We have all been through one (or likely several). We may have even unknowingly contributed to one: The meeting from hell! First, you arrive at the designated place and time, but you’re not sure why or what exactly will be discussed. Other participants start to meander in similarly perplexed. Finally, 10 minutes later (we had to wait until “Doug” got there), things get started.

During the meeting, you think you finally figure out the “why,” but the focus seems to shift and go off on different tangents. As a result, half the people there are on their laptops or phones checking email, surfing Amazon or playing Solitaire out of boredom (“Somebody PLEASE rescue me,” you plead in vain). At last, 20 minutes beyond its scheduled completion, the meeting mercifully ends. “But wait,” you wonder to yourself, “what did we actually decide or accomplish? Do I need to do anything?” No worries. You’re certain that somebody will send a summary eventually. If not? Oh well.  It was just another 75 minutes of your life you will never get back.

If this scenario sounds even a little bit familiar, have no fear. It turns out that science actually offers up some pretty simple and straightforward strategies that can benefit us all.

  1. No agenda, no meeting!

    Be iron-fast with this rule. The brain hates uncertainty (actually can trigger cortisol release) and the absence of a clear purpose inhibits participant attention. While some diplomacy may be called for on occasion (like with your boss), please don’t waste others’ time (or allow yours to be wasted) by meetings without set start and end times, topics to be discussed and/or decisions to be made.

  2. Arrive prepared

    Establish and hold each other accountable for a 100% preparedness standard. While “stuff” happens from time to time and projects get off schedule, don’t let your teammates down by not applying the same effort to their priorities that you would hope they apply to yours. If you cannot be prepared in time, then let fellow participants know beforehand so that the meeting can be re-scheduled if your information or update is critical to others.

  3. Limit meeting length when possible

    Most meetings can effectively be conducted within 45 minutes. Focused concentration, problem solving, brainstorming or discussing detailed ideas depletes the brain’s glucose reserves and lessens our focus over time. Sticking to 45 minutes forces topics and comments to be covered concisely, allows participants to stay sharp and allows our peers adequate time afterward to convert their notes into specific follow-up actions. It allows transition time for a quick check of messages and making it to the next meeting on time. If the topics to be covered require a longer meeting, consider adding breaks and providing glucose-stabilizing snacks (nuts, fresh fruit, energy bars, etc.) to munch on.

  4. No personal cell phones or laptops

    While there are a few exceptions (expectant parents, medical conditions, client emergencies, etc.), most people simply do not need immediate access to their cellphones or laptops while attending meetings. These devices provide an immediate on-ramp for scratching the itch to check email, texts, the news or other non-critical tasks and activities. If the topic is important enough to schedule a meeting for in the first place, it’s important enough to warrant each participants’ full presence and undistracted attention.

  5. Stay on track with the agenda

    Tangential topics, problems or ideas can be no less distracting than pop-up ads on your computer screen. If you are facilitating or leading a meeting, use a “parking lot” list to capture all ideas and topics that come up, but do not need to be discussed or explored immediately. Should there exceptions? Sure. Use this quick checklist to decide whether to discuss an unplanned topic in your meeting: 1) Is the item relevant? 2) Does it need to be discussed immediately? 3) Does it warrant the time and attention of every other person in the meeting? If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, you can probably defer the discussion to a later time or a smaller sub-group of the meeting participants.

  6. Recognize Contributors

    We all like to be recognized for our contributions. In fact, being recognized publicly for our great ideas and effort typically causes our brains to release neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. While invisible, these powerful compounds cause us to increase our attention, focus and effort. They can even boost loyalty, perceptions of inclusion and commitment to the team. So be sure to “reward” meeting contributors with positive feedback whenever possible. The best part is, it costs nothing. Compliments are free. We just have to remember to give them out more often.

  7. Maintain social safety

    Psychological safety is crucial. One of the fastest ways to shut down participation, innovation and accountability is to permit or ignore hostile behaviors. Blaming, character attacks, snarky comments or even passive-aggressive gestures (like eye-rolling, head shaking, glaring, etc.) have absolutely no place in your meetings. They trigger the fight or flight response which floods our brains with cortisol and literally shuts down the cognitive processing regions needed for attention, idea generation and problem solving. While we can all feel negative emotions on occasion (like frustration, confusion and even anger), we must be mature enough to express these in a manner that does not attack, alienate or devalue other meeting participants.

  8. Avoid energy “dead zones”

    Try to avoid scheduling meetings either late mornings or afternoons. That is when brain’s glucose levels are at their lowest due to calorie burn between meals. In fact, research suggests that the more important a meeting, the earlier in the day it should be scheduled. But we all know that finding times when everyone is available can be a challenge. When late-morning or afternoon meetings are unavoidable, consider the same strategy as suggested for long meetings: provide stable-energy snacks to help increase blood glucose levels.

With the increasing demands for time and attention on all employees, running effective and efficient meetings should be high on everyone’s list of priorities. If you’ve been to one too many “meetings from hell,” try these strategies with your teams and let me know how it goes!