How to win back 5+ hours a week (Meetings à la Musk)


In an email to Tesla employees in 2022, Elon Musk wrote that “excessive meetings are the blight of big companies and almost always get worse over time”. He also shared three brutally-effective tips to reduce time spent in meetings.

What to do

Save yourself (and your team) hours each week by cutting down on meeting size, mandatoriness and frequency.

Why it works

While Musk chose strong words to make his point, research shows his assessment is accurate. Excessive meetings are a massive problem for big companies. And it has been getting worse over time, especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. One study found that in February 2020, professionals spent 14.2 hours in meetings per week. By November 2021, this was up by 50% to 21.5 hours per week. The number of meetings has grown even more starkly, from 15.1 to 25.6. That’s a 70% increase.

If you think this trend has reversed since the pandemic waned, think again. A study from Microsoft found that in 2023, people spent 192% more time in Microsoft Teams meetings and calls each week than in 2020 — an almost threefold increase. According to Colette Stallbaumer, Microsoft’s general manager for Microsoft 365 and the “future of work”, the problem isn’t meetings per se. Instead, it’s “when meetings are long, poorly run, and don’t have a clear purpose that they become a source of stress for employees and their managers”.

Unsurprisingly, research by Microsoft found that inefficient meetings – and too many of them – are the two biggest workplace distractions that hurt productivity in 2023. This brings us back to Elon Musk and his tips for cutting down on meeting size, mandatoriness and frequency. Here’s how to pull that off.

How to do it

First, avoid large meetings. According to Musk, they waste valuable energy and time. To start with, do the maths. If eight people attend a 1-hour meeting, say, this amounts to an entire workday of lost time. Large meetings also discourage debate, people are more guarded, and there’s not enough time for everyone to contribute. That’s why Musk recommends getting “off all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short”.

Second, reduce meeting mandatoriness. Specifically, don’t require participants to stay in meetings when they’re not adding value. Musk told his employees to walk out of a meeting – or drop off a call – as soon as it is obvious it doesn’t require their input, value or decisions. As he wrote in his email to Tesla employees, “it is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time”.

Third, get rid of frequent meetings. Unless you’re dealing with an extremely urgent matter, there’s no better way to waste everyone’s time, Musk says. He recommends using meetings to collaborate efficiently and solve urgent problems head-on. Once the issue is resolved, frequent meetings are no longer necessary. Most issues are better resolved without a meeting. Use email, group chat (e.g., Slack or Microsoft Teams) or a Kanban system (e.g., Trello or Asana) instead.

Let me be clear: I’m not a fan of doing things à la Musk in all walks of life: 90-120 hour workweeks, indiscriminate social media use, and sleeping in the office never worked for me. Yet, cutting down on meeting size, mandatoriness and frequency à la Musk makes a huge difference.

As I’ve learned from working with hundreds of executives, entrepreneurs and CEOs over the last years, you’ll win back at least 5 hours a week. If you’re a member of this group, take a moment to think about this along with three questions:

  1. What could you do with five additional hours a week? 
  2. What could each of your team members do with five additional hours a week? 
  3. What would five additional hours a week amount to across your entire company?