How to say no to work meetings

27 tactful scripts you can steal to protect your time without burning bridges

By Becky Kane

How to say no to work meetings
Artwork by Margarida Mouta

Saying no to meetings is hard.

It's fraught with FOMO — what if I miss something important? — and power dynamics — will they think I'm saying my time is more valuable than theirs?. You run the risk of being seen as rude or entitled or "not a team player."

But the sheer volume of meetings we're attending simply. isn't. sustainable. A Microsoft study from earlier this year found that we're spending 253% more time in meetings now than before the pandemic. As a result, many of us have started to compensate by working a “second shift” in the evening starting around 9pm because it’s the only time we won’t be interrupted.

A recent study conducted by Microsoft found that people now spend 253% more time in meetings today than they did before the pandemic.

Learning how to push back tactfully is the first step in moving a team culture toward fewer, better meetings and more time for focused work during the hours you work best. And hey, your coworkers may be wanting fewer meetings too.

In that spirit, I asked newsletter members to share their go-to lines for saying no to meetings. I compiled your best scripts — and several more from around the internet — into one resource you can come back to and simply copy and paste the next time someone suggests a live brainstorming session (they actually make your team less creative) or asks to "hop on a quick call".

Enjoy!

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Have rules for when you will and won't schedule meetings:

10 to 2 is my [writing/coding/deep work/focus] time. Could we schedule a meeting outside those hours?
As a freelancer, the pressure to keep leads pipeline full is always on. But still I started scheduling meetings only in afternoons or early mornings, when I don't do deep work. I ask the prospects directly - 10 to 2 is my writing time, can we please schedule a meeting outside those hours? And most of them agree. The rest I abandon. Slowly, I have been able to come to a position where I have most of the meetings on Mondays and Fridays. And it's surprising that since implementing this discipline, my income has increased rather than go down.

Shweta

I try to batch my meetings on Mondays and Fridays to make room for focused work in the middle of the week. Do you have any availability on those days instead?
I set my days/times when I will take meetings - certain times of day and days of the week. It's the only way to protect my work time and energy. The mental drain of a meeting can throw off the rest of my day and I lose deep work time, so I know that to deliver the best work for my clients, I also have to have this boundary with them.

Kristin

Ask for an agenda (a sneaky way to say no without saying no):

Happy to help on that! Could you send over an agenda first and let me know which part you need my input on?
Often, I ask for the meeting's agenda, or for what part of the meeting I'm expected to contribute. It's a way of starting the conversation by e-mail, ahead of the intended meeting. In a majority of cases, I'm able to address the question I was intended to contribute to, learn that I'm not truly needed on the call, and/or that the call itself is probably not necessary.

Kaia Seaver

Thanks for including me! Could you give a quick summary of what you want to accomplish and send over the relevant info so everyone can come prepared?
Definite plus one for asking for agendas/pre-reads/contribution info - anything that forces them to think critically about whether it absolutely needs to be a meeting!

Brooke Parrott, Head of Community @ Sofar Sounds

Offer help outside of the meeting:

Thanks for sending that meeting invite. Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend because of prior scheduling—but please keep me updated with action items I may be able to help with. You can feel free to send those notes over after the meeting, though I won’t be available right away.

via Office Ninjas

Emphasize the benefits of an async-first approach:

Inclusion:

In the spirit of reducing meetings, is this something where we could try “default to async” and start to brainstorm in a [Google doc]? That would also help us broaden the pool of team members that could participate.
Going from an async-first, 30-ish person company to a 1,100+ person company, this issue has been front and centre for the Postmark team. So we've had to be especially sensitive and smart about pushing back on meeting requests with people in the org who have it ingrained that any initiative starts with a brainstorming call.

Chris Bowler, Senior product marketer for Postmark

Quality:

What do you think about starting out this discussion async so everyone has time to think it through and add their thoughts?

Focus:

In the spirit of freeing up some focused work time, do you mind if we start this discussion async in [Twist]? We can always set up a time to meet later if needed :)

– Becky Kane, Editorial lead @ Doist

Documentation:

Thanks for including me! I’m wondering if we could try to solve this using a [GitLab issue or a merge request] so our thoughts and progress are documented?

Darren Murph, Head of Remote @ GitLab

Turning down internal calls:

I’ve been in so many meetings lately, but I’m trying to be more disciplined about my schedule. Could we try to solve this without a meeting, first?

via Dropbox 
I’d be happy to give you feedback on that! Before we schedule a meeting, could I review it in a shared doc?

via Dropbox
Thanks for including me! I’m wondering if we could try to solve this over [email/a Twist thread/a shared doc/etc] instead?

via Dropbox
Unfortunately, I'm tied up right now. Do you mind if we keep this async?
Between toddler and time zones it will easier to keep this async.

Claire Emerson, Writer & Marketing Consultant @ ZipMessage

Redirect "quick calls" to documentation:

There's actually documentation for that here: [link to Google Doc, Twist thread, etc]. Let me know if anything's unclear!
You aren't the only one with that question! I drafted up a quick "how to" with a Loom recording showing how it's done so other people can find it in the future too: [link to documentation]

Let me know if you have any questions!

Turning down external calls:

It's tricky to find a time that works for everyone on our side. If you don't mind, let's keep this async for now so I can keep more teammates in the loop.
Thanks for reaching out!

As much as I’d love to network over some caffeine, my schedule’s currently packed a little too tightly for me to make room for these types of casual chats.

If you had some specific questions you were hoping to pick my brain about, feel free to pass those along via email and I’ll do my best to answer them when I have some downtime.

Hopefully we can connect another time!

Kat Boogaard via The Muse
Scheduling is tricky for me right now but if you can reply with your questions here, I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!
Thanks so much for reaching out.

My schedule has been crazy lately, and these days, email is usually more convenient for me instead of a call. Would you mind if we kept the discussion here?

— Pat Walls, Founder of starterstory.com

via How to Say No
"I'm maxed out right now - can we keep this over [email/messenger/Twist/etc] for now?"

Arman Anaturk
I'd love to hop on a call, but unfortunately I'm a bit overextended and don't want to drop the ball on any of my current commitments. I hope you understand!
I'm doing my best to cut back on meetings right now, but I'm happy to keep dicussing over email.
I have somehow found myself in the regrettable position of being "busy" — a situation I am taking great pains to ameliorate posthaste lest it do lasting damage to my reputation.

Please accept my sincerest regrets that I will not be able to meet with you at this time. However, if you are so inclined as to continue this discussion asynchronously, consider me at your service.

Keep the door open for a meeting later if needed:

We're super busy at [Remote] right now, so I prefer to do this async. Happy to set up a meeting if we feel the need after exchanging a few messages.

Job van der Voort, Founder & CEO @ Remote

Set expectations for when you'll get back to them:  

I'm trying my best to stay heads down on work right now. Can we keep this discussion async and I'll get back to you [later today/later this week/next week]?

Remember, you don't have to give a reason:

Unfortunately, I won't be able to make it to the meeting, but let me know if there's anything I can help with via [email/Twist/etc].
"I often get wrapped around the axle trying to supply the 'why' of my denial to a meeting request. Instead, I simply provide the bottom line and negotiate a new time if appropriate with the requestor.

Lesley Kordella

Saying “no” should be normalised, and if we’re talking about declining meetings from people I barely know, I don’t even have to explain anything.

Ilya Ilford, Maker Stations


Bottom line: It isn't rude or entitled to say push back on a meeting — it's rude and entitled to waste people's time with a meeting that could be done asynchronously, when it's most convenient for both sides.

Let's normalize pushing back against runaway meeting culture, one tactful "no" at a time.


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