You have 45 minutes.

Tick, tick, tick.

In about 45 minutes you’ll start to lose the people in your meeting, they will mentally check out, and there is not a damn thing you, or they, can do about it, so you’d better get to the point.

During my time at University I worked as a lifeguard at my local swimming pool. When we were on shift we would spend 30 minutes each at 2 locations around the pool, and then we would take 30 minutes off to recharge. A maximum of 60 minutes poolside before taking a full half-hour to go and do something else.

Something not looking at a swimming pool.

This was to help us sustain our focus, if we’d been asked to stand and look at the pool for more than an hour we would have started to phase out, to not see, which has obvious drawbacks for a lifeguard.

Similarly, Air Traffic Controllers have strict limits on how long they can stay on console before they must take a break; high mental load and constant focus can only be maintained for so long, after that your mind will start to drift, and there is nothing that you can do about it.

Finite Focus

There is a limit to the human attention span, it is not the same for everyone, but everyone starts to need to recharge after 30 to 45 minutes of intense focus.

All of this means that if you want to get the best out of people, if you want them to be engaged and contributing, then you need to catch them in this time window, beyond it everyone, including you, will struggle to stay focused on the discussion at hand.

Once the focus energy is gone, it needs to be replenished, this can be done through breaks and lighter discussions or periods of less intense focus. These periods can rejuvenate someone’s ability to focus, but probably not completely, there is only so much energy for a day, people will eventually run completely dry.

We’ve all been there, we’ve all seen and experienced it, at the end of a 60 to 90-minute meeting, and definitely at the end of an all-day or half-day workshop, the facilitator asks if anyone has any questions and you can barely remember your name, your head is full of cotton wool, you’ve got absolutely nothing to say; you’ve reached and passed your limit, and frankly you’re not much use to anyone any more.

Keep People in the Window

So, how can leaders get the best out of their people when it comes to meetings? And how they avoid running people out of energy and focus?

The first thing to realise is that the 4-hour marathon meeting that you have planned for next week and that you’re planning to use to solve all the worlds ills is probably going to be largely pointless.

All-day meetings, or half-day meetings, barely worked before everyone was working from home, and they work even less now.

Once you go above 45 minutes in the current environment people start multitasking, they have Teams or Zoom open in a window (or on a totally separate machine) and they are getting on with something else, either they’ve seen an email notification or something has popped into their head that they were supposed to do, and they are off doing that.

In a recent virtual workshop that I was invited to, one of the first things the facilitator asked was that people closed their laptops so that they could “stay in the room”, I pointed out that might not work out the way the facilitator had intended, however the message was clear; this hadn’t been thought through or adapted for the online environment at all.

The fact is that in every meeting or workshop you run now, and for the time being, everyone will be on their laptops and there is nothing that you can do about it, so it’s up to you to keep your attendees engaged, and to give them the chance to recharge if you want the best outcome.

How Can You Keep Engagement?

  • Prioritise — The first thing you can do is figure out how to keep your meetings short and avoid the 4-hour marathon sessions, you can do this a number of ways by asking:
    • Do all these topics need to be discussed right now? — What can wait, should wait, don’t try and solve all the problems of the world every time you get people together.
    • Does the topic need to be discussed at all? — Is this a discussion or are you just looking to inform? If it’s the latter then it might be better to send out a report by mail or through Teams or Slack, and ask for feedback.
  • Have and agenda / IPO — Know what you’re there to accomplish, make it clear from the outset what you’re looking to get out of the meeting, or where you’re expecting to get to (and not get to) in the process. For example, you might be looking to generate ideas, but you don’t expect to get to the point of a recommendation that day, make that explicit.
    This can also be very useful in helping you to understand what is achievable in the timescale you have available, sometimes it’s only when you write all the desired outcomes down that you realise there’s no way you can get through it all without losing half, or all, of the room.
  • Use workshops or breakout rooms — Don’t underestimate the power of a change of scene, even if you can’t all physically get up and change positions / rooms, just the act of working in a smaller group of people, or with a different group in a virtual breakout room can provide boost to people’s focus, beware though, this only works once or twice before you start to lose people.
  • Schedule breaks — Build in breaks, and be generous. Get away from the idea that the longer you keep people on a call the more you will get done, the inverse is true. Also, like breakout rooms, there are diminishing returns on breaks; asking people to maintain focus for an hour, giving them 10 minutes out to go to the loo, and then expecting them go for another hour isn’t going to work, you haven’t given them time to recover enough energy. If you’re going to give people a break, give them time to properly recharge, give them 30 minutes and you’ll have a much better outcome and get through more in the follow-up sessions.

Recharging for You and for Them

If you keep pushing people then they will, eventually, run out of steam; and what good will they be to you then? What good will they be to anyone? How many times have you come out of a four-hour meeting raring to get back to a productive day?

Keep your meetings short, keep them to the point; understand the purpose of the discussion, clearly articulate what it is that you want to achieve and stop when you have achieved it.

You have 45 minutes, and the clock is ticking.

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