4 ways to stop zoning out in meetings


By Stephanie Vozza

Whether it’s checking email or simply checking out, we all zone out during meetings sometimes. Virtual platforms made it even easier to multitask when you’re supposed to be paying attention.

While you might want to blame boredom or even a less-than-exciting facilitator, the truth is that your mind isn’t built for the typical meeting, says Jim Kwik, author of Limitless Expanded Edition: Upgrade Your Brain, Learn Anything Faster, and Unlock Your Exceptional Life.

“Your brain is this incredible supercomputer,” he says. “When you’re in a meeting, you’re taking in information, hearing one word at a time. You’re metaphorically starving your mind. If you don’t give your brain the stimulus it needs, it’ll seek entertainment elsewhere in the form of mind wandering and distraction.”

Kwik likens meetings to driving around the neighborhood. If you’re going slow, you’re likely not really focused on the act of driving. You might be singing a song, thinking about your dry cleaning, or drinking your coffee. You’re probably doing several things at once.

“People tune out because they’re bored,” he says. “The information is not coming in quickly enough.”

Compare driving around the block to racing on a track. Suddenly, you’re not going to make your mind start wandering. You’re paying hyper attention to what’s before you. You’re an active participant, and the same needs to be true to pay attention in a meeting because it shouldn’t be a spectator sport.

“In meetings, people just consume, and the brain doesn’t learn best through consumption,” says Kwik. “It works best through creation and cocreation.”

Here are four ways to go from zoning out to tuning in during your next meeting.

1. Go In Intending to Participate

To stop your mind from wandering, Kwik suggests going into a meeting ready to contribute ideas, ask questions, and offer feedback. These activities will keep your mind engaged, and less likely to wander, he says.

Taking notes also keeps your attention. However, you need to do this manually with pen and paper.

“Digital note-taking is great for storage and sharing, but studies have found that handwriting notes actually helps with comprehension and retention,” says Kwik. “Most people are great or good typers and they could almost write things verbatim. But if you’re handwriting notes, you can’t possibly write as fast as somebody could speak. It forces you to be active, and filter and prioritize information.”

2. Review and Adhere to the Agenda

Another reason people tune out during a meeting is when it has no clear objective. Instead, meetings should have a preset agenda that’s made available before the meeting, with clear outcomes.

“With an agenda, you can take responsibility to be more active,” says Kwik. “Familiarize yourself with the topics to be discussed. You can prepare for that meeting better. An agenda also keeps you more on task, so you’re not going to deviate from the objective.”

4 ways to stop zoning out in meetings

3. Turn off Distractions

It’s also important to control your environment, especially if the meeting is online. That means turning off digital distractions and alerts that ring, ping, and ding, says Kwik.

“It’s very simple, but turn off nonessential notifications on your devices,” he says. “One of the most important functions on your phone is airplane mode. People don’t use it because they try to multitask. You can’t do more than one cognitive activity at a time. So, if you’re in a meeting and you’re checking Slack and social media or your emails, you’re not doing anything well.”

4. Take a Break

Finally, make sure meetings aren’t too long. Kwik says after about 25 or 30 minutes, everyone experiences a drop in focus and mental vitality. “Take a five-minute break, if possible,” he says. “Your brain is not meant to go at full speed. Just like racing a car, you have to take that pitstop.”

“A lot of times when people are in meetings, they’re reading something,” says Kwik. “Look at their posture. It’s usually slumped over. The lower third of your lungs absorbs two thirds of the oxygen. People just aren’t getting enough air.”

Effective breaks require three things, says Kwik. First, get up and move. Physical activity creates greater blood flow, which means there’s more oxygen to go into your brain. Next, skip the coffee and grab some water. Dehydration could affect your cognitive health and your cognitive performance, says Kwik.

And third, get some fresh air, do some deep breathing, and clean out the mental cobwebs. You could come back and resume that meeting refreshed and restored.

“Focus isn’t something you have; it’s something you do,” says Kwik. “The art of learning is the art of attention. When you make it a process, it gives you your agency back. Your brain is the ultimate wealth-creating asset you have. When you can learn how to focus, remember, or understand better, it makes everything after that easier.”

Fast Company – work-life