Only Attend Effective Meetings – Eight Strategies

Developers and managers alike often spend too much time in meetings of questionable value.  Do you?

My first idea was to write an article on how to run effective meetings – and I probably will.  However, it’s meetings booked by others that people complain about most.  

Is this just people complaining about others, without looking in the mirror?

Not entirely.  Meetings are at two or more people. Therefore the majority of time spent in meetings is from the invited participants. When you’re invited to a meeting you often feel an obligation to attend, even if you don’t expect it to be the best use of your time. But the more low-value time you spend, the less high-value work you can get done. Over time this is bad for your career and your company.

What can you do about it?

Here are eight strategies that I’ve found effective for reclaiming time. I’ve grouped them into two parts: determining if a meeting is effective and reducing meetings in ones that aren’t.

Part 1: Is the meeting effective?

The first step is to figure out which meetings are effective for you to attend and which ones are not. Effective meetings are ones where you:

  1. Learn something actionable
  2. Share or report on something actionable
  3. Participate in making one or more decisions

If you will spend most of the meeting on one or more of the above, it’s likely to be effective. Otherwise, it isn’t*.

* Of course there are other reasons to go to meetings.  For example, building trust and interpersonal relationships. However, it’s rare that a software developer or software lead should spend a large amount of time in meetings where this is the primary purpose.  This advice applies to most of my audience most of the time.. You need to decide when you are in an unusual role or situation and act accordingly.

Notice that all three of the activities above involve actually getting stuff done. Decision-making is obviously a valuable outcome.  When it comes to learning or reporting, actionable is the key word: how will the information contribute to an action in the foreseeable future?

Will the information you learn inform decisions you have to make tomorrow, next week, or next month?  Will information you share help others make decisions?  If not, there’s probably something better you could be doing with your time.  Learning is a fine thing. I personally love to learn for its own sake. However, learning for its own sake is usually not an effective use of your work day.

If you are unsure how a meeting will go, the easiest way to find out is to ask.

Ask for the goals

When you aren’t sure of the purpose of a meeting, ask the organizer what the goals are.

The traditional version of this is asking the organizer for an agenda.  However an agenda is often just a list of topics, and at least one of them will vaguely affect you. Asking for goals can be even more effective. Goals are outcomes: information communicated or decisions made. 

This helps you evaluate whether you should go to the meeting. It also helps the meeting organizer: by putting the goals into words she is likely to be able to achieve better results in the meeting.

Here are a few templates you can use in reply to a meeting invitation:

  • Could you let me know what the goals are so I can prepare?
  • I’m pretty busy on ____. What were you hoping to decide in this meeting?
  • What’s the goal of this meeting?

Suggest goals

Another option is to add value to the meeting by suggesting goals. 

This is particularly effective for standing meetings with people you want to talk to. By contributing to the meeting agenda you make the meeting more effective, and avoid having to book another one yourself.

Here are a few templates you can use:

  • I’d like to make the final decision on _____. Could you add that to the agenda?
  • I’d like to learn ___ in our next ___ meeting. Can __ cover that?
  • I’d like to get your review/approval on ____ in our next ____ meeting. Can we fit that in?

Part 2: Get out of ineffective meetings

Ok, you’ve decided that a meeting isn’t going to be very effective for you and there’s nothing you want to add to it. What do you do now?

Quite a few articles suggest declining the meeting and call it a day. We all know it’s not always that easy.  Here are a few strategies for different situations.


This is the most straightforward approach. Declining is the best approach when there’s really nothing you expect to contribute to the meeting. It is the approach that gets the most pushback, but when worded politely it’s not as bad as most people expect.

Here are a few templates you can use to decline politely:

  • Thanks for the invitation but it doesn’t sound like you need me there.
  • I’m really busy on ___. Could you forward me the notes?
  • In meetings where you’re tagged “FYI” or “Optional” it’s also acceptable to decline the invitation using your calendar system with no further explanation. This is much more professional than ignoring the invitation.

Propose a shorter time slot

This is a great option for recurring meetings that have value, but aren’t particularly effective for you because they are too long. Suggest reducing the duration of the meeting or series of meetings.  Equivalently, you might suggest making the meeting less frequent.

If it’s a large meeting, you might also propose reducing how long you spend in the meeting.  Move the topic you’re most interested in to the first half of the meeting, and then leave early.  

Here are a few templates you can use:

  • I really appreciate our ___ meeting, but I think we could get it done in 20 minutes. Can we try shortening it? If we can’t cover everything I’d be happy to book a follow-up when we need it.
  • I feel like we get a little off topic after the first ___ of our ___ meeting.  Could we try shortening it?
  • Could I give my report first in our __ meeting and drop off the call? I know it’s important for you to get the other updates, but they don’t have much impact on my group.


There are some meetings that cannot be avoided. However, if they are part of a series, then postponing them can reduce how much time they consume each week.

I don’t recommend this technique in most cases. Since you’ve delayed work, rather than eliminate it, this will not improve your productivity. However it’s still likely to have a negative impact on the project or relationship involved.  Delay is often a lose-lose option.

That said, delaying meetings can help if you’re really in a crunch.  It can also be effective if combined with the other techniques, for example by delaying specific topics that are not actionable. If you are able to complete all the actions associated with a project, it may become obvious that the remaining meetings aren’t needed.

Push harder

The items above aren’t always enough.  Sometimes the meeting organizer is sure nothing could be more important than having you listen to a 90 minute update from the committee revising the TPS reports.

In these cases you need to pick your battles.  If the meeting is short, one-on-one, or with your boss, you should probably just go. Otherwise, I advise pushing a bit harder. Stay honest and professional, but be more assertive about your need to reclaim some time.

Here are a few templates you can use:

  • Hey ___, I’m really busy this week. Unless you absolutely need me at the ___ I’m going to skip it, ok?
  • Hey ___, I really need some heads-down time to get ___ done.  Could we discuss ___ first at the ___ meeting so I can drop off early?
  • Could we shorten the ___ meeting to ___ this week. I think that’s enough to get through the critical topics and I really need a bit of time to focus on ____.

Or even more directly:

  • Sorry, I can’t make it.
  • I won’t be able to attend, could you please send me the notes?

Recurring Meetings

Notice that in addition to explicitly placing value on your own time, the strategies above focus on primarily on the next meeting.  Recurring meetings can drain even more time. However, it’s easier to secure a one-time exception than to change the recurring schedule. 

Once you’ve established the exception, you may be able to leverage this into a permanent time savings. Modify a few meetings in a row and soon you’ll establish a new pattern.

Here are a few templates you can use:

  • I feel like we covered everything in ___ last week, can we do that again?
  • You wrote a great summary of last week’s meeting. Could you send it to me again this week?

Put it into action

Starting tomorrow, you can

  1. Identify one upcoming meeting that also has no clear goals. Ask for them.
  2. Identify one recurring meeting that isn’t effective for you. Apply one of the techniques above to reduce how much time you will spend in the meeting this week.

Over the next month, you can

  1. Systematically trim back any meetings that aren’t effective
  2. Add up the number of hours you saved – what did you get done with that extra time?


Use the comments section below to share your successes, and let me know what you think. Do you have some great ideas I didn’t mention above? 

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