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Here's a common scenario: After a long day at work, you come home and realize you didn't get anything done. By the end of the week, the list of tasks on your to-do list has grown and you can't explain where the hours went. A quick glance at your calendar shows that you spent hours in meetings, but you can't remember why.

Sound familiar? If you're too busy at work to get anything done, you're not alone.

Robert Cross, an associate professor of commerce at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce, calls this phenomenon "collaborative overload."

Collaborative overload, he explained, is the burnout that results from our overreliance on e-mails, meetings and other collaborative tools that have, ironically, limited our ability to get stuff done. As companies become more global and as different disciplines work across traditional boundaries, we need to connect with more people than ever. While there are many positive aspects to increased collaboration, there's a downside, too.

According to Prof. Cross's research, knowledge workers spend 90 to 95 per cent of their time on the phone, responding to e-mails or in meetings. In comparison, 10 years ago, these managers spent "only" 60 to 65 per cent of their time engaged in those activities.

Prof. Cross isn't the only one to notice the exponential increase in time-sucking collaborative activities, such as meetings.

Bonnie Flatt, an executive coach with MasterCoaches LLC in Toronto, said one of her clients told her he's got so many things on his agenda, he now has to schedule bathroom breaks.

"They [employees] have lost staff, taken on more responsibilities, and that seems to equate to meetings all day, with no time to reflect and think strategically. It's all about the current moment," Ms. Flatt said.

She sees "meeting overload" as symptomatic of a larger, cultural issue inside companies.

"The culture isn't working if companies are layering meeting upon meeting, because you have people hoarding knowledge. They aren't working to have each other's back. They say they are collaborative but they are really not," Ms. Flatt said.

In contrast, companies that permit more self-direction give employees the freedom to ask whether they need to be at a meeting and if so, what role they will be expected to play. They can also walk down the hall and talk to each other rather than e-mail, she said.

Combatting the "too-busy-to-work" phenomenon is no easy feat, but Ms. Flatt suggested that employees need to set clear boundaries about what they're saying yes or no to. They also need to understand what "good enough" looks like.

"Too many people are trying to achieve perfection in everything they do. That is a waste of time and creates coachable moments for the leader to step in to guide and support their team," Ms. Flatt said.

As for leaders, she said they need to create an environment that fosters "gracious collaboration," meaning that employees should have each other's backs and support each other but at the same time, ensure that requests are clear and promises kept.

Most important, leaders can cut their participation in meetings in half.

"If an hour has been scheduled, then commit to attending for 30 minutes and inviting everyone to be very efficient with the available time. This means no extraneous topics or going off on tangents. Separate meetings can be scheduled for those if necessary," Ms. Flatt said.

Another strategy is to plan effectively and resist getting sucked into the reactiveness that makes us feel we need to respond to everything.

"Where I've seen success is [among] managers and leaders who are organized and take the time to plan out their work, and are intentional about how they spend their time," said Jan Campbell, an executive coach at StrategiSense Inc., a company that advises on leadership development and organizational effectiveness.

Those managers, she said, are mindful of their priorities for the quarter, the month, the week and the day, and they enter meetings with clear goals. Ensuring that the managers in your company know how to run an effective meeting should be a requirement, and companies should provide training to those who do not.

"When a leader is clear about what they are responsible for, they are less apt to be distracted by other people's firefighting. You need to create space for the important things and getting them done," Ms. Campbell said.

Feeling the need to respond to every e-mail and attend every conference call often comes from within but such pressure can and should be resisted, she said.

"Busyness isn't something that happens to you. You step into it. You react into it. It doesn't come from the outside and whack you in the head," she added.

It's something to consider before starting next week overworked and out of time.

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends.

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