September 2, 2015 1:10 PM EDT

We’ve all been there. Five o’clock nears and we ask ourselves: what did I actually get done today? We feel busy, but not productive.

It happens because we’re targets of weapons of mass distraction. We subject ourselves to meetings that run long or shouldn’t happen in the first place. In this edition of Every Vowel’s top 3, we’ll discuss:

  • Why Americans spend nine hours a week planning (let alone attending) meetings
  • How a simple email can make your meetings more efficient
  • How to schedule your calendar so you don’t get distracted

1. And So We Meet, Again: Why The Workday Is So Filled With Meetings

Author: Yuki Noguchi

TL;DR: Nine hours. It’s not how long I spend listening to Ariana Grande songs each week (OK, maybe it is).

It’s how long American workers spend preparing for and attending meetings every week, according to this survey. That’s a 14% increase from four years ago. Why do meetings last so long? And why are there so many in the first place?

The answer is Parkinson’s Law: the notion that a task will take as long as the time you allotted for it. The biggest culprit is a silent assassin. It’s not just you or your boss. It’s your Google and Outlook calendar invites. Think about it: your meetings default to 30-minute intervals. Why stick to that? Try a 15-minute meeting next time and see what happens.

University of North Carolina Professor Steven Rogelberg says, “Give the group half as much time … and they finish in half as much time! And the quality of the meeting is just as good.”

But how about meetings that shouldn’t be cut in half, but cut entirely?

They persist because there’s little self-awareness among people who run meetings. The vast majority self-report that they’re running meetings well (“But of course! All these people doodling and tweeting must mean I’m running a splendid meeting!”) but most participants disagree. Yet nobody is willing to tell them. So down the rabbit hole we go.

2. 4 Steps to Fast, Effective Meetings

Author: Christine Comaford

TL;DR: If we can’t tell someone they run terrible meetings, then let’s at least run better ones ourselves.

In her 30 years, Christine has realized that all great meetings involve two things:

  • Requests: Joe asks something specific from Jill: “Can you get me a report of our top 50 advertisers in the USA from the past 5 years in a spreadsheet by 4pm this Friday?”
  • Promises (or “Action Items”): Jill agrees that she’s the best person to complete this request: “No problem, Joe. I’ll get you the report by 4pm on Friday.”

Most important, and most forgotten, is sending out a recap email. This is your contract. As the meeting leader, you should list participants by their respective promises and delivery dates. And don’t forget to include yourself! That way, you have an email thread to hold everyone accountable. Here’s an example:

3. This Thing Will Fix Your Insane Calendar Problem

Author: Shane Snow

TL;DR: Are you a calendar slave? That’s someone who, upon being asked for a meeting, books the first open slot they see.

Most of us are. We’re reactive to scheduling requests instead of being proactive. It causes us to have awkward 30-minute gaps, lose focus, and finish the day saying, “what did I actually get done?” Shane shows how to change that: divide your weekdays into “core” and “explore” days.

  • Core: make Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday your execution days. Only take meetings that help shorten your to-do list.
  • Explore: make Thursday and Friday for exploratory work: take business development meetings, coffee chats, or read articles about your industry.

The beauty of this system is structured serendipity. You have your days to get work done. But you keep the door open for inspiration, which will help you grow even faster.

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This article originally appeared on Every Vowel

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