How to Remove Meetings from Your Calendar Like a Boss (Even if You’re Not)

Cancel ineffective meetings and politely decline invites to clean up your calendar and make more time for yourself.

The Meetingnotes Team
May 12, 2021

Perhaps you’ve seen it in your colleagues—the superpower to pack each meeting with meaning and action. 

As superpowers go, it’s not quite as fast as a speeding bullet, nor as powerful as a locomotive. But it does make you feel like you’ve leapt tall buildings in a single bound. 

It’s the preternatural ability to conquer the tide of meetings that should’ve been emails. 

And while this power might look effortless and spontaneous, we can assure you that it’s not. It’s born from research-based best practices anyone can follow, which we’ll explain in this post. 

As a bonus, we also created a quiz that you and your colleagues can use to double-check whether that meeting you’re about to schedule really needs to happen. 

Feel free to skip down the page and take the quiz. Otherwise, let’s dive in.

Should this be a meeting?

Based on our experience, the research of authors Dr. Steven Rogelberg and Dr. Liane Davey, and the practices of leading companies, there are two main ways to get wasteful meetings off your calendar. 

The first way is proactive. It avoids meeting invites in the first place. And its success depends on your ability as a leader or teammate to teach yourself and your colleagues when and how to schedule a meeting. 

The second way is reactive. It cancels or otherwise prevents proposed meetings. All while navigating the tough realities of egos, workplace politics, and proper manners. 

The proactive approach

Avoiding potentially wasteful meetings

One of Dr. Rogelberg’s findings, which he explained in an interview, is that: “Much of meeting activity is just habits.” 

Because of this it’s easy to go on autopilot when scheduling meetings. But what results is excessively frequent, needlessly long meetings. So, before you call for a meeting, think about:

  1. Whether the topic or issue needs to be addressed in a live meeting. 
  2. Who needs to be invited to the meeting and what they’d be expected to contribute.

For example, is there a specific decision that needs to be made? Does it require input from others? If the answer’s yes to both questions, a meeting makes sense. 

As basic as this might sound, the inertia of your team’s habits is a sneaky thing. It doesn’t just let go because you want it to. You have to stop and account for the necessity of your potential meeting until it becomes your new habit. 

Limiting the duration of meetings

In an essay for The Economist, British author and naval historian Cyril Parkison wrote “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” 

This opening line came to be known as Parkinson’s Law, which Dr. Rogelberg built upon in his book, The Surprising Science of Meetings. According to Rogelberg, leaders should “think about how much time is truly needed in the meeting.” Once the leader has made the meeting for how long she thinks the agenda should take he recommends cutting that amount by five to 10 minutes. 

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
—Cyril Parkison, Author & Historian

This, he explained, puts a little bit of pressure on meeting attendees which enables them to “focus better and perform more optimally.”

Another way to limit your meeting time is to avoid topics that are informational only. Instead, if there’s information people need, summarize it in an email or message. If need be, you can set aside five minutes to discuss questions or comments. 

But don’t dedicate valuable meeting time to reviewing information that could be read before or after the meeting.


The reactive approach

Canceling existing meetings

Nothing erodes your reputation like canceling meetings too frequently or without the proper tact. But let’s face it: you’re going to need to cancel or postpone a meeting every once in a while.

According to Stanford’s researchers, here’s how to do it the right way:

  1. Notify meeting attendees at least 24 hours in advance of the meeting.
  2. Provide a reason—not to all attendees—but to your supervisors or key team members attending the meeting.
  3. Be respectful in how you communicate your intent to cancel and reason for doing so. In-person is best but email can work. Avoid texts or Slack messages.

Declining meeting invites

To avoid needing to cancel meetings, you can decline them in a productive way. Here’s a synopsis of the steps author Dr. Liane Davey suggests following to cancel meetings in a polite way:

Assess the value of the meeting

Ask yourself if the meeting is about something important and timely and if it’s set up for success. If not, ask open-ended questions before declining or accepting. For example: 

  • Could you please provide some additional information about the agenda?
  • What stage of decision-making are we at on this topic?
  • How should I prepare for the discussion?

Determine if you’re the right person to attend

If you know the meeting is valuable, then you need to determine if you’re the right person to attend. Make sure the meeting topics are within the scope of your role and that you have the expertise and authority to contribute to the conversation. 

If you’re not sure you’re the right person to invite, ask the meeting organizer questions like:

  • What are you looking for me to contribute at this meeting?
  • Who else will be there from my department?
  • Who will I be representing?

Decide if the meeting is a priority for you

Think about whether the meeting is a priority relative to your other work demands. Or if someone else could make a more useful contribution to the meeting. If the meeting’s not a priority for you or someone else should go in your place, the meeting should be a pass.

In fact, if the meeting fails to meet any of the three criteria listed above, it’s appropriate to decline. But you have to do so carefully. 

Dr. Davey recommends different approaches, depending on your reason for declining. While there are more examples in her article, you can use the chart below as a quick reference.

Take the “Should this be a meeting?” quiz

As you can probably see by now, or perhaps already knew, weighing whether a meeting should happen requires careful thought. After all, with one unnecessary, hour-long meeting of just four or five people, you could be wasting thousands of dollars in company time. 

To simplify your decision, we created a quiz that boils it all down to a few questions. 

Use it yourself and share it with your colleagues so you can all get in the habit of scheduling only the most pertinent meetings.

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