How much of your week do you spend in meetings? If you work in a collaborative industry, or in a leadership capacity in any industry, the answer is probably "A lot." Back-to-back meetings are becoming the norm across the business world, leaving everyone frazzled and farther behind at the end of each day. 

Why does this happen? Pointless recurring meetings are one kind of calendar crud. Ad-hoc meetings--those meetings that aren't planned but get added whenever something comes up--can also quickly take over the calendar. 

That said, every team needs to establish a predictable system for communicating, and recurring meetings are super handy for that. Every company also has things that come up that don't fit into the regular meetings, which makes ad-hoc meetings seem inevitable.

Does that mean you're doomed to a career spent rushing from one conversation to the next? Not at all. Here are three clever, simple rules leaders use to prevent meeting overload that you can use with your teams too.

1. Establish a "bullpen."

A "bullpen" dedicates time and space for all the conversations that don't have a home in the other meetings. It acts as a communications "escape valve."  

I first heard of the Bullpen strategy from Shishir Mehrota, one of the founders of the documents-as-applications startup Coda. To prevent the kind of calendar mayhem so common in fast-growing startups, Coda's founders implemented a meeting system Mehrota developed while he was VP at YouTube. 

This system reserves meeting time each week for making sure everyone is up to speed on the latest developments and for making big decisions. But even though they have meetings planned to handle most of what they need to discuss, stuff still comes up. That's where the Bullpen comes in. 

There are no set topics for a weekly Bullpen and only one rule: you have to be there. When the team knows that they have the Bullpen coming, where they'll all be in the same place and free to talk soon, they bring all those ad-hoc conversations there instead of scheduling separate meetings. As a result, it's often one of the most productive hours a team might spend each week. 

2. Schedule recurring meetings with an expiration date.

Where the Bullpen combats calendar bloat from ad-hoc meetings, this strategy works to fight off those zombie recurring meetings. Often when people schedule a recurring meeting, they'll set it to repeat indefinitely for all time. If they should later leave the company, that meeting continues to keep a lock on the best conference room and other people's calendar after they're gone. Or, maybe they don't leave the company, but they also never cancel the meeting. Everyone continues to trudge in each week and grumble through the motions, not knowing what else to do.

In our company, we prevent this problem by scheduling recurring meetings that go for no longer than 90 days. We also end our recurring meetings at all the natural breakpoints, like summer and winter holidays. That way, we're making a conscious decision every 90 days (at a minimum, and often sooner) about how we invest our time. 

This rule quickly buries any zombie meetings and has added benefits. For example, our leadership team meets once per week. We've done this for years and will do so for the foreseeable future. But because our weekly meeting expires on our calendars every 90 days, we aren't mindlessly running the same meeting we ran last year or even last quarter. We continually adjust the timing and structure for that meeting as our work evolves.

3. Block out meeting-free zones on the calendar.

The final way to fight the red algae bloom of toxic meetings is by designating meeting-free time each week. This denies those useless meetings open space where they can grow. 

To do this, designate at least four hours and up to two days per week as off-limits for meetings. This makes meeting time more precious, as it suddenly becomes a scarcer resource, and forces everyone to think more carefully about how they spend that time. Team-level time blocking like this also gives everyone in your group dedicated time to complete focus work, making it possible for them to get into the flow.

These three rules go a long way towards preventing calendar bloat, and the best news is that you don't have to choose just one. 

Implement all three rules and your calendar will show:

  1. Only the recurring meetings your team needs right now,
  2. Dedicated time for individual focus work
  3. A simple way to handle other stuff that comes up, and
  4. A whole lot more control and sanity for your workweek.

I'd say that's a pretty good return for three simple rules.  

Published on: Oct 30, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.