Meetings are the main way to kill your productivity as a creative professional. Two strategically timed meetings can eliminate your makers hours for an entire day.
Rejecting meeting invites to protect your maker time and stay productive is surprisingly hard. Declining a meeting is perceived as rude.
This article explains how to diplomatically reject meeting invites and prevent unnecessary meetings from showing up in your inbox.
Meetings can be a huge problem, depending on the company. Look at this poor developer that spends 76% of their time in meetings!
Let’s start by examining the human feelings around meetings and why they’re so hard to reject.
There is a professional social norm that you can send a colleague a calendar invitation whenever their calendar is open. Your colleague is expected to accept the invite and only decline if they have a good explanation.
There are two types of meeting senders:
- Some send invites without express approval.
- Others feel like you need to ask a question like “is it OK if I schedule a meeting with you next week” before sending the invite.
The norms around sending work meetings are much different than other human encounters like hanging out with friends for example. You wouldn’t tell a friend “I know you are off of work on Saturday, so we will go to a movie at 7PM”. Most “meetings” outside work require pre-approval. The working meeting norm is a curious exception to the typical dynamics of scheduling someone else’s time.
Traditional “managers” are especially likely to book meetings with direct reports without pre-approval. They think “of course I can schedule meetings with my team” without a second thought. Meeting invite recipients that prefer “meeting pre-approval” don’t like getting random calendar invites.
Creators are often in a position where they feel compelled to accept meetings they don’t want to attend, even when they know the meeting will impact their productivity for the day.
Controlling your calendar is important! Let’s look at some tactics you can use to start saying no to meetings.
Step 1: Explain maker’s hours
Paul Graham has a famous article on Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule where he talks about how meetings are more costly for makers than managers.
Suppose you’re a maker and need 3 hours of uninterrupted work to complete a task. You can’t work on the task for 1.5 hours, stop, and work on it again for 1.5 hours to finish the job. You need 3 hours of uninterrupted time.
If you have a 30 minute meeting at 10:00 and another 30 minute meeting at 3:00, then you don’t have any 3 hour uninterrupted chunk to finish the task. Lots of modern professionals are bombarded with meetings and never have a 3 hour chunk, so this is an example of a task that will always gets kicked down the road.
The type of work that requires 3 hours of focus is usually the most important. Meetings can get in your way from doing the most important work.
Lots of programmers resort to the Paul Graham approach of “I used to program from dinner till about 3 am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me” as a work-around to meetings. This only applies if you’re willing to be a workaholic.
Creative professionals need to explain the concept of maker’s hours to their managers. You should explicitly tell your manager what your maker’s hours are, for example “I am most productive from 9-12 and can’t do any great work when that chunk is interrupted”.
Step 2: Meeting prioritization
Meetings have a strange way of bypassing normal work prioritization processes. It’s ironic how a low priority task will get deprioritized, but a meeting on the low priority task may get scheduled smack in the middle of your core maker hours.
You can fight back by putting meetings in your overall work queue. Suppose you have this queue of work:
- write book chapter
- write blog post
- review pull request
When someone sends you a meeting invite, you can respond by saying, “here is my work queue, where should we fit in the meeting relative to my other priorities.”
If you have a given set of priorities for a time period, you can even take this a step further. “OK, here are my fourth quarter priorities, what should get deprioritized to accommodate for this meeting”.
This may sound extreme, but remember the context. Many creative professionals feel like they can’t get anything done during work hours because there are so many meetings.
Step 3: Categorize meeting type
There are different types of meetings:
- group brainstorming
- status updates
All team members should transparently disclose their preferences for different types of meetings. Here are my preferences:
- I like group brainstorming, but only after a lot of async brainstorming has taken place first. I can’t think through a new problem with a group if I haven’t done my homework first.
- I dislike status update meetings because they encourage discussions on minutia. I like updates on big picture items, challenges, stuff that needs to be fixed. Something is wrong if I’m getting on a call every day to share small details with you.
- 1:1 are good when they’re scheduled on as as-needed basis. For me, a recurring 1:1 is a chore (like any other recurring meeting).
Step 4: Require meeting agenda
Agenda-less meetings are notoriously unproductive. They usually involve a conversation and don’t end with concrete action plan or next steps. They’re the video-call equivalent of chit-chat.
An agenda with action items and concrete next steps makes it more likely the meeting will be productive. It also forces the meeting requester to truly think about if a meeting is necessary rather than just throwing some time on your calendar.
Step 5: Flag endless topics
Organizations often have a few topics that just can’t get solved, no matter how many meetings are held. Different teams keep creating meetings to address the issue, but they just can’t finish the conversation. Endless meetings are frequently brainstorming sessions on forward looking business issues.
You can flag the endless meeting topic by sending the team a message like “we’ve met on topic XYZ multiple times and it seems like we’re having a difficult time creating actionable next steps. Perhaps we could touch base again this issue in a few months or ask the leadership team to provide some top-down guidance?”.
Step 6: Question mandatory meeting attendance
Another meeting “social norm” is mandatory attendance by each member of the team for certain types of meetings.
Some external stakeholders may be added as optional attendees, but all of the core team members are expected to attend.
It’s better to make meetings optional for all attendees.
- Smaller meetings are usually more productive.
- It allows creators to protect their makers hours.
- Provides a feedback mechanism for meeting creators. If lots of participants are rejecting your meeting invites, you may want to change your meeting invite practices (e.g. adding a meeting agenda or seeking pre-approval).
It’s not a big deal if a meeting invite it sent to 7 people and one team member wants to pass because they really want to conserve their maker hours and finish an important chunk of work. Organizations can let go of the artificial notion that everyone needs to attend all team meetings.
Step 7: Start rejecting invites
Everyone on your team will be well aware of your aversion to meetings after you follow the previous steps.
You’re now ready to click the “No” button when you start getting meeting invites that you don’t want to attend.
Simply click “No” and add a small explanation of why I can’t attend the meeting like “I told an external stakeholder that I’d complete task XYZ in the next two weeks and need to focus, sorry!”.
As you might imagine from reading this post, I don’t like giving an explanation of why I don’t want to attend a meeting. If a friend asks you “do you want to go do the club this weekend?”, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to respond “no thank you” without a detailed explanation. It’s unfortunate that work dynamics for you to explain yourself, but like most social norms, it’s just easier to follow societal definitions of “social niceties”.
Industry changes will change meeting sending norms
Meetings can plague an organization and severely limit the effectiveness of creative professionals.
It wouldn’t surprise me that many organizations fail because of their ineffective meeting practices. They have a great, talented team, but don’t let their professionals to deep work and instead force them to constantly discuss minutia. These organizations only leverage a fraction of the creative potential of their people and that’s why they can’t build a truly innovative product that can succeed in the marketplace.
Follow the advice in this post and start rejecting meeting invites at your own peril. This isn’t a sure-fire success plan. It’s possible these tactics will back fire and cause you to get labelled as a problematic employee.
I am at a place in my career where I am willing to take the risk to make a job I enjoy. It’s impossible for me to be happy at work if I have meetings all day and can’t focus. I like thinking, creating, building, and quantifying the value I add organizations with objective metrics. I’d rather get phased out of an organization that doesn’t share my core values than sit in video calls all day that give me a massive “Zoom hangover” and leave me completely unmotivated.