The economist John Kenneth Galbraith once said that meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.
That's a sentiment many of us are likely to understand. Meetings are widely recognized across different industries as being a major time suck. In 2012 and 2013, employees named "meetings" the top time-waster at work in Wasting Time At Work survey -- above even "the Internet." A 2012 survey from the market research firm Opinion Matters found that employees felt about half the time they spent in meetings was being wasted.
Yet we continue to spend more and more of our time in the conference room. Fifteen percent of an organization's total time is spent in meetings, according to a study by the consulting firm Bain & Co., an amount that has increased steadily since 2008.
So what is our national obsession with meetings? What perverse desire compels us to squander our few waking hours so? Huddling up with co-workers can be useful -- there are certain things that are just better discussed in person than over the phone or email -- but many companies have gone too far, inflating meetings to the point where they're killing our productivity, not growing it.
But don't worry. We can have better meetings. Here's how:
Keep Them Short
You don't always have to schedule half-hour meetings just because Outlook's calendar defaults to 30-minute time chunks. Shorter meetings can be more effective: After all, psychologists say the average adult attention span is only a few minutes. Even when it's something they're interested in, many adults can pay attention for only about 10 minutes, says Sarah Reiff-Hekking, a psychologist who specializes in time management coaching. After that, "people have to be re-engaged, or their minds will start to wander," she says.
Only Schedule A Meeting When You Absolutely Have To
Not only is time important to you in getting your work done, it's also one of a company's most valuable assets. For that reason, experts say meetings should be held only when they're 100 percent necessary.
In the early 2000s, Jason Fried had to go to lots of meetings that seemed to stretch on forever. As the founder of a web design firm, Fried had clients who constantly wanted to talk about how to improve their websites. "I just remember sitting there for an hour plus and realizing, like, there's nothing about this that needs to be an hour. This could have just taken 10 minutes," says Fried, 40, who went on to found a company called Basecamp that makes software to help companies collaborate on projects without having to call people away from their desks.
Businesses don't think enough about how expensive meetings are. What they need to understand, Fried says, is that a one-hour meeting with 10 people should be thought of as a 10-hour meeting, since employers are paying 10 people for an hour of their time. (There are at least half a dozen meeting calculators online to help businesses figure this out, but it's unclear whether companies actually use them.)
So when is it okay to call a face-to-face meeting with a bunch of people? "It comes down to the gravity of the decision, or how many other decisions hinge on that one decision," Fried says. "For certain strategic calls, like about the direction a company will go in, pausing what you're doing to focus on that one thing is valuable."
Make It A Dialogue, Not A Monologue
Meetings that are a two-way conversation are often more successful than meetings where someone simply makes a presentation to a passive audience. According to data from the Internet startup SalesCrunch, based on 10,000 meetings the company hosted on its online meetings platform from 2010 to 2012, engagement was 20 percent higher when guests did most of the talking versus when the presenter did.
Leave Your Devices At Your Desk
We like to take our phones and laptops with us to meetings, usually because we think it lets us be more productive. But often, the exact opposite is true. Even though multitasking is considered a valued skill in today's job market, our brains actually aren't wired to do two things at the same time, says Maggie Jackson, author of the book Distracted: The Erosion Of Attention And The Coming Dark Age.
"When you're fragmenting and chopping up your attention, listening with half an ear, you undermine your ability to think out of the box," Jackson says. "When we can fully be conscious and aware and focused, its extraordinary what happens in the brain."
Don't Be Afraid Of Conflict
One of the main reasons people hate meetings is because they're boring. This is partly on purpose: Companies tend to keep meetings free from conflict so that people feel comfortable expressing their ideas. But our fear of conflict is counterproductive, says Patrick Lencioni, founder of management consulting firm The Table Group and author of the book Death By Meeting. "If there's no inherent conflict at a meeting, there's nothing worth caring about, and people are going to be bored," says Lencioni. "If there's nothing at stake worth having angst about, you need to just cancel the frigging meeting."
Try Standing Up
The trend of standing at work has been the subject of some ridicule lately, but science has suggested that standing while working can not only have health benefits but also increase engagement and collaboration.
For a study published earlier this year, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis measured the physiological arousal of students who were asked to work in groups to make university recruitment videos. Students who did the project while standing were found to be both more engaged and more likely to share ideas with their teammates than students who did the project sitting down.
"When you're standing up, you're expending energy, so your body is activated," said researcher Andrew Knight. "And being activated in a group setting ratchets up the importance of the work and of the group's collective effort on that work."
Much of this may seem obvious -- after all, it isn't exactly rocket science. To have a productive meeting, you have to keep your employees engaged. And the secret to keeping them engaged, experts say, is variety. "If you just keep doing the same process over and over again it becomes boring," says Lenny Lind, founder of Covision, which facilitates meetings and marquee events by using technology to increase audience participation. "Even if it started out being new and interesting and innovative, once you've done it six times it's boring, period."
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