12 tips for escaping death by meeting

Office workers often sport their meeting schedules as badges of honor. The reasons are legion. Being wanted in lots of meetings proves the essentialness of the employee. Meetings are a great way to avoid real work—and a popular excuse for not having gotten anything done. And better yet, when nothing gets done, the organization needs…what else…more meetings to figure out how to deal with the problem! And sadly, there are people who go to meetings because they fear that bad things will happen if they aren’t there to stop them.

There are good strategies to address those problems, and I am not going to discuss them here. Instead, I offer my personal quiver of meeting domination arrows up for your enjoyment. These are techniques I have stolen or invented over years in the workplace. They protect your time, and might even encourage better behavior from the untamed meeting beasts that surround you. Enjoy.

  1. Never accept an invitation to a meeting that lacks an objective and agenda. Nothing says, “I want to waste an hour of your time,” like a meeting with a title like, “Status Update”. Instead, reply with a request for more clarification. “Can you please give me more information? I want to be sure that I am the best person to attend.”
  2. Avoid meetings that have more than 6 invited participants. If six people can’t solve the problem, it can’t be solved.
  3. Check the list of participants to make sure your team wasn’t over-invited. Lots of meeting schedulers feel the polite thing is to include halo people who might be interested in the subject. If your team is functional, the one right person can represent the group.
  4. Scrub your calendar before the day begins. Unless you have that magic Hermione watch from Harry Potter, you are only going to be in one place at a time. Figure out who wins and who loses, so that people can make plans. Are you so important that all the other participants in a meeting should show up just in case you choose them over your other meetings?
  5. Be strategic when scheduling your own meetings. Look for times that leave 30 minute blocks, rather than hours, to discourage people from poaching your time. And then schedule “Office Hours” in those 30 minute slots to keep them from getting used.
  6. When looking for available slots for a meeting you are organizing, respect the times already blocked out by others, but feel free to schedule anytime that they are already double-booked. Reason? If they are leaving themselves overbooked, they are telling the world they are available to the squeakiest wheel. Squeak on!
  7. Expert move: if you cancel a meeting for which you were the organizer, don’t remove it from your calendar. Simply remove all the invited guests. Now you have a time slot that looks like a meeting. This works best on recurring meetings where the meeting vampires are already trained to believe you are busy then.
  8. Be present in the meeting. If the organizer sees you checking your phone or working on your laptop, she figures you aren’t being inconvenienced by being there. You want her to be aware that she is keeping you from other work.
  9. Don’t let anyone restart the meeting for a latecomer. Punishing those who arrive on time is a terrible message to send. When Jack walks in 15 minutes late, quickly designate someone to fill him in on what was missed later.
  10. The corollary—if you are late, own it. Sit down, apologize for being late, and tell the group not to back up for you. And don’t waste even more time explaining why you were late. I am habitually late—shame on me—but I accept the consequences and don’t make excuses.
  11. Be vigilant for the meeting that ends early and then staggers on to fill up the time. When you sense that the goals have been met—or that no useful progress is going to be made—declare it, and start packing up yourself. If someone wants to continue, make them convince the group there is a reason.
  12. No matter what, leave when the scheduled time is up. It is possible to have productive meetings that finish on time, but only if people make it happen. You don’t have to lie about another meeting that might not exist. Just say, “I have to go now.” That is true. You have to go because you have other work. Or a life. If you linger, you are telling people that you didn’t really have to leave. Please don’t ever say “hard stop”. It might sound good coming out of your mouth, but here’s what it sounds like going into my ears: “I am more important than you, and I am going to be doing something more important then meeting with you when I leave here.”

Please let me know if these ideas are helpful. Just don’t schedule a meeting to review them with me.

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