Back-to-back meetings are your brain’s enemy. Research shows that your brain needs a 10-min break between every meeting in order to absorb and retain information and mentally pivot to the next task.
I schedule a lot of meetings as part of my day job as an Executive Coordinator. I’m often flooded with requests but limited on available time slots, forcing me to play a game I call Scheduling Tetris. As an advocate for workplace wellness, I try my hardest not to book meetings back to back but it wasn’t until I read a post by Josh Hammonds, PhD, Communication and Leadership Expert on LinkedIn, that I learned the science behind the 10-minute break.
A study from Microsoft has resurfaced and is reminding us that the brain needs to reset between meetings.
The study: Using EEG caps to detect brain wave activity and stress detection, the experiment had 2 groups of participants sit through 4 meetings back-to-back, with one group allowing 10-minute breaks in between each meeting. The data showed that the group who took breaks experienced a reset in brain stress activity.
Scientists concluded that the transition from one meeting’s agenda to the next compounded the stress of the employees as they were forced to switch and think about new challenges before they had mentally closed the loop on the challenges they were currently facing. High levels of brain stress activity can negatively impair memory formation and retention, which can lead to unproductive meetings…you know the ones where it seems like everyone is just talking in circles with no clear outcomes.
This confirms numerous studies that show how much stress is involved in switch-tasking. Think of multi-tasking but with entire topics or groups of information. Even if you pride yourself on being “good under pressure,” your brain needs closure on one topic before advancing to another. And because we often think ahead to the next topic minutes before it happens, sitting through back-to-back meetings can cause stress from a lack of closure compounded with the anticipation of future uncertainties with a new agenda in the next meeting. Whew. Deep breaths.
We are not being efficient when we book meetings back-to-back. The energy and quality of discussion suffers with each meeting when we don’t take breaks. And we wonder why burnout is at an all-time high?
The takeaway: End meetings 10 minutes before the hour. Hard stop.
Use the break for you and your team to: Go for a walk. Grab a bite. Clear your head. Reset.
Below are 4 suggestions for more productive, mindful meetings:
- Meetings need an agenda – Clarity can alleviate stress and help keep things on schedule. An agenda also helps reduce uncertainty and manage expectations so that your team can focus on what’s being discussed, not on what they’re hoping will be discussed. Most times you won’t get through every item on your list so it’s important to place those items in a “parking lot” with a date to follow up – consider whether those parked items can be followed up via email or whatever project management software your company uses.
- Meetings need a moderator – A designated moderator can watch the clock, set timers for scheduled round robin sharing, refocus the discussion on the agenda and read out actions at the end of the meeting. I suggest having someone else take notes
- Meetings need closure – Your brain does not shut off when a meeting ends. It needs closure and clearly articulated next steps or action items before it can move on to the next task. Leave at least 5-minutes before the meeting is over to summarize what has been said and to develop an action plan. It’s also helpful to acknowledge what items have been parked and include those items in the action plan.
- Meetings need a 10-minute break – Even if you’ve followed tips 1, 2 and 3 perfectly, your brain will still need that 10-minute buffer before the next meeting. Use those 10 minutes to allow lingering thoughts to settle, to take a walk or grab a bite or even better…to push back from the screen and close your eyes (set a timer!).
Did you know that Outlook now has an option to make all of your meetings shorter? You can adjust your settings to make all 60-minute meetings 50 minutes long instead.
Breaks between meetings will help you and your team feel more restored, more creative, and more productive. That’s a win-win for you and your company!