piece of work

Meetings Should Be Shorter

Photo: Marcelo Santos/Getty Images

Like water in a vase, meetings expand to fill the the amount of space they’re allotted — or so goes the principle first described, only half-jokingly, in a 1955 Economist essay called “Parkinson’s Law,” in which the author writes:

“It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day in writing and despatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half-an-hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar-box in the next street. The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil.”

I know this pattern well, and avoid it by putting off most tasks until the amount of time remaining before their due date is about equal to the time I need to complete them. (Or, at least, this is how I excuse my procrastination.) Given too much time to do something, humans will squander it; for some reason, we’re all very hesitant to get the thing over with and admit we didn’t need all that time in the first place. (Probably it is the fear of setting high expectations for ourselves.)

Nowhere is this phenomenon more visible in the workplace, where meetings that could be done in 35 minutes are stretched to an hour — mostly because that’s the length of time our Google calendars offer, according to Steven G. Rogelberg, a professor of organizational science and management at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, and author of a new book called The Surprising Science of Meetings, which is more interesting than you’d think. Rogelberg’s research finds that non-managers routinely attend eight meetings per week, while managers attend 12, and most of these are an hour long. (The problem gets worse the higher you climb, Rogelberg writes, some 60 percent of CEOs’ working hours were dedicated to meetings!) And people loathe meetings — particularly the regularly scheduled, check-in-focused status meetings continued more out of habit than necessity. Rogelberg reports that a 2014 Harris Poll found that 50 percent of survey respondents said they’d rather do “any unpleasant task” than attend a regular status meeting.

Certainly, some meetings will take a full hour, but Rogelberg suggests we stop thinking of an hour as the default. In fact, he has a better — dare I say, playful — suggestion: for any meeting for which you’d ordinarily block off an hour, make it 48 minutes instead. “These odd times attract attention, curiosity, and may even be a little fun,” he explains, perhaps optimistically.

A meeting you don’t want to go to is a meeting you don’t want to go to, no matter how long, but I see Rogelberg’s point — applying just a little timed pressure makes what’s important rise to the surface. And in the all too common event of back-to-back meetings, building in a little break between allows employees to take a bathroom break, get a snack, or (as the case may be) make a quick trip to the wellness room to cool one’s temper in peace.

To enact this philosophy successfully, Rogelberg suggests starting by reducing your projected meeting length by 5–10 percent. If it’s a standing meeting, and you still have time to spare, reduce it a little more. And to make all of this easier to schedule, you can reclaim a bit of authority from Google Calendar: Go to settings, and turn on the toggle for “speedy meetings.” Instead of 30 or 60 minutes, the new default will schedule meetings in 25- or 50-minute increments. Hopefully you don’t need even that much, but merely by narrowing the meeting’s parameters, you’re already on track to waste less time.

Meetings Should Be Shorter