3 Simple Rules for Better Meetings,

published at 10:01am on 01/15/12


Want to have better meetings? Just follow these three rules: Carry a notebook, Stop thinking, Set goals. That’s all there is to it.

I’ve been in a lot of meetings in my life. I was a management consultant for a year, during which time the primary two outputs of my job were presentation decks and meetings. I was a technology consultant for several years, when half my work was coding and the other half was working with clients to figure out what they wanted coded. And I’ve been leading engineering at a web company for the past seven years. I know a thing or two about meetings.

With all of this experience, I have found the three simple rules you need to follow to having good, productive meetings.

1. Carry a Notebook

This might seem like personal preference, but I will tell you right off the bat that if you bring a computer to your next meeting, your attention will be split pretty evenly between your email and your work, and very little of your brain will actually be focusing on the meeting. This is a waste of your time, and it’s a waste of time for the other people in that meeting. And ultimately, it’s just plain rude to not look at a person who is talking to you.

“But Jesse,” you’ll say, “I type so much faster than I write, and I need to take notes in the meeting!” To this argument I say bollocks, because meetings are not for you, the individual, they are for you, the collective, and for you to spend the collective’s time during the meeting writing full notes for yourself is to deny the use of your brain to the rest of the folks in the room, so you might as well not even be there.

Instead, you should carry a notebook, and you should use it for its intended purpose, which is to capture notes – shorthand reminders for items of note for later – and once you are done with the meeting you should review those notes and, on your own time, turn them into something more useful.

(Incidentally, there’s much more to say on the subject of notebooks that I’ll have to get to some other time, but suffice it to say that the smartest people I know use notebooks, and there’s a reason for that.)

2. Stop Thinking

Seriously. This only applies when someone else is talking, but if you are watching someone’s lips move but are formulating your own thoughts at the same time, then you are doing something very wrong. If you do this, then the outcome can only be one of two things: either you are going to miss their point completely because you were too busy with your own thoughts to actually think about theirs, or you are going to spend time agreeing what your coworker just said because you weren’t paying attention, which is just a waste of everyone’s time.

Instead, when someone else is speaking, listen to them speak. Listen to what they are saying and, for the duration, shut off your thinking cap to give your brain time to truly absorb what they’re saying. And then, take a minute to process, to think, and to respond. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish when you actually take time to use your brain as it was intended.

3. Set Goals

Specifically, every item that is discussed needs to have a goal that can be accomplished to move that item forward. If there is nothing further to discuss then do not bring it up in the first place. If there is nothing that needs to happen next, do not bring it up in the meeting. And if there is something that needs to happen, do not move on to the next point until someone in the meeting has taken responsibility for the action. Even if that responsibility is to delegate the activity on to someone else, someone in the meeting needs to walk out of the room knowing that it is their job to move this item forward. We normally call these goals “Action Items,” but I feel like a real asshole calling them that.

Bonus points if you express the goal before the meeting discussion, rather than after, so the actual discussion can have context, instead of embarking on a meandering, purposeless conversation in the hopes of finally hitting on that intended goal.


That’s it! You now have all of the tools you need to make your next meeting effective, efficient, and hopefully a little more enjoyable.

Now go get something done!

Filed under: Productivity

At 10:02 pm on 02.04.12, judy said,

We’ve gone agile, and there is a lot to be learned from that, as well. If you want it to be short, make it a standup. If you want just status, go with the big 3: What have you done since the last meeting? What will you do before the next meeting? What are your impediments to getting work done?


oh, BTW – i always use notebooks, go through them like crazy (sorry, trees). feel free to send me your thoughts on that subject.

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