Too Many Meetings Is Not Your Problem

Judd Antin
One Big Thought
Published in
7 min readJan 23, 2023

Recently Shopify decided to kill all its meetings, and somehow it was newsworthy. I’ve personally been a part of multiple efforts to combat meetings. A few years back Airbnb declared a “calendar amnesty.” With new guidance, everyone’s calendars were summarily wiped clean. It was well intentioned, and it was beautiful — for a hot minute.

But in the least surprising plot twist since The Sixth Sense, it did not work. At all. Administrative assistants prepared for the calmaggedon, poised at 12:01am to reschedule all their meetings. No one’s calendar was empty for long, and after a short respite everyone was back in meeting hell.

We haven’t seen an update on how things are going for Shopify, and I wish them luck! But I’m not optimistic. They, along with so many other companies out there, have clearly not yet realized the fundamental truth about meetings:

Meetings are a symptom, not the disease.

Why we meet

Why do we meet? Seems like an obvious question but it’s worth asking. I would say that we meet to get work done. It doesn’t always (usually?) turn out that way, but the ostensible purpose of meetings is to advance a goal. To do work. To share information. To make decisions or at least make progress in a way that wouldn’t be possible without a synchronous conversation.

That’s the unique thing about a meeting after all. People, all together, in the same physical or virtual space. We’re able to have a conversation in real-time. Ultimately this should be extremely efficient. No documents and emails, no lag, just progress. We meet because it’s better.

A pencil drawing of a sad person looking at a calendar on the wall.
Do you have too-many-meeting-itis? Yes, you probably do.

That’s why we should meet, but it’s not why we actually do meet. Have you ever looked at your calendar with a sense of sad resignation? You’re fully aware that you will be obscenely busy and yet wildly ineffective. And it feels like there’s nothing you can do about it. I have. It’s awful.

But what seems like an incurable case of too-many-meeting-itis is actually a symptom of something else. Something worse. What is it the symptom of? Three things, primarily:

  1. Meetings are a symptom of broken process. We use meetings as a crutch, a fallback. When we don’t know how to get work done, or we’re not willing to invest in a process that will actually advance the goal, we schedule meetings. I bet it’s the same executives who poo poo process (that’s just bureaucracy!), or won’t participate in it, that generate most of your meetings.
  2. Meetings are a symptom of status jockeying. We seek invitations to meetings because it means we’re important, and anyone looking at our jam packed calendar will damn well know it. Our seat at the table starts to matter more than getting something done when we’re sitting there.
  3. Meetings are a symptom of not knowing what our jobs are. Usually, this is because no one has done the hard work of figuring it out. We confuse meetings with productivity and we don’t know what to do (or how to justify our jobs) without them. And so we convince ourselves that our job is meetings, or that inaccessible meetings are the the reason we can’t be more productive. Even if that’s true, it’s more of an indictment of the meeting’s existence than an argument to be in it.

Fighting Back

With an understanding of why I had too many meetings, a few years ago I started to fight back. I said no to meetings that I thought I didn’t need to be at, or which I thought would be a waste of time. I killed all the meetings I thought I was attending for status reasons. I fully realize how privileged this is — most people can’t just cancel the meetings or not show up.

I share the experience, though, because it opened my eyes about what meetings do to us. It took six months, but I steadily reduced my meeting load to nearly half of what it had been. As the head of Airbnb’s Design Studio, I should have been in meetings constantly. But I wasn’t.

A photo of a large, empty, corporate conference room.
Conference rooms don’t get lonely. Photo by Damir Kopezhanov on Unsplash.

I was in far fewer meetings than my peers and most of my direct reports. And I’ll admit, at first it didn’t feel good. I felt unproductive. I felt FOMO. I worried that what I was really doing by eliminating meetings was eliminating my own job.

But then, slowly, I realized all of the time I’d created was a gift. Removing meetings wasn’t disconnecting, it was the beginning of treating the underlying disease. I had time to think, design, and contribute more. I had time to unblock people who needed me. I was still in meetings over half of the time, but I was more focused and prepared in the meetings that remained. And I was able to spend more time connecting. Meetings went down, productive ad hoc Slack and email conversations went up.

I had to un-learn some things to get there, but I realized that eliminating half of my meetings was a leadership effectiveness strategy.

The Cure for Meetings

I had a reasonable level of control over my own calendar, but not everyone does. And one person’s calendar doesn’t really help. There’s a structural problem to solve here. So what’s the leader-ly thing to do?

Most people point to improving meeting hygiene as the solution. The problem isn’t too many meetings, it’s too many ineffective meetings. If you would only send around the agenda, do the pre-reading, and run a tight show, all those meetings would be wildly productive.

I like the idea, but I’ve never seen it work. It’s probably because treating too many meetings that way is like treating a compound leg fracture with a band-aid and some aspirin. If you take it seriously, and you’ve really understood the underlying disease, though, you may be able to cure yourself of the symptoms. Here’s how you do it.

The most important cure is to invest in great process. Whatever you’re making — products, marketing, research, policy, or service — you need to have a clear, complete process for getting it done, from end-to-end. Until you do, you’ll probably be stuck in meeting hell.

Meetings are like smashing something with a hammer because you don’t have any other tools in your shop. Great process is lightweight, efficient, and adaptable. Too much is bad but not enough is worse. You need things like clear planning processes and well organized product development and design process that include all functions. And you need program managers (PgM, DpM, TpM, OMGpM) whose major job is to take care of this stuff. A great program manager can measure their worth in meetings removed.

You also need to make meetings better, but not in the way you might think. Meetings are full of wasted time. The three best tips I’ve found for removing wasted meeting time are:

  1. Do everything that doesn’t leverage the unique quality of meetings — synchronous discussion — some other way. No updates, no FYIs, no rehashing of documents or update presentations. Cancel all meetings and all parts of meetings that are for these things (with special exceptions for cultural meetings like all-hands and celebrations). Meetings are for real-time conversations that yield more efficient progress than we could do any other way.
  2. Do the hardest part right away. Slam it right down on the table, 5 minutes in. I’ve been in so many hour-long meetings that filled up the first 55 minutes with BS, only to finally get to the thing we really needed to decide in the last 5. Why didn’t we start by discussing that? No one knows. Then we ran out of time. And scheduled another meeting.
  3. There is one piece of meeting hygiene I’m completely on board with — the meeting shareout. You must document what happened in a meeting, then tell everyone. If a meeting yielded a decision, but no one told the people who needed to know, was there even a meeting? I used to have meetings devoted to finding out what happened in other meetings. I do not miss them.

Bit by Bit

Understanding why there are too many meetings and how to solve for it is useful, even if you don’t have control over all your meetings. No one is powerless. You can help create the underlying conditions that solve for fewer meetings. You can do things that make meetings obsolete, and then help everyone notice it. And you can do more to own your own calendar.

No matter what, I want to remind you that, with few exceptions, your job is not to be in meetings. Your job is to make progress. If meetings are the only way you know how to do that, well… we’re going to have to schedule a meeting to discuss it.

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Judd Antin
One Big Thought

Executive coach, consultant, writer, teacher on leadership, management, social psychology, product design — Ex-Airbnb, Ex-Meta, Ex-Yahoo —