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Google Ventures’ Secret to Productive Meetings: A Timer

Efficiency nerds have started timing meetings to keep them on track

You’ve been in a meeting that was too long, maybe as recently as this morning. You may have led one, or doodled cats throughout, or checked your e-mail under the table. And despite all the research on dwindling human attention spans, tomorrow will bring another. Steve Jobs famously tried to kill this feature of corporate life by keeping groups small. Occasionally, he would do this by telling the least important person to leave the room. Next came the standup meeting popularized by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. These were meant to retire to-do lists quickly by keeping staff on their toes.

Jake Knapp, a design partner at Google Ventures—the tech company’s investing arm—is now evangelizing a new strategy. For his meetings, he relies on a $25 device called the Time Timer, which has been used since 2000 in elementary schools to help kids with autism and ADHD stay on track. (Teachers often refer to it as the magic clock.) Basically a giant, 8-inch version of an old-school oven timer, it’s easy to set and read from far away. It has massive black numbers marking five-minute increments and an emergency-grade red disc that delineates the time remaining. Knapp first saw one in his son’s first-grade classroom and thought, “Oh, my God, this changes everything,” he says. “I figured what worked for small children would probably work well for CEOs, too.”