It is the easiest thing in the world to be busy, in the thick of thin things, to major in the minors. But believing that busy-ness is the same as productivity is folly. You can be busy, certainly; but you can still be far from productive.

Attending loads of meetings can keep you very busy. Ideally, that level of "busyness" and having "meetings all day" would mean that projects are moving forward, that you are being highly productive, and that you are accomplishing mountains of work. Unfortunately, though, that manner of being busy often doesn't translate to actually getting work done.

So how can you tell whether you are putting far too much time, energy, and focus into relatively inconsequential things? Here is the one telltale symptom of this problem, the unmistakable sign: constant activity combined with a distinct absence of forward progress.

According to Thomas Edison, one of history's most productive inventors, "Being busy does not always mean real work." Instead, he says, "The object of all work is production or accomplishment.... Seeming to do is not doing."

Whether you're trying to invent the light bulb or roll out a campaign, productivity is about achieving strategic goals, not about how busy you are.

According to Shirley Lee Training and Development, unfocused meetings are the biggest workplace time waster and the primary reason for unproductive workdays. Managers say at least 30% of time spent in meetings was a waste of time, a survey of 2,000 managers reported in Industry Week found.

The bottom line is this: Meetings can waste irreplaceable time.

To be more productive, here are some invaluable tips to keep the length as well as number of meetings to a minimum.

  • Ask for a meeting agenda beforehand, and decline the invitation to the meeting if there is no agenda. A meeting without an agenda will most likely be a colossal waste of that precious commodity: time. Without an agenda, no one has a firm grasp of what it is the meeting is intended to accomplish. If there is no defined purpose, there is no way to progress toward a goal. Simply avoid such meetings by declining the invitation to attend.
  • Be willing to decline a meeting invitation. Learning to say "no" is one of the most difficult skills in productivity; however, it is also one of the most necessary. Decipher what is "thin" and decline getting caught up in the thickness of it. Until you learn to say no, you cannot be productive. It's as simple as that.
  • Create "no-meeting Fridays." Block out every Friday to allow time to get important work done. The idea here is to protect an entire day for productivity. Allow Fridays to be a day for getting the major things done. Whether your focus is on projects, reports, creative work, even one-on-one mentoring, enjoy the peace of mind of knowing that you have a day devoted to important tasks that are worth your time.

    Principal Financial Group, for example, declared a companywide "no meeting Fridays" policy. The 14,000 employees found it helped them empty their inboxes just before the weekend. The policy "makes it easier for people to head into the weekend with less on their minds," Benefits Manager Polly Heinen says, adding that the policy doesn't result in more meetings Monday through Thursday. It has "helped us to think through what is really necessary for a meeting," she says. A heightened ability to discern what is thick and what is thin might just be an added benefit of "no-meeting" Fridays.
  • Find a creative work management solution that increases visibility and eliminates the need for extra meetings. It can be tempting to schedule a meeting to review the details of a project, for example, but a good work management solution can effectively document those details and track them in a centralized place, providing visibility to all stakeholders. Specifically, if there is a large amount of information in disparate forms, such as Word documents, spreadsheets, images, and PowerPoint presentations, all team members can agree to document everything in a centralized place to provide universal visibility—a solution that quickly eliminates the need for extra meetings.
  • Start and end meetings on time—no exceptions. Such discipline is all about establishing a culture. If those in attendance discover that their 4:00 PM standing meeting doesn't ever start until 4:15 PM, that's when they will begin showing up. Similarly, setting an end time for a meeting can help to keep the discussion on point instead of allowing unnecessary tangents. Respect the time of those in attendance by starting and ending meetings on time.

If your goal is to be productive—to move forward and not just to be busy—first look at your meetings. Make sure your meetings have an agenda, make sure they are only called if necessary, make sure they start and end on time, and be sure to reserve non-meeting time in the week. Doing so is one way to ensure forward progress in your business without all the busy-ness.

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Scheduling Success: Why Your Meetings Are Interfering With Productivity

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image of Bryan Nielson

Bryan Nielson is the CMO and work management evangelist at AtTask, maker of cloud-based enterprise work management solutions. He is the author of the e-book The Five Most Dangerous Marketing Productivity Myths: BUSTED!

LinkedIn: Bryan Nielson

Twitter: @AtTask