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Here’s How to Get out of Meetings With Grace

Updated on June 2, 2022Professionals

I once worked remotely for a company that had a regular content editor meeting every Friday. That meeting was the bane of my working existence. We’d all gather on a conference call line starting at 10 a.m. We’d arrive with good intentions, but inevitably no one had an agenda and we’d walk away (sometimes hours later) without having reached any actionable conclusions. The only thing anyone would act on would be to take a few minutes at the start of next week’s meeting to bemoan the lack of things we accomplished with the previous one.

I was required to be at those meetings, although often I didn’t have anything to contribute other than a few futile requests that we get back on track. Any track. I would find excuses to bail whenever I could. (Oops! My cat is trapped in the dryer vent. Okay, bye-eee!) The number of times I was inexplicably “sick” on Fridays was growing suspicious. I’m ashamed to admit that, because I had a headset I could mute, occasionally I’d fall asleep and wake to find myself softly snoring.

According to Inc., ninety-nine percent of meetings are a complete waste of money. And yet, even though everyone hates them, they’re a staple of corporate culture. Knowing how to get out of non-essential meetings gracefully is a job skill that can save you hours of torment and help you get more done.

Just say no to (unnecessary) meetings

Many of us persevere when it comes to meetings because we don’t want to be that person—the slacker who skips the meetings everyone else dutifully attends. But while yawning your way through every meeting might make you feel super committed to your work, it might also make you less productive.

The key to saying no to meetings lies in figuring out whether the meeting is essential for you and, if it’s not, making it known that there are better ways you could be spending your time. Here’s how to wiggle out without damaging your status as a team player.

1 Take a “fewer meetings” stance.

Unless you’re clear on the reasons for a meeting from the get-go, question its purpose. Adopt the stance that every meeting should have to justify its existence. Although you shouldn’t insult meeting organizers by suggesting their meetings are superfluous, don’t be afraid to voice alternatives like “Is this something we could handle in email or Slack?” Ultimately, you’ll be a hero if you’re able to reduce the number of meetings your team holds.

Here’s a tip: Some offices are jumping on the trend for having a meeting-free day each week. If yours isn’t one of them, consider it an initiative to work toward. Make sure you frame your meeting-free idea as a push for more productivity and not a whiny rant against the tyranny of meetings. The Harvard Business Review has some advice for making it happen.

2 Determine whether your presence at the meeting is essential.

Not all meetings are created equal. Just because you’ve been invited to one doesn’t mean that you’re a key player. And who needs meetings that involve sitting around listening to everyone else talk?

When you get a meeting invite, ask for more details or an agenda. It’s perfectly okay to ask what your role will be. This lets your colleagues know that you value your time and want to spend it wisely.

3 Ask for help establishing your priorities

I’m going to share a little secret with you. In fact, this tactic works so well for getting out of meetings that it should be in every worker’s bag of tricks. Simply ask the meeting holder to help you prioritize. Should you put the meeting first, or the project you’re working on? It looks something like this:

“I’m scheduled for the 10 a.m. content team meeting tomorrow morning. I’m working on finishing the [insert big project here]. Would you rather I prioritize the meeting or the project?”

Odds are good that the meeting holder is going to insist you prioritize the project. And, if he or she doesn’t, then you’ll know the meeting really is one you shouldn’t miss. This simple technique has helped me step out of many a meeting so I could focus on getting work done over listening to people talk about the work I should be getting done. Give it a try!

4 Push for meeting notes.

Many companies have staff meetings for information sharing. For most players, they involve listening and learning about current plans and happenings affecting the team. You may not have a crucial role in the meeting, but that doesn’t mean the information you might glean from it isn’t important.

A simple change in meeting strategy could make staff meetings something people can bow out of when they have higher priority tasks to work on. Bring up the idea of having someone keep meeting notes at each session so that everyone who’s unable to attend will have access to the information that was shared and any action items that were determined. To keep things fair, the note taking task can fall to a different person each session. (Be sure you volunteer to be the note taker, too.)

If notes aren’t a possibility, show your commitment by briefly following-up with the meeting leader so you can get up-to-date.

5 Ask to step out when the meeting no longer pertains to you.

Sometimes, you’ll attend a meeting where only part of the agenda is relevant to you. If you’re particularly busy, it’s okay to request that the team address those pertinent agenda items first so you can bow out when the meeting shifts to topics that aren’t in your purview. Chat with the meeting organizer a few minutes before the meeting to explain that you’re trying to manage your time and prioritize, and you’d be grateful if he or she could tackle your items first.

Here’s a tip: Take a seat by the door. That way it’ll be easier for you to bow out when the meeting is no longer relevant to you. Avert your eyes from the envious gazes of your less meeting-savvy colleagues who didn’t make an escape plan like you did.

There’s no reason to whine or make excuses to get out of meetings. All that’s required if you want to skip the talk and get to the action is to show your team that the company will be better served if you don’t attend. If you want your superiors and teammates to value your time, it’s important to show that you value it, too.

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