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Why it’s OK to say no to meetings

As Elon Musk advises workers to exit sessions or drop off calls that aren’t serving them, what are the dos and don’ts of opting out?

Remote Worker Having an Online Meeting
Online Meeting

Article originally appeared on Regus.

Whether you’re being invited to a Zoom, a Teams call, a Webex or a face-to-face meeting, we all know the heart-sinking feeling that accompanies the summons as it lands in your inbox.

A company’s ‘meetings culture’ can have a significant impact on the job satisfaction and stress levels of the people who work for it – and we all know that a meeting-free day is a productive day. So when our diaries are full, our to-do lists are long and we feel like we’re running on empty, why do we keep saying “Yes”?

The answer lies somewhere between people-pleasing and our deeper desire to succeed. Many of us simply find saying “Sure” or “No problem” easier than saying “No”. We’re aware it’s what others want to hear, and that a certain amount of meetings is par for the course in almost any job.

In addition, we’re fearful of being seen as unhelpful, arrogant or uninterested at work, so saying no, especially when a senior leader has called a meeting, might feel scary. What’s difficult later, though, is delivering the work you’ve put on the back burner in order to attend.

Musk’s meeting mantras

According to entrepreneur and Tesla founder Elon Musk, minimising time spent in meetings is key. His eccentric approach to business is inextricably linked to his success – so maybe it’s worth noting that, in his view, we should think nothing of leaving a room or hanging up on a conference call if a session isn’t serving us.

Musk’s views on meetings were outlined in an email sent to Tesla employees back in 2018, but they recently resurfaced on social media. Arguably, they’re more relevant than ever after months of remote work and seemingly endless FaceTiming.

“Excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time,” Musk is said to have advised his staff. “Please get [out] of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case, keep them very short.” Anyone who’s ever attended a mass Zoom call can no doubt see his point.

“Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with a very urgent matter,” suggests Musk – and it’s hard to argue with his logic. Just because a meeting is scheduled to recur every week, that doesn’t mean it’s always necessary.

Finally, Musk says, “Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

It’s a brilliant and shockingly simple idea – but how can you make it work for you in practice?

Saying no (nicely)

First up, it’s important to delay your reaction to meeting requests, particularly those you aren’t sure about. You don’t have to offer an immediate response, and it’s well worth considering what you can bring to a session before committing your time.

Begin by asking yourself the following questions before you RSVP, and you might find you’re inclined to click ‘decline’ more often.

  • Am I needed at this meeting? Will my absence have consequences?

  • Is someone else from my team attending? Could just one of us go, and brief the other?

  • Will the minutes of the meeting be made available afterwards? Would reading these constitute sufficient involvement from me?

  • What else could I use this time for?

This cuts both ways, too. If you’re the person setting up a meeting, ask whether everyone on your list of invitees really needs to be there, and ensure there’s a clear agenda and time limit.

Saying no to a meeting request doesn’t have to feel confrontational – you can be gracious in your refusal, offering to help with a project in another way or tactfully suggesting that it might make sense to involve you at a later stage.

Time blocking tasks in your calendar is another way to help make sure you don’t ‘double book’ yourself by saying yes to meetings when there are other tasks you need to attend to. This can be particularly effective in organisations where colleagues have access to one another’s diaries. It shows you’re focused on actually getting your job done.

Meanwhile, the hub-and-spoke model of working now being adopted by many businesses can be helpful when it comes to keeping control of your calendar. Time at your company HQ can be used effectively for face-to-face discussion and collaboration, while time away can be earmarked for other, more individual work.

The key is to remember that, as economist Tim Harford puts it, “Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.” Gently reminding your teammates of this can be a powerful way to explain the decision to duck out of a meeting. When going along to a discussion you don’t really need to be part of means you risk missing a deadline, it’s well worth making the point.

The power of no

James Clear, author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits, specialises in sharing self-improvement strategies. He believes that saying no is “the ultimate productivity hack” – and that it’s vital to keep doing it if you want to achieve success. “Saying no is an important skill to develop at any stage of your career,” Clear argues, “because it retains the most important asset in life: your time.”

On this note, it’s important to remember that yes and no aren’t polar opposites. In fact, they’re dependent on one another. Steve Jobs famously said: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

In other words, saying no more frequently will allow you to say yes when it really matters – even to a meeting.


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