When was the last time you were truly focused at work? In a meeting? When your phone wasn’t buzzing. When you weren’t simultaneously trying to complete some other task, such as driving home, folding laundry or exercising. When you could actually, genuinely think about the task at hand, and give it your full attention. Do you remember?

Most of us can’t because it was so long ago.

New research in the field of work productivity and stories from knowledge workers tells us that our work time and attention is spread too thin. Whether it’s our drive to succeed, concern for losing one’s job, an increase in the number of people working remotely, or the always-on persistence of the internet, workers are less focused than ever, and it’s diluting work quality, increasing their stress levels, and hurting their companies.

Why can’t we focus at work?

In a recent survey of knowledge workers conducted by Meetingful, only 22% of respondents say they had enough time to focus on their work, and just 21% say they can deliver work as fast as they’d like. No problem, you say, just work a longer day! Not so fast. A recent Stanford University study found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week.

So, what’s holding back workers from meeting their work objectives? Answer: meetings!

Death to meetings

As knowledge workers, we are spending significantly more time in meetings than we ever have before. A 1998 MCI Conferencing study found the average knowledge worker was spending six hours per week in meetings. A 2019 survey conducted by Meetingful found that number has grown to an average of nine hours per week, or more, meaning some workers are spending entire days (and then some) in meetings.

We’re also experiencing more “drive-by” meetings (67% of Meetingful survey respondents say these are happening to them at least once per day), and more stress associated with  meetings (57% of Meetingful survey respondents say their meeting workloads correlated to their stress levels). It’s not that workers aren’t aware of the problem. More than two-thirds of workers responding to Meetingful’s survey say that either some or all workers in their company are involved in too many meetings.

In fact, meetings are work’s biggest threat. They are the enemy of productivity. They are the thief in the night, surreptitiously stealing your time, robbing you of your focus!

Meeting the problem head on

So, the more we meet, the less productive we (and our meetings) become—57% of Meetingful’s survey respondents says at least half of their meetings are a waste of time, a 17% increase from the MCI Conferencing study published in 1998.

Part of the problem is we’re bad judges of our meeting management skills. Meetingful’s study asked knowledge workers to compare their meeting leadership skills to others on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being excellent and 1 being poor. Respondents most often rated themselves a 4 and others a 3. We think we’re better at running meetings than we are.

But the bigger problem is we rarely measure the effectiveness of our meetings. Yes, we know when we arrive/begin and leave/stop our workdays, and our calendars give us a rough idea of what we did, but most of us can’t say with any precision whether or not the meetings were a good use of time. In fact, 80% of Meetingful survey respondents say their companies could not estimate the total cost of any group meeting, and 51% say meeting outcomes were lost at least half the time because decisions and action items from meetings weren’t documented or distributed.

The answer is not more meetings

Here are four ways you can meet more efficiently and effectively, and improve engagement:

  1. Block focus time. Don’t be afraid to decline any meeting invite that comes in over your blocked focus time—yes, even though you’re the boss. And allow your team to decline meetings when they’re busy working.
  2. Collaborate on meeting agendas. We all know sending out an agenda is massively beneficial for meeting attendees but take it a step further. Ask meeting attendees to contribute to the agenda and you’ll find everyone is more prepared and engaged, and time spent is considered more valuable.
  3. Start measuring. You can’t improve what you don’t measure. Calendars are amazing tools, but they don’t aggregate the data we need to know where our time is actually going. Start running tallies with your team to know where your time is collectively being spent or use some of the helpful software solutions available.
  4. Solicit feedback. Ask employees how you can improve your next meeting. You’ll get helpful tips, but you’ll also make it acceptable for someone else on your team to ask for feedback. This is how cultures of continuous improvement are built.

It may sound counterintuitive but finding individual focus time is a team effort. We live in a world where we must collaborate (and often meet) on nearly everything. But we need to contribute individual work, too. It naturally follows that we need to prioritize finding focus time, just as we’ve increasingly prioritized meetings in recent years.

Kate O’Neil is co-founder of Meetingful. She can be found online at LinkedIn and on Twitter.

Meeting stock photo by Jacob Lund/Shutterstock