Meetings are Torture. After a Decade of Research, I Finally Know Why.

I used to compare the pain of a weekly 90-minute status meeting to that of a root canal.

But then one day I actually had the dreaded dental procedure, and realized that the comparison is really quite unfair to the root canal.

Meetings are not just a source of tremendous suffering for me, of course, but for millions of professionals all around the world.

And as a meetings effectiveness consultant, one who has worked with dozens of organizations to alleviate this suffering, the question I’ve been obsessed with for over a decade now is why?

Let us review the theories.

Theory 1: Meeting leaders are too lazy busy to craft thoughtful agendas

The reasoning goes like this:

Meetings are highly coordinated events that require careful planning.

Unfortunately, meeting leaders are too busy for that,  proponents of this theory argue. So leaders show up wholly unprepared, wing it, and the meeting subsequently descends into disorder.

To be sure, preparing for any event increases the chances it goes smoothly, but I've seen far too many bad meetings that were diligently planned to believe a lack of prep time is the primary driver of the bad meetings epidemic.

Indeed, I've worked with organizations who convene entire "pre-meetings" dedicated to crafting an exhaustively detailed agenda for another primary meeting--and still those primary meetings were abysmal.

Theory 2: Meetings are bad because They're a Way for Managers to Flex Their Power

Call this the Michael Scott theory.

Meetings are unproductive because the leader never called the meeting for productive reasons to begin with, but rather to hear the sound of their own voice, to affirm their identity as someone of stature, of authority.

To be sure, there are plenty of leaders on a serious power trip--I've met them. 

But as someone who regularly interviews struggling meeting leaders, I can tell you that the vast majority are perfectly well-intentioned. Their meetings are a genuine attempt to deliver value--even if they don’t' always turn out that way.

Theory 3: Meetings are Bad Because of Distracted, Disengaged Attendees

Bad meetings are the fault of unruly, distracted, disengaged attendees (probably millennials) on their phones, checking their email or Instagram.

Here, I think proponents of this theory have the causality backwards: distracted and disengaged attendees are generally not the cause of bad meetings, but rather a symptom of bad meetings.

Even I, your humble meetings expert, have felt tempted to respond to email during egregiously unproductive meetings, just to feel like the hour has not been entirely wasted.


So if none of these theories hits the mark, then what’s the real cause?

The Real Reason Meetings Are Bad: The Intuitive Meetings Assumption

Psychologists have pointed out that whenever individuals approach problems, they make their way through various problem solving stages. (See pic below).

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Mostly, individuals do this via what’s called intuitive problem solving, where instead of moving sequentially from one stage to the next, they jump around sporadically.

More to the point, when using intuitive problem solving, individuals aren’t consciously aware or even in control of these jumps from stage to stage.

Fortunately, none of that matters. Because all they have to do is place their attention on the problem and, much like an automatic car switching gears, our magnificent, intuitive brain does the moving from stage to stage effortlessly for us.

Because of its ease and efficiency, it’s no surprise individuals use intuitive problem solving to tackle all kinds of problems, from picking out a necktie, to working out a difficult mathematical theory.

Indeed, intuitive problem solving works so well for individuals, we naturally assume it’ll work in groups.

All we have to do, we think, is call a meeting to “discuss” a particular problem, have attendees collectively place their attention it, and let our intuitions take over.

Unfortunately, that assumption turns out to be catastrophically wrong.

Intuitive Meetings Keep Attendees Out of Sync

When we call a meeting governed by intuitive problem solving, or what I call an “intuitive meeting,” we virtually guarantee disorder.

Indeed, to collaborate effectively in real time with other individuals, people need to be on the same problem solving stage.


But because intuitions are private, attendees have no way of discerning what problem solving stage each other is on, and unknowingly begin the meeting on different stages.

To illustrate this misalignment, take the example of a software team meeting called to discuss a disgruntled customer, a VIP who recently threatened to jump to a competitor.

Attendees walking into the meeting think they’re focused on the same thing, but they’re not.

One attendee is ready to plan the move forward on what they believe to be the obvious solution.

Another is focused on generating new creative solutions for placating the customer.

While yet another is still hung up on whether or not the exit of this pompous hellion is a problem — or a blessing.

As the meeting progresses, things only get more chaotic as attendees switch problem solving stages, without notifying others, and without themselves even realizing it. Granted, in an individual context this rapid switching might lead to powerful creative breakthroughs, but in a group context it leads to whiplash.

As a result, intuitive meetings feel like disjointed, circular free-for-alls. And in the end, because the meeting never settled into any one of the problem solving stages, no stage was ever thoroughly conquered, leaving attendees feeling like their time was wasted.

So if our usual intuitive problem solving approach keeps attendees out of sync, what if we tried a more methodical one instead?

Methodical Meetings Keep Attendees In Sync

If an intuitive meeting is a session where attendees unconsciously and chaotically jump from various problem solving stages to the next, a methodical meeting is one where we all deliberately concentrate on just one stage at a time.


When the explicit goal of the meeting is to work through just that one stage, something magical happens: members find themselves wonderfully in sync, all rowing in the same direction, far more likely to make progress.

A minute ago, we mentioned a chaotic intuitive meeting convened to discuss an unhappy customer — one that went nowhere.

What might a methodical meetings approach to that same problem look like?

Methodical Meeting Example 1: Define the Problem

What is the ideal outcome for this customer issue? What is the worst thing that will happen if the customer leaves? What is key to making sure he doesn’t?

When the group hones its collective power on answering these kinds of problem-defining questions — before jumping ahead to developing a solution — it can lead to incredibly clarity. And by the end of this meeting, a written problem statement that makes finding the right solution infinitely easier.

Methodical Meeting Example 2: Generate Solutions

The quality of solution you ultimately reach is commensurate with the number of quality alternatives with which you begin.

So what if the software team focused on answering one solution-generating question: what are some creative solutions for making this customer so happy he doesn’t just stay, but refers us five new customers?

If this session led to even one additional idea that met this criteria, the meeting will have been well worth it.

Methodical Meeting Example 3: Make a Plan

If the solution to the customer problem was obvious, then the group could have skipped ahead and focused their collective attention on developing a plan to implement the solution.

For instance, if it’s a new product feature that would make this VIP happy, what actions are necessary to get that feature ready to go? Just as important, who will own those actions, and when will they be due?

Can you imagine how energizing it would be if the group dedicated their entire session to this narrow set of implementation questions, and walked out of the room with a written and well-coordinated project plan?

How to Hold a Methodical Meeting in 3 Steps.

Methodical meetings are shorter, more focused, more enjoyable, and more productive. Fortunately, you don’t have to be an expert in problem solving theory to implement them.

I’ve setup a free resource called that makes it easy. Next time you have a meeting, just follow these three steps:

Step 1: Visit and pick a worksheet.

Each worksheet represents one problem solving stage. Alongside each worksheet are descriptions that help you determine which is the right one for you.

Step 2: Bring the worksheet to the meeting.

Print out the methodical meeting worksheet and bring it to meeting. Distribute to all attendees.

Step 3: Fill it out with your attendees.

Each worksheet has been carefully designed to walk you through one problem solving stage in the most efficient way possible. No need to spend hours trying to reinvent the wheel, just follow the worksheet. When the worksheet is done, the meeting is over.


Bad meetings are an epidemic. And many of them can be largely explained by a simple, flawed assumption.

We assume that our go-to way of solving problems individually, intuitively, is how we ought to solve problems in groups.

But we’re better off with meetings that focus the group’s attention on just one stage of the problem solving process at a time — methodical meetings.

The methodical meeting approach, I think, is your best hope for alleviating the intolerable pain you experience in bad meetings. And mine too, should I ever have to attend one of yours.

Finally, a Productivity System You Can Actually Stick With

A brand new system leverages the science of "procrastination penalties" to keep you accountable.

If you're reading this article, you, like me, have in the past tried your hand at at least one productivity system. David Allen's Getting Things Done, for example. And for a few days, you, like me, probably managed to use that system successfully.

But then something happened.

On day two, or three, or five, or seven, you failed to perform your daily upkeep. The next day, you dropped the ball again. Next, your overall interest in the system declined dramatically and soon, you stopped using the system altogether.

In the face of this failure, you probably grew self-critical. Chastising yourself for not giving it your all. For not taking the system seriously enough.

But what if you were never the problem?

In recent decades, behavioral scientists have uncovered the true cause of our failure. A powerful, psychological force so predictable, so contrary to our self-interest, it's unconscionable that no productivity system ever addresses it.

Until now.

In this article, I want to share with you a new productivity system that was specially designed to protect you against this psychological force. A productivity system that you'll be able to, once and for all, stick with.

But before we get there, you must understand what the psychological force that I keep referring to is. And in order to explain, I need to tell you a story.

The Real Reason You've Never Been Able to Stick With Productivity Systems


Imagine the driver of a car on his way home from work, cruising down a long and narrow road.

Just a couple days prior, the Driver started using a new productivity system and coming up on his right is the library where he's promised himself he’ll perform day three of his system upkeep.

But just as he’s about to make his right turn, he happens to see in the distance, that the local movie theater is screening the new Star Wars. The Driver, committed to his goal, endeavors to ignore the distraction. He looks away. He bites his hands. But it’s no use; he’s struck by a powerfully irresistible feeling that practically bars his hands from turning the steering wheel right.  

The next day the Driver tries again. But this time, as he nears the right turn, out of nowhere, a thought hits him like a bolt of lightning: I don't have time for my productivity system today, I have that urgent client report I need to write! So the Driver speeds past the library, races home, and plunges into his client work instead, only to wake up the next morning wondering, “what the hell was I thinking?”

For the next few days, the Driver continues to try to make that right turn--but fails every single time. That’s where we come in to the story. You and I, dear reader, are his advisors. And our first task is to answer the question: what is the root cause of the Driver’s irrational behavior?

If we look again closely at the picture of the Driver sitting inside his car, we’ll quickly learn his persistent failures are no accident. They’re sabotage.

The real reason we fail productivity systems: The Passenger.

The real reason we fail productivity systems: The Passenger.

Sitting beside the Driver, unbeknownst to him, is a passenger. An invisible bloke who, every time the Driver tries to make his right turn to maintain his productivity system, moves heaven and earth to make sure he doesn’t. To the Driver, his inability to make the right turn is a bug. To the Passenger, it’s a feature.

If we want to help the Driver stick with his productivity system, we first have to answer two obvious questions: Who is the Passenger and what in God’s name does he want?

Who Is the Passenger and What Does He Want?

By now you probably realize that the Driver and Passenger are a metaphor for the profoundly conflicted nature of the human mind.

The Driver represents the rational part of our brain. The more recently evolved prefrontal cortex. The system in our brain where we reason, make decisions, and plan for the future.

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The Passenger, on the other hand, represents the emotional part of our brain, the more primitive limbic system. The limbic system is tasked with many responsibilities, but one of its most important is responding rapidly to potential threats in our environment.

It's clear from our story that the Passenger sees the Driver’s attempts to execute his productivity system as one of these threats. But why?

There's likely an evolutionary explanation. In an incredibly dangerous primitive world, early man couldn’t afford to spend his precious time and energy on activities that delivered delayed rewards, such as saving food for a rainy day or practicing proper running technique. By the time the payoff for these activities arrived, he might have already been devoured by a giant hyena. And so evolved Passengers to help steer us towards immediately gratifying activities like food or sex.

The Passenger evolved to steer us towards immediate gratification.

The Passenger evolved to steer us towards immediate gratification.

However, today, we are living in a radically different environment. But because evolution hasn’t quite yet caught up, we are still endowed with Passengers that strongly favor immediate gratification, and conversely, disfavor delayed gratification.

Which explains why the Passenger sabotages our Driver every time he tries to maintain his productivity system, an activity that clearly requires delayed gratification.


But how exactly does the Passenger compel the Driver to procrastinate?

As you’re about to learn, the Passenger uses a remote control to do his dirty work. Because it turns out the Passenger is no ordinary passenger. He’s a professional hacker.

How the Passenger Sabotages the Driver's Attempts to Stick With a Productivity System

As the Driver approaches the right turn, the sights and sounds associated with the library start to become salient. That’s when the Passenger sits up in his seat.


Feeling threatened, he presses the fear response button on his remote control that allows him to deploy one of two kinds of hacks.

Sometimes, the Passenger hacks the Driver's body (aka the Redfli). In this hack, the Passenger causes the Driver to experience a powerfully aversive feeling of tiredness, or exhaustion, or anxiety in his body that makes him want to do anything but use his productivity system. That's why it's called Redfli, short for "really don’t feel like it."

Other times, the Passenger's hacks the Driver's mind (aka the 180). In this hack, the Passenger causes the Driver to have a sudden change of heart, often without him even realizing it. He brainwashes the Driver into believing that his daily productivity system upkeep is just not that important anymore. Everything else -- client work, an "urgent" phone call from a colleague -- seems far more critical. Only much later, after the spell wares off, does the Driver realize he’s been manipulated.  

The Passenger sabotages the driver’s attempts to maintain our productivity system using the 180.

The Passenger sabotages the driver’s attempts to maintain our productivity system using the 180.

So now that we understand the mechanisms by which the Passenger prevents the Driver from making the right turn and executing his productivity system, what can the Driver do about it?

Can Willpower Help the Driver Overcome the Passenger's Sabotage Attempts?

At this point, your first inclination might be to tell the Driver to fight back against the Passenger's hacks. In other words, to exercise willpower. But not so fast.

Willpower usually doesn’t stand a match for the powerful surge of emotions associated with the Redfli. Granted, willpower will help the Driver win a few of these battles, but over the long haul, trust me, he’ll lose the war.

Moreover, willpower is even less effective against the 180. Remember, when under the spell of the 180, the Driver is brainwashed into thinking his productivity system isn't as important as other priorities. So the Driver doesn't even realize that he should fight back. As a result, willpower goes unexercised.

If we're going to have any hope of defeating the Passenger, we need a different approach.

Instead of trying to fight back against the Passenger's hacks, what if there was a tool that could help us prevent the Passenger from hacking the Driver in the first place?

There is such a tool. They're called Procrastination Penalties.

The One Feature A Productivity System Must Have to Stop The Passenger: Procrastination Penalties

Let's remember the reason the Passenger sabotages our Driver whenever he tries to use his productivity system: The Passenger hates delayed gratification. Which begs the question: can we design a productivity system so that using it reliably delivers immediate gratification?

Trying to make using the productivity system more pleasurable won't work, because we can never make it more fun than the alternative (e.g. watching Property Brothers).

Behavioral science suggests a different route: what if we made procrastinating the productivity system more painful? What if every time the Driver put off his productivity system, he received a mild, but significant penalty?

This modification would make executing his productivity system immediately gratifying, in a sense. Avoiding the penalty would earn him a feeling of cool relief. And as a result, the Passenger would no longer have a good reason to sabotage it.

Procrastination penalties may seem unorthodox, but when you look, you find them everywhere:

  • Why are people able to show up every day to a job they don't like? Because they know if they don't, they'll get fired.

  • Why are people able to perform their taxes on time each and every year? Because if they don't, they know the IRS will fine them.

  • Why are people able to pay their cable bill each month? Because if they don't, the cable company will cut them off, and they won't be able to watch Property Brothers.

Therefore, if we want a productivity system that reliably protects the Driver from the Passenger's hacks, the system needs to administer a mild, but significant penalty every time he procrastinates it.

Enter Daily Blueprint.

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How Daily Blueprint Uses Procrastination Penalties to Stop the Passenger

STEP 1: Every Saturday, tell Daily Blueprint what time you’ll perform your nightly planning throughout the week

Log in to the Daily Blueprint app and indicate what times that week you’ve decided to do your 5-minute daily blueprinting.


STEP 2: During the week, login to the app from your computer (or smartphone) when you said you would and prepare your daily blueprint.

Answer three simple questions:

  • What are your 1 - 3 most important tasks for tomorrow?

  • When specifically will you work on those tasks?

  • How will you deal with the inevitable distractions and obstacles that will arise?

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STEP 3: If you’re late, or skip your daily blueprinting session altogether, Daily Blueprint will dish out a small procrastination penalty to prevent you from doing it again.

You get a choice. Either complete a 3-minute, mildly tedious online task called The Sentence or make a $5 donation to charity. Most people choose to perform The Sentence.


STEP 4: At the end of the week, Daily Blueprint will email you a progress report showing how much more productive you've been.

You will be shocked at how a little accountability has transformed your productivity. 


Can Daily Blueprint Finally Help the Driver Beat the Passenger?


Per our advisement, the Driver wastes no time signing up for Daily Blueprint. He tells the app that he'll perform his daily blueprinting every weekday at 5pm. Right now, it's 4:55pm.

As the Driver nears the dreaded right turn that will take him to the library, he braces himself, ready to be hacked by the Passenger like he has been so many times before. But this time, because of Daily Blueprint's procrastination penalties, the hacking never occurs.

As a result the Driver finds himself able to make the right turn with ease, arriving at the library, and, at long last, using his productivity system. And as the weeks and months go by, the Driver continues to perform his daily blueprinting religiously.

Soon using this new productivity system has become an unshakable habit, making him more, focused, more in-control, more productive than he ever imagined.

Ready to Try Daily Blueprint for Yourself? Here Are the Results You Can Expect After Just 30 Days.

You’ll get more done in less time

With their daily blueprint in hand each day, clients find themselves achieving a new level of productivity they never thought they were capable of. Projects that used to take them weeks, take them days. Tasks that used to take them days, take hours. The only question is what will you do with all that extra time?  

You’ll experience less stress and overwhelm. 

After a few weeks, members begin to feel like a weight has been lifted from their shoulders. With a clear understanding of what’s important, they give themselves permission to stop sweating the small stuff. As a result, they feel like their workload has shrunk considerably, and consequently, their stress. 

The ability to enjoy time off guilt-free  

Daily Blueprint doesn’t just help you identify when you’re working, but also forces you to recognize when you’re not. This time blocking makes you more productive during work, but just as important, makes you more at peace when you’re at home. You’ll finally be able to enjoy your time off guilt-free.

You’ll, for once, have a productivity system that you’re actually using consistently

After just a few short weeks most people are astounded at how effective, the Daily Blueprint punitive system is at keeping them consistent. Even on their busiest days, they do their daily blueprinting on time in order to avoid getting penalized. The result is unwavering consistency.  

The First Week of Daily Blueprint is Free. After That, It’s $12.95/month.

If at any time during the week, you wish to cancel, just let us know and we’ll cancel your membership—no questions asked. If you do choose to continue, at the end of your trial, you’ll get auto-subscribed into our month plan.

The Passenger Knows How Dangerous Daily Blueprint Could Be To His Own Health. Beware the Lies He Will Tell You.


LIE 1: You're too busy. Why add one more thing to do your todo list?  

Truth: Daily Blueprint's central mission is to make you less busy and to free you from stress and overwhelm. When you use Daily Blueprint, your todo list doesn't get longer, it gets shorter.

LIE 2: Daily Blueprint Won't Work for You.  

Truth: Daily Blueprint works for the vast, vast majority of people who try it. But don't take our word for it. We have a 1 week trial so you can see for yourself. 

LIE 3: Daily Blueprint Is Too Expensive.  

Truth: $12.95 a month for a system that will double your productivity, dissolve your overwhelm, and put you back in control of your workday? Most people spend double each month on coffee. 

LIE 4: You'll Sign up for Daily Blueprint Tomorrow.  

Truth: Tomorrow, the Passenger will convince you to put off signing up again, and then again, and then again until you inevitably forget. Don't let him win.

When You Sign Up You'll Get a Bonus Onboarding Session with the Founder

To set you up for the success, when you sign up for the Daily Blueprint 1-week trial, you'll receive a private 25-minute onboarding session with Al Pittampalli. Over the phone, Al will teach you how to use the app to maximum effect.

Sign up Below and Your Free 1-Week Trial Will Begin on Saturday.

Sign up using the form below. Once you do, you’ll be asked to schedule a one-on-one onboarding phone call with Al sometime this week. Then your trial will officially begin on Saturday.

Don't Let the Passenger Win.

If you have any questions, concerns, or fears about Daily Blueprint send us an email at We'll get back to you as soon as humanly possible. Let's conquer the Passenger once and for all.  

About the Founder

Al Pittampalli is the author of this piece and the founder of Daily Blueprint. He is a productivity coach and writer for Harvard Business Review and Psychology Today. He lives in NYC. Learn more about him here.

Stop asking for references

One day, several years ago, I got a call from a business owner who was looking to hire a video editor. He told me the editor, let’s call him Arnie, had put me down as a reference.

To this day, I have no earthly idea why Arnie chose me. I’d had a terrible experience with him: Arnie’s work was shoddy, his communication nonexistent, and he ended up charging way more than our agreed upon budget. So, although I took no satisfaction in it, I told the business owner the truth about my negative experience. The owner listened politely, thanked me for my time, and then hung up the phone.

The next day, I got an e-mail from Arnie. To my shock, he wasn’t angry. He was jubilated. The first line read, “Thank you!”

Turns out, the business owner had hired Arnie just a couple hours after our call.

The Real Reason We Ask for References

References are supposed to lead to better hiring decisions. The thinking goes, what better way to get information about the effectiveness of a candidate than to talk with people they’ve interacted with in the past?

The problem with this strategy is what’s known as sampling bias. The reality is, we’re forced to rely on the candidate to provide their references. So, even if 98% of people have terrible things to say about them, they’re sure to pass along the 2% that give praise. Even the Unabomber could’ve found a few people to vouch for his character. Because of this unrepresentative sample, references seldom lead to better hiring decisions. Indeed, a 2005 meta-analysis conducted by Aamodt and Williams showed the practice to be largely unsuccessful in predicting future employee success.

So why do we ask for them? For most people who seek references, making a better decision isn’t the primary goal. Validation is.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that the aforementioned business owner wasn’t interested in my help making his decision. When he ignored my warnings, he revealed his true motivation: he was trying to feel better about the decision he had effectively already made.

It’s difficult not to empathize with him. We’ve all experienced the intolerable anxiety of not knowing whether or not we’re making the right decision. When this happens, it’s tempting to find ways to reduce that anxiety. Just think of the last time you went to a particular friend or colleague for advice, because you knew they would tell you what you wanted to hear. This validation gives you the confidence boost you were looking for.

While that confidence boost might make you feel better, it comes with a cost. You end up distancing yourself from reality. After all, believing you’re right, doesn’t make you right. And an artificially inflated sense of confidence can make it more difficult to realize when you’re headed off a cliff.

At this point, you’re no doubt thinking: if asking for references is unproductive, what can I do instead to ensure I’m making the right decision?

That, my friend, is the wrong question.

We can never ensure we’re making the right decision, as most decisions are inherently uncertain. Rather than trying to eliminate that fact by asking for references or seeking out biased advice, better to embrace it. That’s what effective leadership is all about.

This article was originally published on Psychology Today