Amy Elrod-Lahti
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HR Professional | Coach | Consultant/Advisor

In a previous article about how to utilize time between meetings, I referenced how easy it is for busy leaders to end up with packed calendars – and how difficult it can be to change the pattern so that you have more time for yourself. A critical competency for busy leaders is knowing when to say “no” to attending a meeting you don’t need to be in. Here are a few tips for looking at your calendar and signs to watch out for when a meeting is not really worth your time. 

1. Meetings where the subject is the business equivalent of “Vaguebooking.”

Some folks seem to have picked up bad habits from social media and will title their meetings things like “update” or “discussion” without adding any additional detail to help people figure out why the meeting is happening. If you see a vague meeting subject in your calendar and no further information is given, it’s totally fine to message the organizer and ask what the meeting’s about. Decide against your attendance after you get an answer.

2. Meetings that

don’t seem to have a clear goal, agenda or purpose.

Ever seen those mugs that say, “I just made it through another meeting that should have been an email”? These days, with myriad ways for people to communicate, taking people’s time for a meeting should be done only for good, solid reasons. Some circumstances or decisions do require a group of people to get together and talk. Some just make simple decisions that could have been a poll in Outlook

Especially beware of “brainstorming sessions” where the issue isn’t clearly defined. It’s hard to brainstorm effectively when you don’t know what you’re solving for! Also, steer clear of meetings that are supposedly about making a decision, but a critical decision-maker won’t be able to attend (these meetings are my least-favorite type of time-waster). 

3. Any meeting where you feel like you’ve been invited just so someone can say they invited you.

Maybe you feel like you’ve only received a meeting invite so someone can check a box or cover a base. If there’s not going to be any real opportunity to substantively contribute knowledge or expertise, influence a decision or provide stakeholder feedback, you likely can decline the meeting. If necessary, you can provide any thoughts you have about the meeting’s subject via email.

In some organizations, organizers will invite a cast of thousands to a meeting just so “everyone feels included” or “so we don’t leave anyone out.” That doesn’t mean attending the meeting is the best use of your time. If you’re nervous about missing something important, consider delegating attendance at this kind of meeting to a trusted subordinate and schedule a follow-up with them after the meeting. 

How to get the meeting off your calendar.

The all-purpose polite answer when you decline is, “Sorry, I will have to miss this due to a schedule conflict! Please let me know if there are any after-actions I need to complete after the meeting.” 

If the organizer moves the meeting to accommodate your “schedule conflict,” that’s a clue you probably need to attend (or at least ask more questions). 

One other tip I’ll share, which requires a fair amount of moxie: one of my coaching clients told me once that she tried an experiment where, for two weeks during her very busy time of the year, she reflexively declined every meeting she was invited to. Yes, every meeting – she wouldn’t even read the subject line. 

Turns out, if she really needed to be at a meeting, someone would reach out and tell her so, and re-send the invite. However, only about 40 percent of the original invitations got re-sent, which freed up a tremendous amount of her time when she needed it most. 

Similarly, I had a manager tell me that when he takes a new job, he immediately declines all recurring meetings that have been sent over from the previous manager’s calendar – no matter how important they seem to be. Only the most important invites will get re-sent. If you’re struggling with balance, these bold moves are worth a try.

What’s your no. 1 piece of advice for declining meetings that aren’t worth your time? Share in the comments below to help other Fairygodboss’ers!

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This article was written by a Fairygodboss contributor.

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