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How to Avoid Meeting Invite Overload

Naval Ravikant of AngelList once said, “Unnecessary meetings (and most are) are a mutually-assured destruction of time. Learning how to avoid them is a prerequisite of doing anything great”. 

Slack, Zoom, DocuSign, and Dropbox all exist to reduce the number of meetings that exist in your workplace today. If you’re using any of these tools, you’ve already taken a forward step towards removing interruptions that disrupt your daily workflow. That’s great – they solve the issue by reducing the number of meetings needed. We increase efficiency and effectiveness for those that still remain.

A movement exists in several industries, particularly Silicon Valley, to ban meetings altogether. A summarized version of a different Naval quote implies that meetings should really be phone calls, phone calls should be emails, and emails should just be texts. We disagree. Meetings are important, but there is certainly a law of diminishing returns.

The question becomes – how do you strike a balance? Nobody has the prescient ability to know which meetings will be productive before they actually occur. So how do you say ‘yes’ to meetings while simultaneously avoiding meeting invitation overload? 

The answer lies in a single word – NO. However, saying no is easier said than done (especially true when the recipient of this word is a manager who pays your salary). To help you say no, these are the most effective methods to ascertain which meetings are worth your time and which can be avoided with a little pushback:

  • Ask for an agenda
  • Reduce the meeting duration on calendar invites
  • Create blocks of unavailability on a public calendar
  • Hold office hours 
  • Leave after you finish speaking
  • Add price tags to your meetings

For managers, meetings are the most practical way to go about business. For workers (developers, especially), meaningful work is not accomplished in clean-cut, short intervals, but rather in large chunks of the day. Mid-day interruptions for meetings threaten these productive chunks of time and thus, should be avoided.

Co-workers who run too many meetings do not intend to waste your time. In fact, everyone has roped their colleagues into a semi-worthless meeting at some point in time. The predicament is that these meetings all feel like great ideas at the time. After a double espresso, it’s easy to believe your Tuesday meeting will lead to the creation of society’s next Facebook. But it won’t. 

Ask for an Agenda

If you find yourself frequently staring at the clock during your weekly Tuesday meeting, ask for an agenda ahead of time. Request a narrow list of items to be discussed and refer to the itinerary any time the group gets too off-track. Agendas will help your team notice that meetings don’t require the usual hour-long slot on your calendar.  

Reduce the Meeting Duration

Unproductive meetings are a perfect example of defaulting to the norm. A shining instance of this exists in Google Calendar. When you send a calendar invite, the de facto duration dropdown asks you to pre-determine meetings times in 30-minute intervals. This causes teams to default – they automatically time meetings to fit a least common multiple of half an hour.

If you want to regain control of your schedule, simply volunteer to be the one who sends out next week’s Google Calendar invite. You don’t need to select the given 30-minute intervals. If you click on the time, you can enter any numbers you please. Set the meeting length to 5 or 10 minutes, instead. Team members must offer justification when a meeting should last longer.

Create Blocks of Unavailability on a Public Calendar

The previous paragraphs offer examples to shorten the length of your meetings, but how does one avoid meeting invites in the first place? This begins with the personal acknowledgment that it’s okay to be selfish with your time. After all, your calendar should only reflect what you need to accomplish during the week. 

Simply carve out huge blocks of unavailability on your public calendar during days where you wish to avoid meetings. Respectful co-workers will often glance at your calendar before suggesting a meeting time. When colleagues ask you for a viable date/time, refer them to your calendar. If your schedule looks full, many will actually avoid scheduling a meeting that could otherwise be an email.

Others are more blunt about their desire to avoid meetings. I even know employees who place out of office auto-responders on their email accounts – when they are clearly in the office. It’s shameless (yet somewhat respectable). Of course, this approach might be less advised if your company has an open office plan.

Hold Office Hours

Employees (and certainly managers) need to ensure accessibility. Paul Graham of Y Combinator recommends offsetting large chunks of solo-work with office hours. Create a reoccurring bi-weekly ritual where your doors are always open. It meets at the crossroads of balancing friendly availability with hermitlike deep-work.

If your employees or colleagues know that you are always free to speak on Tuesday afternoon, they are less likely to schedule a half-hearted Monday meeting. We recommend scheduling these blocks of time during the beginning of the workday or the end of the day. If scheduled mid-day, meetings can disrupt workflow. Instead of experiencing disruptors, wouldn’t you rather spend your time building one? 

Leave After you Finish Speaking

Communication is important, but that isn’t always a two-way street. For some on a team, it’s important to communicate your message. However, it’s not necessarily crucial for you to hear the rundown of your team’s work. In these situations, just tell people you want to speak first then leave. It may seem anxiety-producing at first, but it’s really that simple. Nobody will bat an eye as long as your intention is to get back to work.

Add Price Tags to your Meetings

All the previously mentioned methods focus on minimizing meeting overload for oneself. If you wish to extend these benefits to the rest of your team, ask the attendees to associate price tags with meeting length. Use the inferred hourly rate of each participant, then add up the total. If the benefit of the meeting doesn’t outweigh the combined hourly rate of each employee, question the meeting or its efficiency. Every single meeting doesn’t need to generate a positive ROI, but seeing the total amount adds a sense of importance and urgency.

Management seldom realizes the huge toll this can take during an all-hands meeting. Given the number of people who attend such a meeting, this true cost adds up fast. Companies that interrupt the workday with these events hemorrhage cash every 15 minutes and often have no idea. Sometimes it only takes a total dollar amount for others to realize what else could be produced in this time. 

After all, that’s what saying ‘no’ boils down to – productivity. 

We believe there must be a certain number of meetings. Those who advocate for zero meetings are the same as colleagues who push for 5 meetings a week. They are simply different flowers from the same garden. Neither flower has likely experienced a legitimately productive meeting.

Our company creates software for the everyday employee who believes their meeting time could be spent in a more fruitful fashion (and their immediate supervisors – people who will soon understand the financial impact of these wishes).

Mike Duff