I see a lot of people, both in my day job and on social media, complaining about how many meetings they have and how they are so exhausted by it. Comments like “I never have time to get any work done anymore,” and “That meeting is such a waste of time” are common and they resonate with so many people. But what if I told you that there’s another way? A way that you can reclaim your calendar and do the things you want to do? It’s easier than it sounds.
A common hurdle that keeps people going to these meetings that they don’t want to be in is often just corporate norms. If a meeting is on your calendar, you feel like you are expected to be there. But the reality is that these norms can (and should, in my opinion) be broken. Now, don’t just go and skip every meeting on your calendar simply because you don’t want to go - that’s not at all what I’m suggesting. Don’t go in to work tomorrow and say “Dade told me I didn’t have to go to meetings anymore.” There are plenty of good reasons to attend meetings.
Before we continue, I should stress that I am an individual contributor (IC) and that these are the rules that I use as an IC to govern my own calendar. If you’re in management and have to deal with a lot of passdowns and rollups, then these rules may not work well for you. But also consider doing passdowns and rollups as an email or slack message - only holding a meeting if necessary to facilitate conversation. I’m sure there are good ways for middle management to also spend less time in meetings, I just don’t know them because I’m not in middle management.
Instead of just abandoning all meetings, set up a series of mental rules by which you govern your calendar, and then do your best to stick to those rules. Rules like:
- Not attending meetings scheduled for the same day
- Not attending meetings that don’t have an agenda
- Not attending meetings that have more than 8 people in them
- Not attending meetings during scheduled break time (such as lunch, or exercise)
- Not attending meetings more than 2 hours in a row without a break
These rules all sound great, right? Think of all that time you’re going to have by implementing all of these! But unfortunately you’ll probably need to have some flexibility in your rules. Maybe you need to attend some emergency meetings because an incident came up. Maybe you need to have a lunch meeting because it’s the only time everyone is available. Maybe you need to have meetings for 2 and a half hours instead of only 2 hours. Flexibility is a good thing, and it’s what will allow you to more readily enforce your usual rules, and what will keep you from getting complaints about being unavailable to teammates.
Let’s take a deeper look at each of these rules.
Same Day Meetings
Same day meetings condition people to assume that any space on someone’s calendar is theirs as long as they claim it. They are disruptive to everyone’s day, who may have otherwise been looking forward to that open time to finally catch up on emails, get that commit finished, or get that presentation polished up. A common countermeasure to this behavior is to mark down your work time on your calendar so that you won’t be seen as available, however I believe that this just further enforces that any non-calendared time is up for grabs.
Instead of turning down same-day meetings simply because they are against your rules, try saying “I can’t make it today because I have prior commitments.” This is both polite and accurate, while still conveying that the mere existence of open space on your calendar does not entitle other people to it. If you are needed in the meeting, they will usually reschedule. If you are not needed in the meeting and they continue on without you, then you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed going to that meeting anyways.
Of all the types of meetings that I dislike, I dislike agendaless meetings the most. When a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, the organizer is not giving participants any way to decide if they are needed in that meeting. Instead, they are effectively saying that you have to attend the meeting because they said so, and you feel compelled to attend the meeting because it might be relevant to you. There’s no way of knowing ahead of time whether you will get value out of, or bring value to, that meeting.
When I say agenda, I don’t necessarily mean a time-allotted schedule broken up into 5 minute increments about who will talk about what and when, though those can be very helpful for longer meetings where people may need to attend only part of the meeting. Instead, I simply mean a list of topics that will be talked about, in the order that they’ll be talked about. The organizer is responsible for moving the meeting from topic to topic, and if the meeting doesn’t get through all the topics, the organizer is to blame. The organizer should then schedule a follow up to finish things, or offer to finish things “offline” (i.e. slack or email). I don’t think that the organizer should ever say “There’s only a few topics left, let’s just keep going” – this forces everyone in the meeting to decide if their next meeting is more or less important than the one that the organizer clearly didn’t manage efficiently.
Agendaless meetings, in my experience, are also the most likely to run over time without regard for other people’s follow up commitments. On top of that, they usually seem to be the ones that start late, to boot. Instead of simply declining a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda, send the organizer a quick response and ask for one. If they don’t send an agenda by the time the meeting starts, it may be worth conveniently forgetting to attend.
Meetings with more than 8 or so people in them drive me nuts. People are usually just fighting over each other to get a word in, and it seems like there are always at least a couple people who recognize that they will not be able to share their ideas, and as such have no interest in being there. Sure, mathematically speaking, an hour long meeting with 10 people in it gives every person 6 minutes to speak. Except anyone who has ever been in one of these meetings before knows that what’s more likely is that a handful of the same people will talk for 55 minutes, and then there will be 5 minutes at the end to offer anyone else a chance to have a voice.
I personally find it very difficult to get any value from, let alone bring any value to, meetings with more than roughly 8 people in them. This number is flexible, especially if you know that certain people are only attending the meeting to listen in. But find the number that makes you most comfortable, and then stay at or below that number for meeting participants. If you really think you need to be in a meeting with 16 people, perhaps the work is not sufficiently broken down into meaningful pieces. Of course there will be exceptions, such as watching brown bag presentations or watching all-hands events. But notice that for both of these examples, the verb I used was “watching” - If you plan on only watching a meeting then the participant count doesn’t matter as much as it does when you are planning on participating in a meeting. It’s also usually easier to just not attend these types of meetings where you are expected to be a watcher, since there’s usually not much pressure to attend and any long-term value from the meeting is likely to be written down.
Speaking of brown bag presentations, meetings that are scheduled during lunch seem to be some of the most disrespectful. I get the brown bag concept, but if you’re going to spend your whole lunch learning and talking about work, then I hope you’re at least going home an hour early, or otherwise taking an adequate break before or after. Aside from brown bag presentations, though, meetings where you are expected to have your lunch with you in the meeting and everyone is participating in the meeting seems particularly useless. Every question is followed by either waiting for someone to finish chewing their food, or worse, someone talking with their mouth full.
Lunch meetings seem to be scheduled with the assumption that you have no problem giving up your lunch break to talk about who-knows-what, and then you’ll just go back to your regularly scheduled work day afterwards without getting that hour of actual break time. To me, this is suggesting that the corporate culture expects me to work during my lunches and to not take adequate breaks, which further confirms that they don’t respect my time for anything more than the dollar value I can bring them. It’s not sustainable and if I were you, I would refrain from attending lunch meetings as much as possible. If you absolutely have to attend one, make it a point to get that extra hour somewhere else in the day. If I have a meeting at 11 and a meeting at 1, I will probably not even consider attending a lunch meeting. There are very few things that would be important enough for me to think “yeah I guess I’ll just skip lunch today.”
Finally, we have the back-to-back-to-back meetings. Three or more hours in a row of calendar time. In my experience, I find it very difficult to concentrate about halfway through the second meeting, and by the third meeting I’m all but useless. I’ll also probably have to leave the meeting once or twice to use the bathroom or get a drink, which then leaves me stressing to catch up when I return. This situation is the epitome of “oh I see your calendar is empty, allow me to fill it”, and can be difficult to break out of. I usually deprioritize one of the meetings based on my previous rules, and will either not attend that meeting (especially if it’s a very large meeting, a same-day meeting, or a meeting that is lacking an agenda).
While we’re talking about ways to take ownership of your calendar, it’s important to remember to be flexible. You are being compensated for your time, after all. Having a set of rules provides a mental model to help you decide how to best spend your time, which means figuring out which meetings are worth attending and which ones are not. If you’re a project manager or a people manager, you may end up in a lot more meetings that you cannot get out of. But if you’re an individual contributor, a lot of your expertise won’t be in meetings but rather in the windows between meetings. If you’re spending all your time in meetings and don’t have time to get your other responsibilities done, you shouldn’t be cutting into your nights and weekends to get them done - you should be cutting into the meetings. Meetings should be for making decisions in real time, involving the people who are both responsible and qualified for making those decisions.
While talking about controlling your calendar, this may seem like a strange subheading to read. See, by choosing to be more selective in meetings and exert more control over your schedule, one thing that you implicitly have to do is reliquinsh any sense of control over the outcomes of those meetings. Are you attending those meetings simply because you want to make sure someone else doesn’t make a bad decision? Are you attending them because you want to be the owner of whatever the topic of the meeting is? Are you there to be a subject matter expert for another team? If you go into the meeting expecting to control outcomes of the meeting, then it will be especially difficult to not attend that meeting. But we can’t expect to control every meeting, and we have to admit to ourselves that it’s okay to let go of some of them and let other people make those decisions. In fact, it demonstrates trust in your coworkers to make those decisions. It all goes back to the meeting involving people who are both responsible and qualified for making those decisions. If you are the only person responsible and qualified to make decisions in every meeting on your calendar and you still have too many meetings to get work done, it may be time to talk with your management about being under-resourced / over-scheduled.
I started to make a conscious effort to take control of my calendar about 3 years ago at my old job. I was worried, at first, that people would get annoyed because I wouldn’t show up to meetings where they may have expected me. But what ended up happening was that people started automatically doing things like including an agenda, scheduling with advance notice, and just generally running more effective meetings. By showing people that I respected my own time, they, too, started to respect my time. When I would attend meetings and I had something to contribute, people listened to what I had to say more intently, despite still being a junior employee.
Call To Action
You may think to yourself “Oh I’ll just use Dade’s rules since they worked for him” - and while my rules may help you, I implore you to sit down and consider what challenges you’re facing with your calendar and how different rules will have an impact on them. Remember to remain flexible enough to accommodate helping out those around you, but not so flexible that you’re just accepting and attending every meeting that someone shoves on your calendar. Communicate with those around you when they are being disrespectful of your time, let them know that you can’t attend and suggest something they can do to improve their meeting scheduling habits to improve not only your experience, but those of all participants.
If you don’t respect your time, will anyone else?