How to get out of meetings that waste time

How to get out of meetings that waste time

13 April 2018

Meetings are the scourge of modern business life.

The Wall Street Journal says U.S. CEOs spend an average of 18 hours in meetings out of a 55-hour workweek—and that doesn’t include phone calls, conference calls, and business meals as meetings. Factor those in and that’s 27 hours—40 per cent of their workweek!

Countless office employees dread the weekly “team update” (where they spend two hours listening to a rundown of how everyone spent their week), “planning meetings” (where people hash out minutiae that should have been handled elsewhere), or “brainstorming session” (where extroverts shout out random—read “worthless”—ideas).

How can you tactfully push back and protect your time?

The Harvard Business Review suggests there are four simple ways to get out of a meeting that you know will be unproductive—or at least to limit the collateral damage to your productivity and schedule.

1. Be clear on which meetings really are important to attend

The list is short: The most essential meetings are the ones in which decisions will be made.

If your team is choosing to launch either Project A or Project B, you can’t make a high-stakes decision over email – you need everyone to share their viewpoint, air their concerns, and coalesce around a solution.

That’s best done in person, or least during a teleconference.

A related category that’s worth attending is any meeting that provides an overall strategic direction for your company or team. It may not include specific decisions, but it allows you to develop a unified vision of where you’re headed.

This could include a project kick-off meeting, a brainstorming session (during which you form a rough sense of which ideas are on point and which aren’t), or a milestone-related check-in.

A secondary, but acceptable, reason to join a meeting is for relationship-building purposes.

The content itself might be boring or unnecessary, but if you can strengthen a relationship with an important contact by putting in some face time, that’s not a bad outcome. The meetings to avoid at all costs are “updates” — which can be handled in one-tenth of the time through email.

2. Make it more difficult for the meeting requesters

It’s usually easy for someone to invite you to a meeting— too easy.

Many workers share their calendars publicly, so people knew when they are available and would simply put in direct requests to her assistant for her to attend.

Try “unpublishing” your calendar, or have your assistant enforce a more rigorous vetting process that funnels your meetings onto particular days.

Part of the vetting process includes making the meeting requestor do “homework” to win your time and attention. For example, you could ask the following questions:

  • What is the exact topic?
  • What is the timing and location?
  • What is the duration?
  • Who else will be in attendance?
  • What decision needs to be made at the meeting? (This helps you easily determine whether the intended meeting is high-value.)
  • Why, specifically, do you need me to be there? (This forces them to articulate a clear reason. If they say “To keep you updated,” then you can simply tell them to do this post facto by sharing the minutes with you.)

3. If it’s difficult to say no to a meeting request, suggest a minimally invasive compromise

See if the meeting organiser would be willing to update you over email, or if a short phone call to get your input might suffice.

Alternatively, if the topic isn’t urgent, ask the requester to get back to you in a week or so. Oftentimes, they will get distracted and forget, or discover that whatever they felt was so urgent has diminished in importance.

4. Tactfully make your boss or colleagues aware that your time is a zero-sum game and that they need to issue their requests carefully

For instance, you could say, “I saw that you invited me to attend the meeting about Project A on Thursday. As you know, I’m busy working on Project B and we’re on a tight deadline. You have a better sense of the big picture here, so I wanted to check in. Do you think it’s worth it for me to take time away from Project B to attend this meeting? If you think it’s important, of course I’ll be there.”

Sometimes, even well-meaning supervisors and colleagues forget that your time isn’t infinite. A tactful reminder can help them understand the consequences of their wanton meeting invitations.