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How to Manage Meeting Overload with Style

Meetings are part of doing business, but if you're not careful, they can take over your professional life. These meeting strategies will keep you from getting overwhelmed.

By
Rachel Cooke
6-minute read
Episode #608
meeting overload
The Quick And Dirty

Meeting overload is no laughing matter! Knowing when to attend, how to say no, and finding alternative ways to achieve your outcome will serve you well. Try these moves to win back your time

  • Adjust your meeting mindset
  • Define your opportunity
  • Be creative in achieving outcomes
  • Decline strategically
  • Role model meeting invite etiquette

To paraphrase the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

I don't usually swing a hammer due to my tendency to injure myself and those around me, but I've always appreciated the expression. When we walk around with a single solution in-hand, we assume every problem requires this very solution. A hammer can do a lot of things. But try to mend a cracked phone or a broken heart with a hammer and your ending won’t be a happy one.

This is how I think of meetings in the workplace. We hold them like a hammer. Have a problem to solve? Need to generate ideas? Have a message to deliver? Need an update on a project? Have data to review? Schedule a meeting.

Without meetings, we wouldn’t have a canon of Dilbert comics to keep us chuckling. And then where would we be?

Now, I’m not saying meetings are bad. Meetings are excellent drivers of collaboration, connection, innovation, and alignment. They offer tremendous value when scheduled for the right reasons, with the right people, for the right amount of time, with the right objectives. Frankly, without meetings, we wouldn’t have a canon of Dilbert comics to keep us chuckling. And then where would we be?

Meetings are also great at robbing you of the free time you need to get work done. So how can you make better decisions about when to attend meetings? And if your gut says to opt out, how can you do that without damaging your reputation?

Adjust your meeting mindset

When a meeting request comes through, chances are you peek at your calendar, and if that slot is available, you click “accept.”

But you have a job to do. There are outcomes and impacts that are yours to deliver. Your time and energy are finite resources. It’s your job to be mindful of how and where they're spent.

Are there certain meetings you’ll just have to attend because your boss expects it or it’s part of your company’s culture? Sure. The goal isn’t to have zero meetings or 100 percent control of your calendar. The goal is to shift your mindset when you consider what your time means and how you allocate it.

Don’t allow someone else’s agenda to shape your day.

Think about your time like you think about your finances. Where will you invest? Where will you save? When you have $5 in your pocket, hopefully, you don’t spend it on the first $5 widget you see. Instead, you should spend it on something useful, something you need, or something you'll enjoy. The same goes for your time. You have an open hour, but that’s yours to invest or save. Don’t allow someone else’s agenda to shape your day.

Define your opportunity

Let's say a meeting request just came up. If you decide to attend this meeting, what’s in it for you? Will it grant you the opportunity to participate in an important conversation? Give you facetime with some senior leaders? Let you show off a great piece of work? Build or nurture important relationships? These (and many others) are valid reasons to say yes.

There is no formula that tells you whether a meeting is worth your time. That choice has to be grounded in both what's important to you and what's expected of you. What do you believe makes a meeting worth your time? Take the reasons I just listed, or make a list of your own, and use them as filters to help you make a great decision before blindly hitting “accept.”

There is no formula that tells you whether a meeting is worth your time. That choice has to be grounded in both what's important to you and what's expected of you.

Are you unsure of a meeting’s purpose or the role you’d play or the benefit you’d receive? Don’t be afraid to ask the host for clarification. Sometimes just reaching out to confirm why you were invited will trigger the host’s realization that you're not essential to this particular meeting's success. Then, they'll make the decision to reclaim your time for you!

As you start to build this practice for yourself, you’ll likely discover you’re not sure about whether to attend a lot of meetings. In the beginning, when in doubt, say yes. But pay attention to those meetings you weren’t sure about. Was your instinct to hesitate correct? I'll bet that, more often than not, it was.

You’ll improve your filtering capability over time. For now, strive to cut out just one to three meetings per month. And don't forget to be intentional with how you use that gift of time.

Be creative in achieving outcomes

Opting out of a meeting doesn’t mean opting out of work or labeling the work unimportant. Often, if we look beyond the hammer, we can find a more effective solution.

If your role in a meeting is simply to provide an updated timeline on a project, is there value in your sitting there for an hour to offer that update? Or could you just send a brief update to the host of the meeting who can report it on your behalf?

Opting out of a meeting doesn’t mean opting out of work or labeling the work unimportant.

Or maybe you’ve looked at the full list of attendees and realize several of your colleagues are already going. Do all of you need to be there? Maybe one of them can represent your team and provide you with an update, and next time you offer to do the same for them.

Note that in these examples, there is no judgment of the work, or even of the meeting. It’s a matter of whether your presence is necessary to add value.

Finding more efficient ways to deliver the same impact shows ingenuity on your part.

Decline strategically

So, what if you’ve decided you don’t need to be at this meeting but you feel uncomfortable saying no?

Here, messaging matters. Remember, declining a meeting is about protecting your time—it’s not a rejection of the work or the host. So be sure your “no, thank you” captures this sentiment.

Declining a meeting is about protecting your time—it’s not a rejection of the work or the host.

Your response to the organizer or to your boss might be something like “I’d love to provide that update live, but I’m managing this critical deadline. Would it be okay to send an update of the project ahead of time? I’m happy to field any questions that arise.”

Or, you could say “Thank you for including me. I noticed that Tom and Jane will both be there and I’m confident they can represent the team. Is it okay if I skip this one and catch an update from one of them? I’m happy to take on key actions that emerge from the meeting.”

A few things to note in these approaches.

  • There is no apology. Because you’re not sorry. You’re demonstrating strategic thinking and prioritization, two critical leadership capabilities.
  • You’re not saying a bad word about the meeting or its organizer. You’re simply suggesting some efficiency.
  • You’re not shedding your accountability. You’re still offering to provide input, field questions, and take on action items that are yours to own.

Role model meeting invite etiquette

And finally, you know what they say—when you point a finger at someone else; three fingers are left pointing at you.

So when you're the one hosting the meeting, model the consideration you’d like offered to you. Which means:

  • Don’t invite everyone who has ever touched this work. Be inclusive but intentional with your invite list.
  • Have a clear objective and focus on those who can contribute input, an update, or a decision in service of that outcome.
  • Offer grace to those who decline. Applaud them for their choice.

Now, will putting these ideas into play suddenly free up 50 percent of your time? It will not. But I want you to celebrate every 15-minute increment you manage to win back. I don’t care if you use it to call a friend, grab a snack, or listen to another episode of this pod.

That time is yours. Use it as you wish. And enjoy every minute of it.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.