You know the drill: the agenda was distributed late (if at all). The action items are vague, and many of them aren’t even action items (more on that later). Expectations haven’t been set in order to hold everyone accountable.

Yep, you’re about to head into another board meeting that could have been a board phone call or an email. What’s worse, you don’t even know what time the meeting will end (will you be late to pick up your 7-year-old from karate class?!).

It’s no secret that one of the biggest reasons board meetings are not as successful as they could be is time management.

So, what’s one way to start improving your meeting time management?

Think of a meeting like a goldfish.

Wait, what ?!

You read that right – think of a meeting like a goldfish. You know, the kind you got as a kid at the local carnival, when you were able to toss a ping pong ball into a small fishbowl.

When you took that fish home, you put it in a larger fish tank.

You fed it and kept its tank clean, and over time it grew. And grew. And grew some more. Until you had to buy a bigger tank – and then another.

My brother once brought a goldfish home that grew nearly as large as the 25-gallon tank where it ultimately ended up.

And that’s how a meeting is like a goldfish: it’ll grow as big as the tank you put it in.

If you tell everyone a meeting will last two hours, odds are that meeting will last two hours, if not more.

But what if that meeting should only have lasted 45 minutes? Because if that’s the case, you’ve just wasted more than an hour of everyone’s time.

So, one Smart rule for successful meetings: set a meeting time that’s shorter than you think it might take you to get through the agenda, and try to stick with it.

Most board meetings should take an hour or two, for the most part (in some cases, longer discussion is necessary, certainly). Challenge your board to be efficient with their time. Set that expectation out of respect for them – “I’m not going to take up any more of your time than is absolutely necessary.”

While you will need to take the time necessary for discussion in order to make sound decisions, thinking of your meetings this way will force you to consider other ways to set yourself up for success and efficiency (and keep that goldfish from growing too big).

Here are a few tips for developing your agenda to get the most from your board:

TIP 1: Remember the difference between action and reporting items.

Board meetings are no place to rehash committee or staff reports. Get your committees and staff to prepare reports in advance of the meeting, and then build those reports into the agenda at the end as just that – reports – that the board can read.

Have you ever seen a presentation where the speaker essentially reads what’s on the slides nearly word for word? It was frustrating beyond belief, and boring, right? You probably thought to yourself “I can read; tell me something that’s not up on the screen!” Well, that’s how you’re inviting your board to feel if you force them to sit through the reading of committee reports. But you have to send it before they can read it, which bring us to Tip #2.

TIP 2: Send the agenda to the board enough in advance.

Separate the reports out into their own section, and indicate on the agenda that the items are for reporting only and will not be discussed at the meeting unless someone has a question about them.

TIP 3: Include all your action items at the front end of the agenda.

Don’t fall into the trap of listing committee names as agenda items – include the committee reports in the Reporting section, but only have items that the board must take action on in the front section of the agenda. You’ll have a far better chance of getting through all the decisions to be made if you use the front-end time of the meeting for those discussions, before people have brain overload and check out mentally.

TIP 4: Know when to say when, as in “when something requires a meeting, and when a call or email will do.”

Too often, boards hold meetings when a short conference call or video meeting would suffice, given all the discussion that needs to take place around action items. Time is critical; board members give enough of it freely without being stuck in meetings that should never have been meetings. Respect their time and ask them to respect everyone else’s, too.

You may have some board members who will be uncomfortable with changing your meeting agenda format, as you try to work differently, and that’s okay. Ask for their patience, and give them yours in return.

If you do it right, the board will come to recognize the efficiencies with your new way of working. And they’ll buy it hook, line and sinker.