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Say “no” to unimportant meetings

If you can protect your time, keep yourself from being dragged into unimportant meetings that keep you from maximal productivity.

5 min read


Say "no" to unimportant meetings

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In previous productivity steps, we planned our work (Step 1) put systems into place to keep our people informed and in sync (Step 2) and rolled up our sleeves to get work done (Step 3) Now, we turn our attention to Step 4, sustaining for maximal productivity.

So often, we get excited about a new process but lack the tools, commitment and/or mindset to see it to completion and long-term integration. This is particularly true when there are multiple elements to it and a number of people involved.

Just because we decided to become more productive and took initial action toward that end does not guarantee long-term success or maximal productivity. (John Kotter once estimated that 70% of change initiatives he saw were failures. See more about managing healthy change here.)

The goal of this fourth step is to empower you to keep going in the face of expected setbacks and maintain the requisite level of well-being required for succeeding over the long haul.

To sustain our productivity gains, we need to become more protective of our time. And perhaps the biggest time suck that we experience, from executives all the way through the organization, are meetings.

Research suggests that many executives feel overwhelmed by meetings. This is because, on average, they spend nearly 23 hours a week in them! Compounding matters is that these meetings are often ill-timed, poorly run, or both (no wonder people consider about 50% of meetings to be a complete waste of time). That same data from Atlassian reports 91% of people daydreaming in meetings and 73% admitting that they use meeting time to do other work.

We all get sucked into meetings that we don’t want to attend or conversations that offer little upside. To be productive and energized over time, we need to be able to learn to say “no” to as many unimportant meetings as possible. This will obviously require tact.

You’ll also need to consider:

  1. Your time is your most precious asset. It must be guarded carefully
  2. If you allow yourself to be pulled into unimportant meetings, you will lose critical time needed to advance important tasks
  3. People who think that you are available all the time will start to devalue you (if they haven’t already)

Here are some tactics to help you decide if you should decline a meeting.

  1. Block out your calendar. Prevent people from commandeering your calendar by blocking out time to do your most important work and marking yourself as unavailable.
  2. Ask for an agenda. It’s fair and reasonable to ask to see what the meeting will focus on before committing to attending. At the least, doing so will likely ensure that the meeting has a clearer purpose and is more efficiently run than it otherwise would have been.
  3. Suggest alternatives. Sometimes, a memo, quick call or one-on-one discussion can take the place of a formal meeting.
  4. Be visible and contribute early on. If you do have to attend a meeting but want to be able to exit quickly, make sure that your presence is felt early on. Make a strategic comment or contribution that will remind people that you were present in body and mind. It’s also wise to inform the organizer in advance that you may leave early due to a conflict or other commitment.

The need to protect your most valuable resources — time and energy — sits at the core of a time management framework called The 4 D’s of time management. In this framework, each “D” refers to a different reaction to a possible project, depending on its importance, urgency and other considerations. You might recognize the 4 D’s as part of the Eisenhower Matrix, which is based on how urgent and important each task is.

  1. Do it. These tasks that are both urgent and important, such as a time-sensitive customer request or a looming deadline. This also includes knocking out two-minute tasks, those tasks that can be done quickly without railroading other work.
  2. Defer (or plan) it. We should defer (as in properly plan for) tasks that are important but not urgent. These things need to get done but can delayed until a later time and perhaps date. A meeting with a sales associate, for example, may be able to wait until the upcoming team meeting that’s already been scheduled (with the 1:1 occurring beforehand.) This is also where your strategic and visionary pieces fit.
  3. Delegate it. This is for a task that is somewhat time-sensitive (urgent) but can and should be handled by someone else. An example would be delegating the process of identifying, ordering and installing collaboration software. You are ultimately responsible to get this done, but you have chosen to delegate the primary research and legwork to an associate.
  4. Delete (or eliminate) it. Something that is neither urgent nor important, such as some of the email in your inbox, should be immediately deleted and given no time or attention.

In subsequent posts, we will continue to focus on ways to sustain our productivity gains so that we continue to achieve maximal productivity well into the future.


Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is an executive coach who helps leaders and their teams become more productive. Download his productivity blueprint and take his productivity assessmentReach out to him to learn more about his high-powered mastermind groups that help leaders power up, problem solve, and get more done.

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