Three meetings back to back this morning, then two this afternoon, a two-hour teleconference and a one-hour NetMeeting. Oh yes, I've been there, and when it's bad, it gets worse. You're scheduling meetings to schedule meetings, and scheduling meetings with peers and subordinates to find out what happened at meetings you didn't go to.

You can't find your boss or any of your employees because they're all in meetings. More voicemails, more emails, more time spent responding. And every conference room on site is booked tighter than a Denver airport hotel in a blizzard.

Yuck.

Welcome to "meeting mode." Survey estimates suggest that corporate workers spend a third of their time in meetings, and half of that time is totally unproductive. Further, meetings interrupt work flow so that, for many, what's left is a half hour here and an hour there where little else can be accomplished.

So the expensive workplace toll probably adds up to half a worker's available productive time. Do we need to run the numbers on that one?

The challenge, of course, is to keep workers productive but also in the loop. Many managers go overboard with meetings to "improve" communication and teamwork, but in fact do the opposite -- nobody's ever available.

Click here for the video version of this story from Jennifer Openshaw.

Here are my six ways to get more out of meetings -- and regular work, too:

Bring something real to talk about. Or make sure others do. If you don't have a tangible issue, object or set of alternatives to center the meeting on, you aren't ready to meet. Tell others in advance what that centerpiece is, and what the desired outcome is.

Make sure others are prepared to talk about it. Give participants 15 minutes of homework to do beforehand. Good meetings take work from everyone involved. Those that aren't willing to work shouldn't attend.

Aim for every meeting to deliver at least one decision or solution. Otherwise, you'll end up having the same meeting all over again.

Structure the flow. Just as every article or book has a good opener, body and close, every meeting should have a clear fact share, consultation and decision.

Avoid prime time. Meetings scheduled at 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. kill mornings or afternoons respectively. Restrict meetings to first thing in the morning or last thing in the afternoon (and make sure to supply the appropriate refreshments)

Keep 'em short. I suggest 15 minutes to a half-hour, no more. Anything longer reflects a vague agenda or poor preparation. We tend toward using one-hour chunks "just in case" and because they book easy on Outlook. Also, try standing meetings. If nobody sits down or gets comfortable everyone is more likely to stay on topic.

These suggestions aren't just for organization or project managers calling the meetings. They're for everyone, including subordinates and associates called into the meeting. All workers should have the power to question the purpose, format and timing of a meeting.

Don't be afraid to blow the whistle or simply withdraw from the meeting if not set up properly. Having a more productive workplace is everyone's responsibility.
Jennifer Openshaw, a passionate advocate for helping Americans improve their finances and build their personal fortunes, is CEO of The Millionaire Zone and America Online's personal finance editor. In addition to appearing regularly on TV shows such as "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" and on CNN, Openshaw is host of ABC Radio's "Winning Advice" and serves as an adviser to some of America's top corporations. Her new book, "The Millionaire Zone," will hit bookstores in April 2007.