9 Science-Backed Methods for a Happier, More Productive Meeting

If you have ever wanted to pop an escape hatch or teleport to distant worlds just to get out of a meeting, take heart.

There are ways to hold a better meeting.

Forward-thinking companies have found creative ways to get their teams together, and their lessons and structure can be easily duplicated in meetings anywhere. These creative methods aren’t just clever for cleverness’s sake: Most of them are science-backed and all of them are grounded in successful experience.

With just a handful of hacks, meetings can be speedier, more productive, and more enjoyable for everyone involved. Here are 9 outside-the-box ideas—and the science and success behind them—that you can discuss … at your next meeting, I guess.

5 research-backed ways to hold a more productive meeting

1. Keep meetings to 15 minutes

What’s your record for longest meeting?

Can anyone beat my four-hour marathon? (I bet many of you can!)

When it comes to meeting pain points, length often tops the list. How is it that meetings tend to go on so long, sometimes (OK, many times) unnecessarily? Here’s an old project management adage that might explain it:

Work expands to the time you schedule for it.

For this reason, you may want to keep meetings to 15 minutes or shorter, whenever possible. Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer will schedule 10-minute meetings, out of necessity for her busy schedule. The team at Percolate sets 15 minutes as the default length for all meetings, adjusting up or down as needed. Percolate values the 15-minute default so highly, they framed it in their set of six meeting rules.

Percolate rules for meetings

Why might it seem like 15 minutes is an ideal starting point for meeting length? For one, it’s easy to schedule in an Outlook calendar or Google calendar. Though the default in most calendar apps is 30 minutes, you can quite easily adjust down to 15-minute increments as that’s how most schedule grids are created.

For the science behind the 15-minute rule, you need look no further than a TED talk. Each TED talk is kept to 18 minutes or shorter, the same time as a coffee break and a helpful constraint for presenters to organize their thoughts. Scientifically, 18 minutes fits right in with the research on attention spans: 10 to 18 minutes is how long most people can pay attention before checking out.

The 18-minute max has physiological roots. Our bodies require a large amount of glucose, oxygen, and blood flow when the brain processes new information. Sooner or later, we feel physically fatigued.

2. Set a timer—yep, a real timer

Here’s a helpful follow-up to the 15-minute rule. How keep yourself accountable to a set meeting length? Why not set a timer.

That’s the way that 37 Signals recommends. The company that built Basecamp is quite rigid about meetings. Their first instinct is to avoid meetings altogether. When they’re unavoidable, though, 37 Signals defaults to a set of meeting rules; turning on a timer is Rule No. 1.

Set a 30 minute timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period.

The psychological effect of the timer can be traced to the creative burst brought forth by limitations and constraints and deadlines. Many amazing artists—like Austin Kleon and Damien Correll—use constraints to fuel their ideas and creations. The countdown of a timer might do the same for your meeting (and it will at least get you out of there in time for lunch).

3. Take the chairs away

standup meeting

The “stand-up meeting” has come to mean more than just a meeting where everyone stands up. It refers to a daily team meeting where team members receive status updates on the latest happenings. We have stand-up meetings at Buffer, and since we’re a distributed a team that connects online, our stand-ups don’t necessarily mean we all stand up (although some of us could be standing, I guess!).

Still, the name for the stand-up meeting did originate from standing. The thinking goes: The longer you stand, the more uncomfortable you’ll get. The more uncomfortable everyone gets, the quicker the meeting will go.

Benefits of standing up extend beyond expediency, too. Andrew Knight and Markus Baer of Washington University conducted a study on stand-up meetings versus sit-down meetings, rating the ability of participants to work together, share ideas, and produce quality work. They measured these different elements using surveys, observation, and physiological sensors.

The results: Standing up leads to greater excitement about the creative process and it allows for greater collaboration on ideas. 

4. No laptops for note taking

Do you take notes during meetings? If so, hand-written notes are the way to go.

A study by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer looked at the note-taking habits of college students from Princeton and UCLA. Students watched a 15-minuted TED talk video, taking notes along the way. Researchers compared those who took notes by hand and those who took notes on a laptop and found that while the factual recall of knowledge was similar, the conceptual recall had a clear winner. Those who took notes by hand did significantly better on understanding concepts.

Laptops vs. Longhand

Beyond a better understanding of concepts, a no-laptop rule should help with focus and attention, which is why many companies have taken that route. Speaking of banned electronics …

5. Create a coat check for cell phones

In a fast, efficient meeting, there should be no time to check cell phones, and just in case, many companies take the added step of asking employees to leave their phones at the door. Even the White House is in on the act. In Cabinet meetings, attendees are asked to write their name on sticky notes, place them on their phones, and deposit their phones in a basket.

White House phones meeting

The reasons for creating a no-cell-phone zone might seem obvious (games and texts would figure to detract from focus), and there has been research, too, into the detriment of cell phones in meetings. The Marshall School of Business conducted a survey of over 500 professionals and found that cell phone use is almost always frowned upon by your coworkers:

  • 86% think it’s inappropriate to answer phone calls during meetings
  • 84% think it’s inappropriate to write texts or emails during meetings
  • 75% think it’s inappropriate to read texts or emails during meetings

4 meeting tips from Google, Apple, and others

1. Keep your meetings to 10 attendees or fewer

The 10-person rule at Google, as mentioned in Kristin Gill’s book Think Like Google, is based on a fast-moving, startup culture where work time is precious for each employee. The leaner the invite list, the more time it leaves for the uninvited to forge ahead with other work.

As Gill writes: “Attending meetings is not a badge of honor.”

2. Establish a D.R.I.

Steve Jobs and Apple found their most effective way to end a meeting was to assign responsibility for tasks and decisions. Every task is assigned a D.R.I.—Directly Responsible Individual. Doing so provides public accountability for an individual to ensure that the project or task got done, and it sends clear, organized instructions for the team to follow.

3. Pause for a two-minute silence break

Seems counterintuitive to plan silence into a meeting, doesn’t it? Alexander Kjerulf, author of Happy Hour Is 9 to 5, has found silence to be an ideal way to encourage deep thinking and ideas, right in the midst of a meeting.

The purpose of meetings is not to talk – the purpose of meetings is to arrive at ideas, solutions, plans and decisions.

Since few of us can think deeply while we’re talking, the two-minute silence break gives a chance to mull over a decision, issue, or stalemate.

4. In 5 words or fewer, what’s this meeting about?

American Express vice president Christopher Frank recommends a constraint on the way you think about meetings. At the start of every meeting, ask yourself:

“What exactly are we meeting about?”

Everyone at the meeting gets to answer the question. They can only use five words or fewer in their answer.

This will show you if everyone is on the same page or not and if your meeting topic is focused enough. Are the answers inconsistent or too long? Refocus the meeting and try again.

Over to you: What has been your most enjoyable meeting hack?

It’s clear that meetings can be productive, successful, painless ventures. Including one or two of these hacks in your next meeting might be exactly what’s needed to get more done or boost meeting morale.

Are there any ideas from this list that you’re excited to try? Have you found your own meeting hacks that help you and your team have more productive meetings? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Image credits: Marcin Wichary, Percolate, Improve ItPsychological ScienceCNN

  • Sorin Vinatoru

    What seems to work for me:
    – before meeting, send agenda to attendees
    – during meetings, ruthlessly cut the chatter and keep it on track
    – after the meeting send notes and todo list to attendees
    – followup and make sure everybody does what they agreed in the meeting to do

    This works well, provided you have the clout to cut the chatter :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Sorin! Wow, I’d sure love to attend one of your meetings! Sounds super organized. Thanks for sharing your tips and experience!

  • https://twitter.com/TWIBdotcom The World Is Burning

    I have a meeting at 3pm that’s set to last an hour. I’m going to use your tips to see if I can keep it to 15 minutes! Thanks, Kevan.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Good luck! I’d love to hear how it goes for you. :)

  • http://raventools.com Jon Henshaw

    Because adhering to arbitrary rules about time always trumps spending the time needed to make sound business decisions.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hi Jon! Nice to see you stop by. :) The folks at Percolate may be able to elaborate more on their time rules, but my big takeaway was that setting 15 minutes as the default creates a different expectation for participants (and can always be adjusted based on the content of the meeting. Most meetings tend to have a bit of chit-chat, waiting on things or people, repetition, etc. that it seems like this policy might cut back on.

      • http://raventools.com Jon Henshaw

        I just wanted to get your attention to say I miss you :)

        • Courtney Seiter

          Well, that’s a fun method! :)

    • Guest

      Here.

      • RavenArienne

        Gah! Disqus posting fail today. That’s not a “Guest.” That’s me. And it’s supposed to say, “Here Mr. Cranky” ;)

      • http://raventools.com Jon Henshaw

        I do like donuts. And they are tastier when I’m feeling lonely.

  • seti

    This is the Gospel according to common sense effective meeting. Great reminder to those 2 to 4 hours meeting accomplishing NOTHING

  • http://www.lawrencewilson.com/p/about-me.html Lawrence W. Wilson

    I agree that the 15-minute rule works well for single purpose meetings, such as making one decision based on previously provided information or coordinating schedules. But are all longer meetings ineffective? Just not sure it’s possible to gain buy-in for a tough decision or form a long-term strategy in 15 minutes.

  • http://stancebranding.com/ Justine Espersen

    The stand-up meetings are a great way to emphasize a quick 15 minute meeting. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • Sheena Sharma

    I do think there’s value to meetings that encourage a little face time and communication! I really enjoy the unstructured chatting time at the beginning and end of meetings as it gives us all a chance to catch up and connect as people. However, I’m still a stickler for an agenda!

  • http://www.petrpinkas.blogspot.com/ Petr Pinkas

    Great tips Kevan! I love the stand-up meetings and also no laptops. That definitely helps. Keeping it under 15 minutes would be really great, but seems like impossible in our company.

  • Rachel Sherman

    This is great, thanks for sharing! The 15 minutes, stand up, and moment of silences are especially exciting for me. I think i’ll use some of these techniques for my own work as well to stop dwelling and try and move ideas along. Our department is big on disrupting our existing thought patterns so for our meetings we:
    1. invite someone new to sit in
    2. change the space (changing where you are and even the form of the space can drastically change behavior)
    3. rotate who leads and takes notes
    4. change the language (we’re a bilingual group working with a Spanish-English speaking population. Holding a meeting in Spanish will shift the ideas and also who dominates a conversation depending on their language preference)
    5. change the group size – in large group meetings with split up into smaller conversations to help mess with how people share ideas

  • http://storiesmadepowerful.com/ Arlen Miller

    Crank-up-the-heat meeting style. I like it, Mr. Kevan. Thanks.

  • Thembe Khumalo

    I’m a big fan of shorter meetings and less of them. My only addition here is that we should have just one laptop in the room, so one person can note action points and immediately email them to the rest of the group at the end of the meeting.

  • Steve Lerer

    In my first professional job we were suddenly forced to put all tech away for weekly 2 hours meetings (We couldn’t get the director to budge on length) so the Millennials (Me) were losing their minds after 45min. I was at least able to convince them to do a tech and stretch brake each 45. Now I dread any meeting that goes more than 30.

  • http://www.themilitaryleader.com/ The Military Leader

    Great points, for sure!
    One aspect of military meetings is that sometimes the topics have significant consequences that affect the lives of Soldiers. In theses cases, subordinates present information/plans to the higher commander, who uses his experience to ensure that all appropriate operational measures are in place to mitigate risk.

    This process takes time and usually involves a packed room. Does it waste people’s time? Sure, but it’s also an opportunity to teach them the process involved in operational planning.

    Where we can really improve is in more mundane, routine meetings that have lesser consequences. We track mounds of data on unit and Soldier activities, which we sometimes spending too much time reviewing during a meeting. We should instead analyze the information at desks, then only hold a meeting to make a decision on that information.

    -Drew
    http://www.themilitaryleader.com