting, which no doubt depends on the meeting’s goals. If the boss has a huge announcement such as “We’re bankrupt,” perhaps all staff is appropriate. (Then again, an email might suffice for that.) For making decisions and discussing strategy, many management scholars recommend seven or fewer people in a meeting. People are less likely to fully participate beyond this number, and accountability can become confusing. Try to invite to your meetings the minimum number of people necessary to accomplish the task at hand.
If there is one rule to remember about work meetings, it might be that they are a necessary evil. They are necessary insofar as organizations need them for proper communication, but they are evil in that they are almost never inherently desirable, and should thus be used as sparingly as possible for the sake of productivity and happiness.
Under ideal circumstances, meetings would be unnecessary. But circumstances are never ideal, at least on this mortal coil—which, come to think of it, might give us something to look forward to in the afterlife. As the poet Edgar Albert Guest wrote in 1920,
When over me the night shall fall,
And my poor soul goes upwards winging
Unto that heavenly realm, where all
Is bright with joy and gay with singing,
I hope to hear St. Peter say,
And I shall thank him for the greeting:
“Come in and rest from day to day;
Here there is no committee meeting!”