5 simple ways to avoid getting booked in pointless meetings

Sitting in a meeting that could’ve been an email or wondering what you’re doing there is practically a professional rite of passage. But, despite all the well-meaning productivity advice and management books out there, getting booked in pointless meetings is still something many workers struggle with.

How come? It often boils down to a lack of trust and autonomous workflows. “Unhealthy meeting culture is effectively a symptom of an untrusting and fundamentally unstable structural issue in the office space,” says Eden Cheng, founder of WeInvoice.

“Many management professionals operate this way because their organizations move under the assumption that having many team members mobilized around a common goal will lead to better productivity and results.”

While you might not be in a position to revamp the systems and structures in your organization, you can take charge of your own schedule and set firmer boundaries with your time — especially if you’re so swamped with meetings you barely have time to tend to important deliverables. And, by doing so, you might also end up doing your coworkers a favor in the process.

“The reality is that professional objectives aside, being overscheduled often takes a toll on a personal level. In this respect, it is important professionals learn how to reduce the spectators in meetings, reduce the number of meetings and also enable active participants to complete the deliverables they’re tasked with without wasting time on idle chatter so that they can quickly end the meeting and get back to their work,” says Cheng.

But it’s also crucial to understand the difference between a valuable conversation between relevant stakeholders and a redundant meeting before declining invites. There are a few telling signs:

“You can often tell when a meeting is unnecessary if team members are constantly switching between idle chatter, decision-making, group learning, etc. This is also applicable when the conversation starts to follow long tangents that seemingly have nothing to do with the main topic of conversation.”

Sounds familiar? Here are five simple ways you can avoid getting booked in pointless meetings while also setting a constructive example for your team in the process.

Insist on a clear agenda before committing

“It is important that professionals make sure that any scheduled meeting invites have a meeting objective, a list of deliverables, a link to previous meeting notes, and any relevant briefing information,” says Cheng.

Not only will asking about the agenda allow for smoother-flowing meetings and more impactful teamwork, but it will also encourage everyone to think twice about sending meeting invites prematurely. And you’ll avoid wasting time by constructively questioning the purpose of a meeting before committing to attending.

Consider whether the meeting duration is truly necessary

It’s also acceptable to critically think about the amount of time that you’ll be spending in a meeting. The topic might be relevant and timely but the amount of time allocated to it might not be in line with needs and priorities.

“If you can condense the number of issues to discuss within 15 minutes, then you don’t need 30 minutes to discuss extra matters that may or may not have anything to do with the topic at hand,” says Cheng.

Establish office hours

Are you in demand? It might be time to establish office hours and protect your schedule from ad hoc requests — it’s the perfect way to remain accessible without spreading yourself thin.

“If you find yourself in a role where people continuously need access to you, I’ve found establishing office hours to be very effective. I’ll have a standing meeting once or twice a week that anyone can sign-up for via Google Sheets. This can reduce the need for ad hoc meetings since folks will have a more effective way to engage with you,” says Ryan Rollins, founder of Teach Me Personal Finance.

Ask if your presence is required

“My top tip for professionals looking to avoid getting trapped in pointless meetings is to ask the meeting’s leader a simple question ahead of time: ‘Do you think me being there would contribute anything?’” says Daivat Dholakia, Director of Operations at Force by Mojio.

If not, you can diplomatically explain you have other pressing priorities by saying something like “I’m hoping to finish that report by the end of today, plus I’m leading a training tomorrow and need to get a presentation together,” suggests Dholakia.

Politely decline and offer alternatives

Just say no” sounds simple, right? But you’re right if your gut instinct tells you that it could also be rude. There is a middle ground: Politely declining by offering alternatives.

“One of the best strategies for avoiding pointless or unnecessary meetings is to make yourself available in other ways. Simply declining altogether is not always the best idea, and it can be disrespectful depending on how you approach it,” says Karl Hughes, founder of Draft.dev.

“However, you can politely make it known there are time conflicts, ask to be included in a follow-up, or offer another way to meet and discuss — such as through email. All of these things will smooth over your cancelation, making it less likely you’ll be reprimanded or forced to attend.”