A Guide to Fewer Meetings

I moved into a leadership role in a fast growing company about the same time the pandemic started. As an introverted individual contributor who had little use for meetings, to say that I got Zoom fatigue is a gross understatement. By the third meeting of the day, my heart rate would spike and remain high till the day ended. Something had to change and it was not going to be the meetings I had to attend. Incrementally, with a fair amount of thought, I was able to adapt to the disruptive changes in a meaningful way. Here’s what I learned during two years of course correction as I learned to work differently and adapt to the new normal.

Classifying Meetings

There are three types of meetings in my experience. The boundaries between them are fuzzy, but there are three indicative features in this classification: number of participants, number of tasks involved and number of teams involved.

Participants Tasks involved Teams involved Examples
2 1 1
  • Pair programming/ debugging/ troubleshooting
  • Interviews
  • Onboarding new team members
3 to 6 (one pizza) 2 to 6 within a team 1 to 2 across teams 1-2
  • System or product design 
  • Team rituals- standup, sprint planning etc
  • Interfaces between teams
6 or more (two pizza) 6 or more within a team 3 or more across teams 2 or more
  • Joint projects across teams 
  • Incidents
  • Architecture or product strategy

The table has a strong assumption (small sized team) and weak assumption (product oriented software company). My hunch is that the learnings can apply to other types of teams and companies by tweaking the numbers. 

The Data

I took all the meetings I attended since 2018, excluding those where I’m a passive participant (eg. company all-hands). I split the meetings across three classes based on attendance. Then I calculate the total hours per meeting type per week, take a rolling monthly average to smooth it out and produce the following graph:

  1. The red line spike in 2018 is when I joined a newly formed fraud team. Those meetings were about transitioning various fraud detection services over to us and deciding on the new team’s charter.
  2. Early 2020 was when I started doing tech lead things: where the green line starts trending upwards. Earlier the green meetings were mostly team rituals, now they included meetings with other teams and projects other than the ones I was writing code for.
  3. By mid 2020 I had fully transitioned into my role as tech lead: I was interviewing for many teams, onboarding and mentoring (blue line) in addition to the green meetings. I was also in more of the red meetings- incident response and multi-team projects.
  4. Late 2020 is also when things started getting overwhelming. I was officially promoted and that came with more meeting invites. The increased load of red meetings came at the expense of missing green meetings.
  5. By mid 2021 I actively started managing my meeting time. What’s clearly seen is the first step I took: saying no to interviews for other teams (blue). These 1 hour slots had a far bigger disruption than their duration suggested. They fragmented my calendar and greatly reduced focus time. 
  6. Meeting time has increased in late 2021, but this is partly because of better calendar hygiene- I ensure all meetings I have, even 2 person meetings, are on my calendar. 

Interestingly, late 2021 is the best I’ve managed my meetings, despite having more meetings than ever. This unexpected result is thanks to an equally counter-intuitive understanding of meetings.

Don’t Try to Reduce Meetings

So I lied a little in the title. To reduce meetings, your goal should NOT be to reduce meetings. It is too imprecise a goal. 

You may end up with more confusion (nobody knows what’s happening). Or you have to keep changing your no-meetings rules due to a creative arms race between people who want meetings and people who don’t want them.

The goal of reducing meetings assumes that there are meetings happening with no good reason. This is usually untrue.

Nobody wants pointless meetings

To reduce meetings, we must first understand why they happen and what their value is. Meetings are actually an easy way of transferring knowledge. If you’re eliminating meetings, you need better ways to transfer knowledge. The more meetings you eliminate, the better your methods need to be. 

Methods that work for a team of 10 people fail spectacularly for an org of 100 people. Meetings give you some slack. Use them to better your processes.

How to get started on bettering your processes? I have found there are plenty of things in my control- better meetings does not always have to be a company-wide effort.

Tactics for Better Meetings

Blasé suggestions like “this could have been an email” are counterproductive. There are emails and there are emails followed by a dozen replies, Slack conversations and finally a meeting- how does one tell them apart? 

Better meetings need a more precise approach. The tactics I’ve found to work are reorganization, structure and specific strategies given a meeting type.

Defragmentation for Individuals

The following schedules have the same amount of time spent in meetings, but the second day obviously has way more focus time than the first.

Block off contiguous chunks of 2-4 hours for focused work. Clockwise is an incredible tool for automating this and more.

Schedule meetings near each other, so meetings also happen in contiguous blocks.

For meetings whose schedule you don’t control, but can estimate time required (eg. being in interview panels), double your estimate to get the real impact of having a fragmented calendar. 

Defragmentation for Teams

Skeuomorphism is emulating a real object so the virtual thing looks & feels like the real thing.

iOS7 famously moved away from skeuomorphism (Source: Reddit)

Don’t do skeuomorph meetings. Virtual meetings have advantages over in-person meetings. Use them!

Virtual interviews don’t have to be in five hour blocks like on-site interviews. Split them over two to three days. If the candidate gets too many negative reviews, cancel pending interviews. A staggered interview schedule can defragment team schedules.

Have explicitly no-video meetings. People prefer no-video meetings for lots of reasons. For some it takes away the stress of having faces on a screen staring at them, for others it affords the option of sitting comfortably in bad lighting. No-video for routine meetings like standup means people can take them, say, before they have showered and de-stress their mornings.

Record meetings so people who are just listening can listen at 2x speed at their convenience.

Add Structure

The structure is a way to optimize recurring meetings. For example, we created a rule in our daily standups that updates should be short and the standup should be 10 minutes long. Longer discussions are tabled for the “11th minute”. This means everyone doesn't have to wait for runaway discussions to finish just so they can give their update. People can drop out of the meeting at the 11th minute if they want to.

Non-recurring meetings should have agendas and pre-reads. They force the meeting owner to think about what needs to happen in the meeting and how long that will take.

More One Pizza Meetings

Meetings of 3-6 people are usually productive because everyone contributes. If the meeting is a waste of time, people will speak up. Larger meetings have two disincentives against people speaking up: (1) people assume the meeting is necessary because of the number of people invited and (2) it’s easier to skip the meeting than speak up. Unfortunately, one-pizza meetings are the first to get cut if there are too many meetings!

Don’t ask me how, but if you have more productive meetings, your overall time spent in meetings magically goes down. As one pizza meetings are productive, maybe we need more of them! Rotating the speakers and leads of meetings can also help others feel involved and gives the team the flexibility to self-organize and create a beneficial meeting in the place of what felt like a chore. 

Optimize Two-Person Meetings

Two person meetings are usually productive, but there may be subtle issues. I noticed some meetings were getting too repetitive: I was explaining some basic things to new hires & mentees in one-on-one meetings. At many points, I felt the listener would have loved to have a “rewind” option to the meeting.

So I recorded videos of me explaining our systems. It was viewed by way more people than I could have ever reached one-on-one. To my surprise, the recordings even found their way to other teams.

Are you doing low value two-person meetings? Consider automating them and creating better documentation.

Do Less to Do More

With a single initiative, progress looks like this:

With two projects, progress tends to look like this:

Someone common to both projects has too many meetings on their plate. Or there are too many common people between the projects. Or the project needs input from multiple teams. You can structure your organization so these delays are minimal, but they are hard to eliminate.

Every big initiative is perhaps 2-4 two-pizza meetings. A two pizza meeting triggers a couple of one pizza meetings, which in turn spawn a few two-person meetings. Actual work gets blocked on the outcome of these meetings. 

Think again if you’re planning to do 4 big initiatives. Is there enough space in your calendar? Are you assuming there won’t be incidents to handle or interviews to take?

Incidents can quickly become unplanned initiatives. If tech debt is like taking a loan, incidents reduce your credit score. Prioritize incident prevention accordingly. More incidents means more initiatives, more initiatives dramatically slow down your feature velocity.


After writing this post, I felt everything in it is so obvious…and it is! Yet I rarely see a team practicing all of these tactics consistently. I also constantly hear how there are too many meetings, across companies big and small. Rarely do I see anyone thinking about why meetings are happening before deciding a way to “fix” it with some blanket measure. 

It doesn’t work! Instead, defragment to increase your focus time, really understand why your meetings happen and eliminate the root cause of the meetings you don’t want.