Bullish: How to Get Out of Meetings, Permanently

Drive-By Meeting Attendance

In almost every job, there are certain activities — such as actually selling something or otherwise making money directly — that are considered sacrosanct. No one would reschedule them so you could participate in a team-building ropes course. So, try to schedule one of these activities exactly one hour after every meeting (or, if possible, instead of the meeting).

Drive-by meeting attendance is often the best of both worlds, and you can often avoid irking people by actually submitting something useful to the meeting, hence contributing your fair share in a currency other than meeting time — for instance, “I can’t stay today, but here’s my research; I’ll go with whatever you guys decide.” Half an hour doing research to drop off to a meeting builds your reputation for expertise far more than does an hour of sitting obediently in place.

Another important part of extricating yourself from stupid meetings is to decline to be a part of decisionmaking on topics on which you are not an expert (unless you can use the call for your opinion as a way to show support for your boss or an ally). Meetings sometimes have the unsalubrious effect of forcing people to have opinions about things they don’t really care about and have no expertise in. For instance, do not ask me what color to make the fucking logo. My opinion is truly irrelevant. If you want me to research what color we should make the logo, then I’ll look into what colors people most associate with our industry, with happy feelings, with spending money, whatever, but either ask me for my educated judgment and then take the advice, or leave me the hell alone and ask someone who does know what they’re talking about.

I’m not suggesting that you hoard your time by professing ignorance in all things. I am suggesting that you can actually enhance your credibility, and even make allies, by tossing decisions in other people’s area of expertise back to them. Saying “I’m not an expert in that topic” implies that you are an expert in some other topic, the one that actually is your career. I say “I don’t know” all the freaking time. If I say “I don’t know” to five questions about differential calculus, medical school admissions, the Korean educational system, what the weather will be like this weekend, and how to use Quark, then when I do answer a question about the GRE, I think more people might listen.

Also, every time you say, “Kayla is really the expert in that — I’m behind whatever she decides” means that Kayla is pretty likely to later toss a decision you actually care about back to you.

Commandeering Your Public Calendar

If you work at a job with one of those awful public calendars where other people can schedule your time, take charge of that situation. A colleague of mine was approached in the hall by a coworker who said, “Hey, I noticed that you’re really busy, but you had this empty spot between noon and 1, so I scheduled you into our meeting.” She said, “Um, that’s my lunch.” Since then, she’s had to actually schedule her own lunches into her calendar so no one steals them. So, fine, do that if you must. Let’s take that a step further.

When people schedule your time in the public calendar, try emailing them with “I am really slammed this week and need to do X by close of business on Friday. Can we just arrange this over email or with a phone call? How about now?” Suggesting that your participation be moved up (to “now”) rather than postponed eliminates the idea that you are shirking, and can have the effect of intimidating people into realizing that your time is important.

Next, use your public calendar to schedule uninterrupted work sessions — start with two hours a day, like 10-12 or 1-3 (pick a stretch that has few meetings in it, so as to minimize objections). Make sure you get a lot done — if possible, email your supervisor something important that you did during that time. If no one objects to your scheduled blocks of work, then increase those scheduled work sessions (for instance, 1-5pm on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday?)

Telecommute, Go Freelance, Effect Your Own Professional Manumission

Many of the suggestions above are dependent on the idea that, in your job, you have important work to do that needs to get done by a certain time. If things are a bit mushier, I think you might actually benefit by requesting deadlines. “When do you need this by?” What boss would ever deny you a deadline? Once you have a deadline, you have a solid reason to abjure meetings or other distractions that would prevent you from meeting that deadline.

Having deadlines also makes it much easier to extricate yourself from the 9-to-5 working world. I’ve written many times about arranging telecommuting. Once you arrange even a partial work-at-home situation, this gives you license to emphasize that your time is zero-sum — “Would you rather I spend three hours commuting to and attending this meeting or stay home and finish [important project]?” You can even point out that you will be available by phone or Skype at that time, should anything in the meeting specifically require your input.

Time is zero-sum, of course. While meetings are often a waste of time, commuting is usually an even bigger waste of time. Anytime your work products are clearly valuable and you have firm deadlines to meet is a fine time to negotiate a complete absence from the office. I’m writing this column from Quito, Ecuador, where, strangely, I get a lot more done boiling my drinking water and hanging my clothes on a clothesline than I do in New York, where my groceries, new clothes, office supplies, and cases of beer are delivered to my door. I’ll miss four meetings while I’m here; I’ll return having (I hope) written a book.

This week, I had the pleasure of visiting the zoo in Guayllabamba, where I watched monkeys hit, groom, lick, wrestle with, and steal fruit from each other. We’re monkeys. We’re social creatures, who will happily waste hours, days, or our entire lives in petty squabbles or trying to get rubbed in exchange for rubbing others. Somehow evolution has allowed us to partially rise above this behavior — if we can extricate ourselves from endlessly repetitive gatherings of yapping in little rooms.

You know what you can’t put on your resume? “Attended 200 hours of meetings in 2011.” You know what you can put on your resume? Nearly anything else that you can get done instead of attending those meetings.

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    • Thaler

      I had to deal with this issue running a theatre company in college. Every Monday, we had meetings with all the shows that were happening in the next four weeks–they were supposed to be 25-15 minute meetings each, depending on how close you were to opening, and it was to get the basic info the company needed: set plans, budgets, curtain times, et cetera. We would give basic information in response to these: here’s who approves that, you can’t buy this but you can buy that, etc. When I was just a staff member, however, these meetings DRAGGED ON. Any question a show had, we’d talk about in depth. We’d give people advice on specific technical things, give answers that were already in their information packet, etc. Meanwhile the following show would be waiting for 20 minutes, and the next one 40 minutes, and designers would have to leave and the later meetings wouldn’t even be productive because we wouldn’t have everyone. I had to put my foot down: we’d cover only what was on the agenda, stick religiously to the time limits, and other questions would be dealt with at another time, with the show’s Technical Advisors rather than the whole group. I actually got resistance at first, from the old guard, but in the end everyone was reasonable and happy with the change.

      I should add that this was before I was running the place–everyone was allowed to put in their opinions, and my efforts to improve how we ran things were basically WHY I ended up running it. So with some groups, taking a stand on this can really build people’s respect for you.