Have you ever spent more time trying to schedule a meeting than was spent on the meeting itself? Are you often interrupted by emails or instant messages from others who are trying to schedule some time for a simple conversation in the next few days?

Author: Daniel Banks, President, TVB Associates Inc. (June 11, 2021). Image: Shutterstock.

Six common time wasters

Minimizing interruptions is essential to the productivity of today’s knowledge workers. Taking just a few steps to cut out these six common time-wasting behaviours when scheduling a meeting will not only benefit you, but will also show consideration for others’ time.

Time Waster #1: Vague meeting request

A message from Sally asks, “Should we meet sometime to discuss Project X? What do you think?”

No reason for a meeting is specified, which shifts the burden of thinking about whether a meeting is needed onto you. If she is serious about the need for a meeting, then she should state why and take initiative to offer some times that work for her.

Time Waster #2: Unclear scheduling question

On Friday afternoon, Li sends this message to the Project team: “We need to discuss the status of Project X because (list of reasons here). Perhaps we should meet sometime next week?”

Although he has provided a desired time range (i.e., next week) and a valid reason for the meeting, he has said nothing about why it needs to happen next week or when he is available within that five-day range, thereby shifting the scheduling burden onto others. Furthermore, it isn’t clear who is responsible to determine whether the team should meet at all, or who should set the meeting time.

Time Waster #3: Non-specific response

Project team member Rita replies to everyone, “Thursday may work for me, depending on the time.”

How should her teammates interpret that reply? She hasn’t shared the critical information: What time on Thursday would work for her? And what times on the other four days could work, if any? Almost certainly someone will have to prod her for more information, wasting more time.

Time Waster #4: Offering only one option

Then Arun asks, “Can we meet on Thursday at 1:00 pm?” Nearly everyone agrees. Then Jill, the last invitee to respond, says she can’t make it at that time. The cycle repeats with, “Can we meet Wednesday at 10:00 am?” That option looks promising based on the first few responses, but ultimately doesn’t work out. So the cycle repeats again and again, causing frustration (and wasted time) for everyone.

Time Waster #5: Time preference seeking

On Tuesday, Anton gets the idea to offer three options that haven’t been tried yet: Thursday at 3:00 pm, Friday at 10:00 am, and Friday at 1:00 pm. Mariam replies to everyone, “Friday at 1:00 pm is best for me.”

Mariam has shared her preference, but not any information about her availability for the other two options, which will surely lead to further messages and more wasted time if Friday at 1:00 pm isn’t the best for everyone else as well.

Time Waster #6: Non-committal meeting invitation

Now it is Wednesday. Arun tries to end the confusion with, “OK. Let’s aim for Monday at 3:00 pm. Thanks.”

Unfortunately, there is no commitment here. The non-committal wording “Let’s aim for Monday at 3:00 pm” means that the door to rescheduling has been left open, and the cycle may start again if someone raises an issue with the indicated time.

Using considerate scheduling protocols to cut out the time wasters

Getting clear schedule information is the key to scheduling a meeting efficiently. Ideally, if everyone maintained an up-to-date calendar that was accessible to everyone else, finding a time would be simple. But this is usually not the case.

There are some free online tools that allow invitees to input their availability and then show the best available time for the group overall. Such tools are particularly helpful when a meeting has a lot of invitees.  

When you are limited to email or instant messages, everyone must be forthcoming about when they are available to meet. The most considerate questions and responses will be clear, specific, and provide all the needed information. Be sure to keep the following considerate protocols in mind.

Considerate Protocol #1: Justify the meeting

The requester of the meeting should justify why the meeting is necessary, so people understand their need to participate and are motivated to respond effectively and efficiently to the request.

Considerate Protocol #2: Proactively offer multiple time ranges over several days

Take the initiative to set a good example by offering multiple options for the meeting, expressed as ranges of time. For example, don’t say “I’m available Friday at 1:00 pm.” Rather, say, “I’m available Thursday after 2:00 pm and Friday between 1:00 and 3:00 pm.”

The greater the number of attendees, the more options you need to offer to avoid multiple rounds of scheduling messages.

Considerate Protocol #3: Proactively offer all times that you are available

To maximize the probability of finding a time quickly, you need to provide all the times that you could be available. Often, the most efficient way to express your availability is by stating the times when you are unavailable. For example, “I’m available any time this week except Thursday from 1:00 to 2:00 pm and Friday from 10:00 am to noon.”

Considerate Protocol #4: Volunteer to take on the scheduling role

Proactively take responsibility to schedule the meeting—especially if youare the one who requested it. Ask people to send their availabilities to you directly, so they don’t spam everyone by using “Reply All.” Otherwise, invitees may be uncertain about who is actually responsible for finalizing the meeting time. Taking over this responsibility will ultimately save you time by avoiding the dithering that may result when no one takes the initiative to set a date and time.

Don’t look at it as extra work. Rather, if there is more than one option that works for everyone, then you get to choose the time!

Considerate Protocol #5: Send meeting requests well in advance

Unless the meeting is with people you are in frequent contact with, offer times a week in advance. The more attendees, the longer the lead time you may need. An additional benefit to this strategy is that people are more likely to agree to meetings that are still a week out.

Never offer times that are such short notice that it would require people to respond during their off-hours. For instance, sending a message at 5:30 pm on a Friday saying “Can we meet first thing Monday morning at 8:00 am?” is not considerate of others’ personal time.

Considerate Protocol #6: Every invitee should give a concrete response that covers all of the times offered

If you are responding to a meeting request, be forthcoming about when you are available to meet. Don’t dither with “maybes” or preferences. Commit to being either available or not. Don’t hold back information about your availability in hopes of getting a time that works better for you. If others play that game too, the meeting will almost certainly be delayed—which in turn reduces the time available to deal with the urgent matter for which the meeting is needed.

If you are responding to the times offered, say something like, “I’m available all of those times except for Friday at 10:00 am to noon,” and only say that if you already have a prior commitment on Friday during that time. 

Set the example, and don’t expect or accept less consideration from others.

Considerate Protocol #7: Only send responses to the person scheduling the meeting

Use of “Reply All” on a scheduling email is often a sign that it isn’t clear who is responsible to schedule the meeting. As a result, the wasted time multiplies with the number of invitees.

Considerate Protocol #8: Allow the scheduler to be scheduler

The scheduler may have access to more calendar information than you, so don’t jump in with your own decision about the meeting time. Acting on incomplete information is likely to confuse others and may start another round of scheduling messages—or worse, seem disrespectful to the scheduler. If you think there is enough information to set the meeting but the scheduler hasn’t acted, inquire to him or her directly.

The bottom line

Clearly justify the reasons for the meeting well in advance. Openly share all the time ranges in which you are available over a multiple-day period. Take responsibility to set the meeting time and date by asking invitees to send their responses to you directly. If you are not the scheduler, send the scheduler a concrete response about your availability for all the times offered.  

By setting a good example, others may soon recognize the value of these simple, considerate behaviours that reduce the time lost to back-and-forth messages about scheduling—especially when that time could be much better spent preparing for the meeting about the urgent issue at hand.