How to Stay Focused In Long, Boring Meetings

Stretch, snack and widen your attention span to make the most of meetings.

Absorbed businessman looking at his phone during a meeting with colleagues in office.

Reminding yourself of the meeting's purpose, taking breaks and snacking can help you remain alert during long meetings.

By SHARE

Yes, you care about next year’s budget or this week’s project update or last month’s progress. (Or maybe you don’t.) It’s just – how are you supposed to sit still and absorb that information for a few hours when there are emails to answer, reports to write, appointments to reschedule and who knows what else? Long meetings can sometimes feel less like work and more like workouts – exhausting endurance tests during which you’re expected to contribute and learn. Let’s shape up for the next meeting so you’re fit and focused:

Take breaks. Focusing for an hour to an hour and a half can be exhausting for our brains, says Amit Sood, author of "The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living" and professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. After about that amount of time, he says, “our brain gets depleted and starts making errors and may get irritable” – a formula for a not-so-productive meeting. Short breaks, even if they’re only a couple minutes, offer some much needed rejuvenation. 

But there’s a catch to making those breaks effective, Sood says. If you can help it, don’t use that precious 90 seconds of free 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.

There’s no denying now that sitting for prolonged periods of time has serious health risks, so get up and take a short walk. Or try one of these office-friendly stretches from the Mayo Clinic. You could also spend the break talking to a co-worker about something unrelated to work, or befriending someone at the meeting who you’ve yet to meet.

Look for novelty. If you find yourself bored in a meeting, try – really try – to find something interesting about the topic or meeting leader droning on. Train your brain to look for novelty in seemingly normal things, and you’ll essentially broaden your attention span, or at least have better control over it. Sood gives this example: Many of us would likely find a 10-carat diamond ring interesting and novel, “but when you find a water bottle interesting and the tomatoes in Wal-Mart interesting and the cloud formations interesting – then you have changed your threshold.”

So how do you find novelty in a boring meeting? During mini-breaks, when you have an opportunity to shift focus (as the meeting leader fires up the computer or transitions to the next topic, for example), Sood finds novelty by looking at the color of that person’s eyes, or picture him or her as a 2-year-old or 80-year-old. Alternately, he might imagine that person as someone’s child or sibling or grandparent. Sood doesn’t spend the whole meeting on these expeditions for novelty – “If I did, I wouldn’t be very productive,” he says – but the moment it takes to reframe the topic or person can be just the push you need to find focus. “When you’re in meetings, you have to find people interesting and enjoyable,” Sood says. “Otherwise it’ll be torture.”

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 am I doing this?'” Sood says. “When you find your attention is wavering, bring the purpose of the end user in front of your eyes.” While you may be dwelling only on yourself and your role, think of the client, customer, policy, message, belief or whatever the root reason is for the meeting. 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, says Jocelyn Glei, director of 99U, an educational website aimed at helping people make their ideas happen. She also advises meeting-goers to leave their phones at their desks to avoid distraction. And what better time to practice those active listening skills? On Careers blogger Rebecca Thorman proposes other opportunities to engage in meetings in her post "5 Reasons Meetings Don’t Suck."

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!) 10 minutes into the meeting. Opt for healthy fruits, vegetables and other healthy snacks.