How to decline meetings

If you want to make progress on important tasks, you have to master the art of politely declining time-sucking meetings.

The first time you decline a meeting can be a scary moment. You might worry how the organiser will react. Will they be angry? Will they see it as an arrogant move?

Fortunately, declining meetings gets easier with practice. This article describes four common scenarios and provides example text for your response.

1. Weekly status meetings

Status meetings are an inefficient way to share small updates between a large crowd. The cost of these meetings is astronomical - often a dozen man-hours per time. Most attendees sit on mute and browse the Internet.

If you are a peripheral member, I would send a decline message such as:

I’m trying to reclaim some calendar space to get more work completed.

Happy to join on an ad-hoc basis when you need me.

It’s polite and to the point. You’ve explained why you’re declining and left the door open for joining occasional meetings.

If you are a core member, escaping is harder. You could ask the organiser if this is the most efficient way to swap information. Weekly summary emails might be an alternative.

If that fails, you can either decline outright or do a soft decline. An outright decline might look like this:

I’d love to join this status meeting, but I’ve got to prioritise my work on Project X.

Shall I send you a summary of my inputs and you can invite me on an ad-hoc basis if needed?

While a soft decline would involve sending a “tentative” response with text such as:

I’ll join this meeting whenever I can, but please go on without me. I’ll send a summary of anything urgent that needs highlighting.

2. Agenda-less meetings

An agenda helps you decide whether a meeting is worth attending. If you get an invite without an agenda, you can’t make that judgement call.

Declining a meeting because it has no agenda is a bold move. If you’re a big cheese at your work, this might be OK for you. Most normal people need to be more sensitive.

I would usually reply to the invite as follows:

Can you please share an agenda for this meeting?

I’ve got a busy week, so I’m wondering if this is a meeting I need to attend.

It’s polite, yet warns your time is limited. The organiser may rethink whether you need to attend.

If you don’t hear back from the organiser, then declining is completely acceptable.

3: Brainstorming meetings

Brainstorming meetings sound great in principle. You gather a brain trust and mull over a problem.

But this kicks the can down the road. It defers thinking until later, when you can enjoy a fun atmosphere with your colleagues. It’s pleasant to do it together, but it’s not efficient. 

As an alternative, each participant should brainstorm alone. If the meeting goes ahead at all, it should be a short meeting to review the options.

Here’s a possible response to such a meeting invite:

I worry quieter voices get lost in group brainstorming meetings.

How about we create a list of ideas before the meeting and send them around? Then we can review each one in the meeting.

It also means we can have a 20-minute meeting instead of an hour. What do you think?

I guess that doesn’t count as a decline. But we’ve turned an unproductive meeting into a shorter more productive one.

4: Briefing meetings

Some meetings are broadcast-only sessions, such as an “all hands”. These also includes webinars, such as a project overview or a training session about a new partner.

The information in these meetings may be important, so I’m not suggesting you skip them out-of-hand. My favourite approach goes like this:

Unfortunately, I can’t make this time. Is it possible to record the session so I can view it later?

Now you can decide when the most convenient time to watch the content is, if you watch it at all.

Some conference tools allow you to adjust the recording playback. I find 1.5x to be a bearable amount of speedup, which reduces a 30-minute meeting to 20-minutes.

One final trick to make it easier

Declining meetings is straightforward when you realise how little time you have. Take control of your calendar and you’ll discover your highest priorities only get a small percentage of the week.

Can you justify two hours in a needless meeting if your vital project gets eight hours in the whole week?