How to prepare for meetings, so they’re not pointless

DeskTime
7 min readFeb 20, 2023

Meetings are an integral part of our professional lives and it’s estimated that the average person spends at least 3 hours a week in them.

Still, most of us are pretty bad at being productive meeting participants and organizers. The fact that we’re having more meetings than ever before isn’t helping either. Studies show that, since the widespread adoption of video conferencing tools, meeting frequency is up by 13%.

At the same time, virtually everyone has some shared conception of what constitutes a good meeting — we all know meetings should be purposeful, structured, and brief. It’s not exactly rocket science and most of us know how to prepare for meetings. Even so, this is rarely what they look like in practice and we repeatedly find ourselves stuck in pointless meetings wasting not just our time, but company resources, too.

In this article, we’ll show you how to remedy this by looking at why being good at meetings is important, exploring the anatomy of a successful meeting, and outlining 4 ways how you can individually prepare for a meeting to make the most of it.

Why being good at meetings is important

Meetings have become so routine, that it’s easy to lose track of why we’re having them. A meeting should be conducive to solving a problem more effectively than tackling it without one. To put it plainly, meetings should boost productivity, not hamper it.

Accordingly, a good meeting can have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line and employees’ performance and morale. Unfortunately, the inverse is true of bad meetings and these are by far the more common type. A study by the University of North Carolina surveyed employees and found that:

  • 65% said meetings keep them from completing their work
  • 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient
  • 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking.

That’s a lot of wasted brainpower, energy, and time.

A pre-pandemic study estimates US businesses alone lose more than $37 billion a year due to unnecessary meetings and recent figures suggest that companies with 100+ employees could save more than $2.5 million a year by slashing useless meetings. And this is without losses incurred due to employee dissatisfaction and demotivation — which may also significantly impact a company’s bottom line, as disgruntled workers leave to work with people who show more respect towards their time.

In short, being good at and knowing how to prepare for meetings is key to improving productivity, business efficiency, and individual satisfaction.

The foundations of a useful meeting

So what does an effective meeting look like? There are four key elements that define a meeting and the way these are approached will determine whether it’s a productive one — purpose, attendance, duration, and results.

In reality, these factors are rarely given much thought, resulting in unstructured meetings that lack direction. However, the more control is exercised over each of them, the better the meeting will be.

Purpose — is a meeting necessary?

Clarity of purpose helps define all other factors, as well as prevent useless meetings. Always ask yourself — is there some better way I could communicate/get the information I need without turning to a meeting? Or, if I wouldn’t be having a meeting, how would I solve the issue at hand?

If you find viable alternatives to hosting a meeting, then think twice about doing so. At the same time, these questions will help you determine what exactly you’re expecting to get out of this meeting and it’s a great idea to communicate this purpose to other potential attendees.

Attendance — who should attend?

Once the purpose is clear, give some thought to who are the people essential to solving the problem at hand and how you expect them to contribute. Being specific helps. Before inviting anyone — ask how exactly will this person’s presence ensure the meeting’s goals are met more effectively.

It’s a good idea to specify this and their expected role when sending out an invite, as it will give people the necessary information to best prepare for the meeting. If you are unsure about how a person can contribute — don’t invite them.

Duration — how long should it run?

Most meetings have no time limit and that’s bad — a lack of timeframes permits tangential discussions, unproductive blabbering, and exceeding the scope of the meeting. While it may be difficult to preempt how long a meeting should take, it’s better to underestimate than overestimate.

Operating within a tight timeframe pushes participants to get to the point more quickly and forces focus on the most relevant and productive topics.

Results — what’s the expected outcome?

Results go hand-in-hand with purpose, but they’re by no means the same thing. As mentioned, a useful meeting helps overcome an obstacle in the most effective way possible. That means that by the end of the meeting, you should have new, actionable information that opens doors for further work — that’s a sign of a successful meeting.

If no such results have been achieved, then you must review the other three factors — purpose, attendance, and duration. Reflecting on the results will reveal whether such meetings are worthwhile and how to improve or avoid them going forward.

These points are particularly important for organizers, though they matter for attendees, too. You cannot expect people to move forward productively and expect thorough preparation for meetings if the meeting’s a free-for-all. Still, there are some ways you can prepare as an individual to ensure you get the most out of each get-together. Even if it devolves into a jumbled mess.

4 ways how to prepare for a meeting so it’s not pointless

At the end of the day, between so many factors and involved parties impacting a meeting’s course, chances are that most meetings you attend will be suboptimal. So, let’s dive into 4 ways how you, as an individual, can prepare for a meeting so it’s not pointless, regardless of the situation.

1. Decide if you even have to be there

Does this absolutely require your participation? Could it be replaced with an email? Do you simply need a recap/brief of the outcome afterward? Extracting yourself from the situation is your first line of defense.

It’s not impolite to reject a meeting request — courteously explain why you think this meeting is not for you and enquire whether you could get the meeting notes afterward. If you’re communicating with your superiors, then it’s wise to make a quick note of how you’ll spend that time more productively.

2. Ask for a meeting agenda

Not only will it help you with preparing for the meeting yourself, but it’s also a subtle hint to whoever called the meeting to — if they haven’t yet — do some work and plan what’s going to happen. Because another massive time waster is when there’s no desired outcome, or roadmap to get there.

It’s a cornerstone for how to have effective meetings. If you’re an organizer who sends out meeting invites without agendas, then it’s time to change your ways.

3. Take 15 minutes before the call to prep

Understand what you’re bringing to the table and how it will help solve the issue at hand. You can brainstorm some ideas, write down potential topics of discussion, and catch up with some people whose insight you find valuable ahead of time.

Another tip for productive meetings — it’s wise to have data at hand. Do some research on any current or past statistics to use as a benchmark for conversation.

4. Last but not least — make a coffee

So that if you have been roped into a pointless meeting, at least you have a lovely coffee break out of it. Breaks are an invaluable tool for productivity and if the meeting is truly useless, then you can use it to recharge and refocus on the tasks at hand.

That said, do make a note to reject these kinds of meetings in the future. Even if you’re taking a break, it should be on your terms.

Conclusion: reclaim your time

Meetings are a fantastic tool for boosting productivity and accelerating progress. There’s also something to be said about their value as a way to bond with colleagues and align teams. But these positives can be achieved within structured meetings and should never be a carte blanche for pointless ones.

At the end of the day, it’s your time and you should attempt to get the most out of it. By learning how to prepare for meetings, or by avoiding pointless ones, you can do just that.

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DeskTime

A fully automatic employee time and productivity tracking software.