Stare at the clock.


Stare at the clock again.

Complain about the weather.

The clock? It's still there. Ticking ever more slowly.

No, none of this was on the agenda.

You'd love to get your work done, but instead you spend half your day locked in a conference room with six people who don't seem to have the sense God gave a billy goat.

Professionals spend an average of 23 hours a week in meetings, according to the Wharton Center for Applied Research. And, according to their survey, workers consider only 58 percent of that time valuable. What's going on the other 42 percent of the time? Go back and check your notes. Your drawing skills are coming along nicely, I'll bet.

It doesn't have to be this way. Here are a few guidelines to help you use meetings to advance your career, not sap your productivity:

* Know what you want. "Know precisely why the meeting is being held and delineate, realistically, what you intend to accomplish," writes Gayle Brickman, a Milwaukee-based communication consultant. "If you cannot answer these two questions, the meeting should not take place."

Kelleen Griffin, an organizational counselor and executive coach in Alexandria, agreed. Years of attending "mindless, endless, no-conclusion meetings" -- some lasting eight hours -- as a tech executive are what prompted her to start a company to help train people to have more concise meetings. Walk into the conference with a clear sense of purpose, or you won't get anything out of it, she said. And you should make that clear to other participants.

* Don't volunteer for too many projects. Of course, we don't always choose our workloads, especially after layoffs. But sometimes, in our eagerness to prove our value to the organization when we start out, we sign up for far too many committees and subcommittees and focus groups and so on. Choose these assignments carefully. It's better to be involved in one or two groups and perform really well than to do shoddy work for six. If you already feel stretched thin, discuss this with your boss. Keeping these sorts of assignments in check can help increase your overall productivity.

* Figure out if a face-to-face is really necessary. Would a group e-mail list suffice? A couple of phone calls? While "face time" is an important part of business, when the meetings are with colleagues you already know well, e-mail would probably be more efficient.

* Pick the right times. If possible, avoid scheduling meetings during your peak productive hours. Look for natural pauses in the workday. If everyone runs to the break room for coffee at 10:30 a.m., that would be an excellent time to have informal staff meetings. Set out a box of Krispy Kremes, and your co-workers might even be happy to be there.

* Be prepared. Read the agenda. Study the marketing plan. Run the numbers on the project you're proposing. If there are documents to be discussed, hand them out the day before. Group reading is for first-graders, not financial analysts.

* Time them. Set aside a certain amount of time each week for meetings, and stick to it. If your co-workers have a habit of dillydallying, tell them upfront that you can only stay for an hour (or whatever time you've decided). Then, when time's up, quietly take your leave. The truth is, most of them want to leave, too. They're just suffering from what organizational counselor Griffin calls the "politeness disease." No one wants to seem rude or aggressive, so everyone just sits there bored, in silence. If you're worried that you might offend people, Griffin suggests softening your comments by prefacing them with "I'm wondering if . . ." As in, "I'm wondering if everyone else would like to take some time to think about this issue on their own." (Translation: "My rear end has gone numb in this chair.")

If you still find yourself stuck in meeting after meeting, take heart. Your organization obviously thinks your physical presence is valuable. Keep in mind that there's more to meetings than making technical decisions, Griffin said. "Politics plays a big part, bureaucracy plays a big part."

Not to mention doodling.

Unprepared for Rudeness?

You wore your best suit. You had 10 copies of your resume on hand. You smiled and said hi to everyone you met. And your interviewer was the rudest person you've ever met. Has this happened you? E-mail me at and tell me how you handled it.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online forum to discuss career issues affecting young workers, tomorrow at 11 a.m. at