A former Simon & Schuster owner swore by this simple strategy for cutting the length of meetings by 75%

Business meeting
The trick is to have people try to solve problems on their own before the meeting. Flickr/TEDxAmsterdam

While conducting research for his 1948 self-help book, “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,” Dale Carnegie interviewed a range of business executives for their tips on conquering anxiety.

One of those execs was Leon Shimkin, then a general manager at publishing house Simon and Schuster, which published a series of Carnegie’s books. (Shimkin later became the company’s owner.)

As Shimkin told Carnegie, he’d devised a way to eliminate much of the time spent in conferences by giving his associates tools for managing their anxieties.

If you wanted to present a problem to your coworkers at a meeting, you’d have to first submit to Shimkin a memorandum answering four questions:

What is the problem? Shimkin said his team would previously spend time discussing troublesome issues without being able to concretely define the main problem.

What is the cause of the problem? “I am appalled at the wasted hours I have spent in worried conferences without ever trying to find out clearly the conditions which lay at the root of the problem,” Shimkin said.

What are all possible solutions of the problem? Before he implemented the new system, Shimkin said people would get into arguments over which was the best solution — but at the end of the meeting, no one would have recorded any of the potential fixes. They’d be no better off than when they started.

What solution do you suggest? Shimkin said he had one employee who would spend hours worrying about different situations without ever once thinking through all feasible solutions.

In the years before Shimkin instituted the memorandum rule, he told Carnegie he’d wasted 15 years holding exasperating meetings: “We would get tense; twist in our chairs; walk the floor; argue and go around in circles. When night came, I would be utterly exhausted.”

The new plan, however, eliminated “three fourths of all the time I spent in those worried conferences, and three fourths of my nervous strain.”

That’s because, once associates had written down the answers to all four questions, they rarely had an unresolved problem to present.

“The proper solution has popped out like a piece of bread popping out from an electric toaster,” Shimkin said.

In other words, time spent talking and worrying about the problems was replaced by deliberate action toward solving them.

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