01/07/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2013

How to Break the Habit of Useless Meetings

American organizational culture is one of too many meetings, with actual work time sandwiched in between them.

We know it. In my work with most executives and managers, I hear, "It's ridiculous how much time we spend in meetings." Despite those complaints, they organize and/or attend them with tremendous regularity. It adds up to hundreds of work hours per person per year devoted to wasting time.

Meeting unnecessarily is a kind of addiction -- we do it, but know it's bad for us. How can you get your work done when you spend, on average, 80 percent of your time in meetings?

My work shows day-to-day meetings are effective only when used in one or more of six ways -- specifically, to: 1) brainstorm, 2) pitch an idea or project, 3) debate, 4) coordinate actions, 5) problem solve, and/or 6) decide something of significance.

Instead, through our actions and inaction, we entrench the culture of wasted time in meetings, actively investing in organizational sluggishness.

How to Break the Addiction

You don't have to go to rehab, but it's important to take an active role in recovery. Notice the pattern in your organization about meetings. Does each meeting have a clear purpose or outcome? Is it one of the six, above? Thinking about the last three meetings you attended, why were they set up, and what got done in them?

Next, look through your calendar for the next four weeks and circle any meetings that either don't have a one of the above six purposes or outcomes. How many are there? Is that a good amount?

Now take one example, and eliminate the meeting, or decline it, in a polite and descriptive way. If for example, it's an update meeting, request or share update-related information virtually, and get any questions answered in a similar way (via informal conversations, email, document or intranet sharing, IM, text, etc.)

It may take a while, but if you take responsibility for your part of it, others will follow, and eventually you will replace the meeting habit with more effective patterns of doing substantive things with group time, thereby honoring yourself and your colleagues.