Of course you'd like your knowledge workers to be more efficient and productive. But even though you worry that employees might be wasting time, you don't know how to help them concentrate on the work that matters--work that they find fulfilling and that contributes to your organization's success.

What can you do? Protect the asset "that's both most vulnerable and most precious: employees' time and attention," suggest Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founders of the project management software firm Basecamp and authors of It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work.

The problem, write Fried and Hansson, is that "Companies spend their employees' time and attention as if there were an infinite supply of both. As if they cost nothing. Yet employees' time and attention are among the scarcest resources we have."

How serious is this problem? Bill Heitman, managing director at The Lab Consulting, estimates that wasteful activities performed by knowledge workers consume 30% to 40% of organizational capacity.

Heitman recommends that you "map the workflows and analyze the time spent" to determine processes that can be improved. 

But even if that's not possible, there's a simple strategy you can use to increase your team's productivity: reducing the amount of time people spend in meetings. As Fried and Hansson write: Fewer meetings save "dozens of hours a week and afford people larger blocks of uninterrupted time. Get rid of those meetings and people suddenly have a good stretch of time to immerse themselves in their work."

Here are three ways to reduce meeting time:

1. Eliminate status meetings. "We don't have status meetings at Basecamp. We all know these meetings--one person talks for a bit and shares some plans, then the next person does the same thing. They're a waste of time. Why? While it seems efficient to get everyone together at the same time, it isn't. It's costly, too. Eight people in a room for an hour doesn't cost one hour, it costs eight hours. Instead, we ask people to write updates daily or weekly on Basecamp for others to read when they have a free moment."

2. Make meetings shorter. Where is it written that all meetings have to last an hour? I've discovered that 60 minutes is actually the least productive time span. In most cases, you don't need that much time (so activities expand to fill the hour). That's why I recommend using the 10-30-50-90 rule for meeting length:

  • 10 minutes is for quick check ins or to answer a question.
  • 30 minutes for status updates, one-on-one touch-base conversations or to discuss a single issue. 
  • 50 minutes when there are several issues to discuss or if the topic is more complex. 
  • 90 minutes for brainstorming, strategy discussions and other problem-solving sessions. 

3. Spend seven minutes of every meeting creating focus. At the start of each meeting, take two minutes to ask this question: "What is the one thing we need this meeting to accomplish?" and allow participants to provide answers. Then five minutes before the meeting ends, discuss next steps, deciding who is responsible for doing what and what is the deadline for each activity. And decide whether you need another meeting to proceed or if you can keep in touch another way.

By consciously limiting meetings (and making them more meaningful), you protect that valuable asset: team members' time.