How to Get Out of a Meeting You Know Will Waste Your Time

Executive Summary

You can often predict which meetings will be unproductive from the moment you receive the invitation. But how can you dodge them? One approach is to suggest a minimally invasive compromise. A meeting will almost certainly take an hour or more of your time, so see if the other party would be willing to update you over email, or if a short phone call to get your input might suffice. Another approach is to make the meeting requestor aware that your time is a zero-sum game. Sometimes, even well-meaning people forget that your time isn’t infinite, so a tactful reminder can snap them back to reality and help them understand the consequences of their wanton meeting invitations.

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You can often predict which meetings will be unproductive from the moment you receive the invitation. There’s the “team update” where you spend two hours listening to a rundown of how everyone spent their week, or the “planning meeting” where you hash out picayune details that should have been handled elsewhere, or the “brainstorming session” where extroverts shout out random ideas.

Some of these you can dodge, but others are much harder to escape — especially if the invitation comes from your boss, a key client, or an influential colleague. Here are five 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.

First, get 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 (“We’re launching the new line on August 1”), but it allows you to develop a unified vision of where you’re headed. This could include a project kickoff 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.

Second, make it more difficult for the meeting requesters. It’s easy for someone to invite you to a meeting — too easy. One of my executive coaching clients, a media company CEO, was constantly being pulled into unnecessary meetings. The reason? It was part of her company culture for everyone to share their calendars publicly, so people knew when she was available and would simply put in direct requests to her assistant for her to attend. After I advised her to “unpublish” her calendar, have her assistant enforce a more rigorous vetting process, and funnel her meeting availability onto particular days, her schedule freed up dramatically.

Part of the vetting process is to essentially make the meeting requestor do “homework” to win your time and attention. That will often deter all but the most committed. My CEO coaching client made it standard procedure to ask (or have her assistant ask) the following questions of anyone requesting that she attend a meeting:

  • 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.)

Fourth, if you want to get out of the meeting but still feel it’s difficult to say no, suggest a minimally invasive compromise. A meeting will almost certainly take an hour or more of your time. See if the meeting organizer 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, you can try a time dodge: “I’m traveling heavily for business the next three weeks, but we could reconnect after that. Perhaps you could email me the week of the 23rd for us to find a time?” Oftentimes, the requester will get distracted and forget, or discover that whatever they felt was so urgent has diminished in importance. You’ll get points for appearing helpful, but ultimately won’t have to attend the meeting.

Finally, sometimes you do have to relent and attend, but you can at least 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 heads-down right now 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, so a tactful reminder can snap them back to reality and help them understand the consequences of their wanton meeting invitations.

Meetings are the scourge of modern business life, consuming 62 hours per month of employees’ time, on average (a full half of which is estimated to be wasted). Many professionals attempt to cope in a passive-aggressive way, showing up late to meetings or fiddling with their gadgets instead of listening. But that may be the worst choice of all, because it perpetuates an office culture where it’s OK to tune out your colleagues and disrespect others’ time.

The strategies above provide a better way to push back and protect your time. Instead of running from meeting to meeting, you’ll be better equipped to do the valuable work that you’re evaluated on and rewarded for.

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