5 tips for saying no to meetings to get your Focus Time back

Dear meeting organizer: you can’t have my Focus Time

5 tips for saying no to meetings to get your Focus Time back
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Your time is valuable, and you’re intentional with how you spend it. You know this, Clockwise knows this. 

Yet no matter how thoughtful you are with your own schedule, it seems like time and time again you get invited to meetings that fall smack in the middle of the only block you have to get in the zone. 

Your Focus Time isn’t free time. But does your calendar know that? Do your colleagues respect that? If your Focus Time is consistently ignored, it defeats the purpose of blocking it in the first place. 

One thing is for certain: if you give away all your Focus Time, people will fill it! 

Five tips for saying no to meetings

Don’t miss #5 for Clockwise’s recent product update that defends your Focus Time for you

1. Delay your no.

Okay this tip might not save you time in the immediate term, but it will help to establish your boundaries and expectations for participating in meetings over time.

It’s impossible to know how to contribute to a meeting if you don’t understand the purpose. Make it a practice to automatically decline a meeting that doesn’t include context or an agenda. If you aren’t sure what role you are supposed to play, ask the organizer to clarify before accepting the invite. 

It’s easy to let the urgent overcome the important. But critically analyzing whether a last minute meeting requires your attendance will not only save you time in the long run, it will also demonstrate the strategic thought you put into considering where your time is spent. 

If it’s unclear or you disagree with your ability to provide the perspective asked of you, address this with the meeting organizer and align on whether or not you are the best person to attend. 

2. Adopt a repeatable one-liner.

Last minute meetings and interruptions will happen. The person doing the interrupting often isn’t aware of whatever you were planning to do with this time, and may not think twice before scheduling over your sacred Focus Time. It’s up to you to vocalize your boundaries and determine how to remove yourself from these distractions. 

If you decide the meeting doesn’t serve your priorities or goals, just say no. 

Rejecting a meeting request on the fly can feel scary or rude, but defending your time doesn’t need to come with an apology. No matter the reason for declining an invitation, be honest and polite. While it may feel impossible, a ‘no’ can still be nice!

Practice and memorize a one-liner that you can default to everytime you find yourself caught in a circumstance you’d rather not prioritize. It’s okay to be direct but non-specific. The more you practice and lean on the same words to convey that you need to focus your attention elsewhere, the more natural it will feel. 

Here are some phrases to consider:

“I’m maxed out on meetings for the week and need to prioritize other work”

“I’ve reached my limit for what I can contribute to this week”

“I’d love to hear what you have to say, but I’m in the middle of something else right now. Can we schedule a time to talk?”

When you’ve already spent too much time for meetings and truly need your Focus Time to deliver a project or meet a deadline, it’s fair to say so. Opening up about your mental capacity to productively contribute demonstrates to the organizer and other attendees that you care about your ability to be present in the meeting. And clarifying that your conflict with a meeting is the timing and not the content will often encourage the organizer to find an alternative. 

If the topic truly is important, it’s now on the meeting organizer to find a time to continue the conversation when all parties can fully listen and engage. If it’s not important, however, what seemed urgent in that moment might not ever find a time on your schedule, saving you that future time. 

Practicing this approach trains your brain to politely reject distractions so that you can stay focused on your priorities. 

3. Provide an explanation to soften the blow.

A reason for why you can’t attend isn’t always necessary, but depending on the audience, you may feel inclined to give one.

If the meeting is cutting into your Focus Time, offering context for why your Focus Time is a priority over the meeting can help other attendees understand how you weigh importance versus urgency. This can also include the time you’ve blocked to regain mental energy – like lunch or a break between back-to-back meetings.

If your participation in the meeting is critical but the time interferes with these priorities, reinforce to the meeting organizer that you want to be present and engaged, and that it will be difficult for you to productively contribute to the conversation at this time. 

Even if the time is “free” on your calendar, sometimes you just can’t bring your whole self to a meeting. Find the courage to stand up for your treasured blocks of focus and educate others on how best to approach your calendar. 

4. Offer an alternative

One advantage of working remotely and asynchronously is that there are myriad ways to contribute to a meeting without being there in real time. 

Implementing an asynchronous workflow can actually improve communication, reduce bottlenecks, and boost productivity. If you can achieve the desired outcome of the meeting async, opt for email or a Loom video. 

If the meeting will still happen without you there, consume any prep materials and prepare your thoughts ahead of the meeting. Ask the organizer to share your perspective during the live discussion, or if the organizer isn’t the best person to play this role, send someone else in your place who can. 

Be sure to also ask the organizer to share a recording and a recap with you. Explicitly request that they capture and share outcomes with you so you aren’t guessing what next steps are expected of you. 

To establish this approach as a cultural practice at your org, offer to represent your colleagues when they can’t attend a meeting. Teamwork makes the dream work!

If neither of these alternatives work, then you might suggest rescheduling the meeting.

5. Let technology do the dirty work for you

Other people can only value your time if they know how you value it yourself. Make sure your calendar is visible, set your working hours and location, and make sure your schedule reflects blocks of time where you are not available - like OOO, lunch, or Focus Time. A little schedule prep work can go a long way. 

That said, there will be times when people flat out ignore your calendar boundaries. Clockwise’s auto-decline feature was made for these moments. When you turn on auto-decline, Clockwise will automatically decline incoming meetings that overlap with your Focus Time or lunch, protecting your schedule to ensure you have the chance to do the things you’ve blocked time for. 

You can customize auto-decline on a per event basis so that it’s only applied to Focus Time blocks and lunch holds that you truly need. If your Tuesdays are always slammed with meetings, for example, that lunch break will be protected for you to mentally reset and regain energy. But maybe your Wednesdays tend to be lighter on meetings – for days like this, leave auto-decline off to allow space for people to book meetings with you.  

No more feeling overwhelmed or overworked. When you customize your calendar with auto-decline, Clockwise will defend your time so you don’t have to. 

Going forward

Saying no to meetings can be uncomfortable and requires dedication, but stick to your guns. You are the only person who can completely defend your Focus Time. As you get into the practice of distributing nos, your colleagues will start to understand that your Focus Time isn’t free time. 

Inspiring this type of cultural change is hard. Really hard. So if you’re passionate about protecting your time, do what you can to help your colleagues protect theirs as well. Sharing time management tips, tools, and resources for how to calendar with intention will not only reinforce your own practices, but also encourage your colleagues to form new habits. 

Plus, when you actually say yes to a meeting, it will carry more weight – showing everyone that you believe it will be time well spent. 

About the author

Matt Martin

Matt Martin is the Co-Founder and CEO of Clockwise, a time orchestration platform that brings much needed flexibility to our schedules. Clockwise learns about the things that matter to us and to our coworkers and makes time for both, using AI to find the right moments to meet while saving focus time for each of us.

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