This is your brain on long meetings…

Posted on June 26, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Linda Ray | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the reasons long meetings get in the way of productivity and what can be done about it.

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On a good day, you wake up rested and raring to go. You make a mental list of things to do during your commute and, by the time you walk through the door of the office, you are clear about what needs to get accomplished and in what order.  There’s only one problem: the early morning meeting that usually runs overtime. Your mood deflates and your momentum screeches to a halt. Not only that, you may not regain momentum for some time after the meeting has ended – if you regain it all all.

Your brain on long meetings

The brain is easily exhausted. Our brains frequently shift its focus between external events and internal memories and interests. It’s designed this way in order to consolidate learning and long-term memory. However, every time you focus your attention you use a measurable amount of glucose and other metablic resources. This makes attention a limited resource.  Long meetings have the effect of exhausting cognitive reserves. Focus decreases as the meeting drags on. Unfortunately, the brain requires regular replenishment to retain attention and to remain engaged.

Crammed agendas are overwhelming. When faced with a daunting agenda, the default is for people to look at their watches. Attention is on the time rather than on the discussion at hand. Eyes glaze over. People stop listening, begin to doodle, think of the weekend. All of this hampers productivity.

The brain wants assignments that are achievable. Too often, meetings are used as a way of generating ideas rather than actions. But the brain wants certainty and is always looking for the reward of breaking down tasks into manageable chunks – a to-do list that can be completed to a schedule and in good order.

Emotions are contagious. The recent discovery of mirror neurones explains the phenomenon we’ve all experienced: when one person begins to yawn, people nearby begin yawning too. All it takes is one sleepy or fidgety person in a meeting to affect everyone around the table.

Efficiency can hinder productivity. When brains come together, they can accomplish great things – but trying to silo a group’s efforts into agenda chunks isn’t the best way to realise that greatness.  People need time to coalesce around an idea, to work it like clay, and to test different ways of making it happen.

Focusing on numbers saps creativity. If everyone believes that the real reason for the meeting is to figure out how to ‘make the numbers’, creativity is sapped before the meeting even begins. Structuring meetings around financial performance metrics is not a good way to motivate people. Ideas are motivating. Developing and nurturing ideas will ultimately lead to making the numbers. Sadly, conventional meetings almost always have this backwards.

Meeting to prepare for the next meeting is not rewarding. Since our brains are reward-driven organs, knowing that the follow-on reward for spending all this time in a meeting is simply to have another meeting is not at all motivating.

7 things you can do about it

half-time-meetingsImplement a block on early meetings. Take the first hour of the day and throw it out the window – for meetings, at least. By refusing early meetings, you can spend time prioritising your to-do lists, including prioritising which meetings are actually necessary. You might be amazed at how much you can accomplish when you free your mornings for planning.

Take breaks. Focusing for an hour to an hour and a half can be exhausting for our brains.  Our brains gets depleted, start making errors, and we may grow irritable – not the best formula for planning and making decisions. Short breaks, even if they’re only a couple minutes, offer some much needed rejuvenation.

There’s a catch to making those breaks effective, however. Don’t use break time to email your boss or sign off on a report or discuss team goals with a colleague. To help your brain recover from absorbing an hour of PowerPoint slides, try to forget about work during your break.

Look for novelty. If you find yourself bored in a meeting, try – really try – to find something interesting going on in the room. You can train your brain to look for novelty in what’s happening around you, something that both lengthens your  attention span and gives you better control over it. Look at the people around the table and try to imagine something interesting and positive about them.

Remember the purpose of the meeting. As you fixate on details, wade through different viewpoints and perhaps lament over that to-do list, it may be easy to forget the point of the meeting. Think back to the meaning of the meeting, and ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’. Whenever you find your attention is wavering, remember why you’re there. Write it down in your notepad. By examining the cause of the meeting, you may find yourself “considering it a privilege rather than a duty.”

Go back to the basics. Engage in the meeting, whether it’s asking questions, proposing ideas, or at the very least, taking notes. It’s also a good idea to leave phones at desks in in handbags in order to avoid distraction. Bouncing back from a single distraction can take several minutes.  It’s also useful to practice active listening skills.

Snack and hydrate. Bring water to meetings and snack wisely beforehand. Say no to high-carbohydrate, high-energy density foods that will tempt you to rest your eyes (just for a second!) a few minutes into the meeting. Opt instead for healthy fruits, vegetables, and trail mix.

Make them shorter and more frequent. Incorporate daily or twice weekly 10-minute standing meetings into your workplace. Ideally, the 10-minute standing meeting has an agenda of no more than four items. This works nicely with our brains preference for chunking information. Also, the fact that people are standing rather than sitting helps. Your blood circulation increases. Standing is also mentally revitalising, making you sharper and more aware. What seems like an insurmountable pile of paperwork when you’re sitting down appears suddenly manageable while standing. Standing can even improve motivation, morale, and mood.

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Linda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource groupThese organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience.  Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field.  She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’

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3 Responses to “This is your brain on long meetings…”

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[…] Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the reasons long meetings get in the way of productivi…  […]

[…] Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the reasons long meetings get in the way of productivi…  […]

[…] Linda Ray, the co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, coined the term “attentional intelligence” in 2012. In this post, she looks at the reasons long meetings get in the way of productivi…  […]


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