This Is Your Brain On Meetings
There's one very simple 10-minute exercise you can do at the start of every important meeting to ensure it stays on track.
Hell is an unnecessary Zoom meeting.
It’s also in-person meetings without clear agendas, meetings before meetings, meetings about meetings and - the most hellish of all - meetings that could have been an email. In fact, our entire meeting culture needs a serious revamp, and it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
One of the reasons they have been on my mind is that it’s almost three years since I stepped out of full-time working, and hence away from an intense meeting culture. At the time, I declared ‘calendar bankruptcy’ and deleted every single re-occurring meeting in my diary that had accumulated over the years like barnacles on a weathered boat. (And yes, it feels just as freeing as it sounds).
The other reason is that meetings, and how to solve them, are a fertile area of research for my upcoming book on the future of work that I’ve been writing over the past few years. One of the wildest research studies I’ve reviewed shows that our brains were never designed for back-to-back meetings. Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab strapped EEG monitors onto the heads of 14 people to track the electrical activity in their brains as they sat through video meetings. They tracked what happened when four half-hour meetings in the row were held back-to-back - not uncommon in a typical corporate day - and found that average beta wave activity gradually increased with each meeting, suggesting a build-up of stress. For the participants who took 10 minutes out between each meeting to calm down - in this study they actually meditated to break it up - their average beta wave activity remained largely “cool” and steady over time.
This is your brain on meetings, the colours showing average beta activity across research subjects, with blue meaning less stress and red equalling more stress:
The tyranny of meetings has been compounded by the rise of video conferencing, meaning you can now sit in the comfort of your own home and stare at the bright green light for hours on end as every meeting automatically defaults to a video meeting. In the first few months of us retreating to our houses during Covid, the number of virtual meetings skyrocketed so much that by the end of 2020 they had doubled. That growth continued until two years later there are 250 per cent more meetings in our diaries than before the pandemic.
While I can’t break into your workplace and blow up everyone’s diaries, I can offer some help for when you’ve got a big, important, don’t-f#ck-it-up upcoming meeting planned with lots of people in it. It’s very easy for meetings like this to get off track and forget the entire reason you’re there in the first place, so this month’s One Useful Thing is a simple 10-minute exercise I do at the start of almost every important meeting to ensure it stays focused.
One Useful Thing for August 2023: ‘Centre The User’ Group Exercise
Meetings are almost always about solving a problem for an intended audience, although they are rarely spoken about. I’ve sat in the main boardroom of a large Australian financial institution where their important board met regularly. Surrounding the room were large life-size photos of real customers to remind them who they were meant to be representing in the room.
Whenever I have a big meeting that I’m facilitating, I aim to get everyone into the minds of the customers, or consumers, at the start of the meeting. I do this will a simple 10-minute exercise called Centre The User that I recommend you do at the start of your next meeting.
How to use this: Run through these simple three steps to set the meeting up to keep the attention on what really matters.
Ask everyone in the meeting to finish these three sentences
Before you get into the meeting’s agenda, have everyone spend a few minutes in silence writing the answers out by themselves to each of these three statements:
Statement 1: A customer comes to us feeling…
Statement 2: We help them feel…
Statement 3: So that they can…
Have everyone share the sentences out loud
You can choose any random order for people to share, but give everyone the opportunity to read their sentences in front of the group. This helps to ‘break the ice’ and ensure everyone is heard in the meeting. Listen out for what the common words and phrases are.
Write down the answers and keep referring back to them
Throughout the meeting, there will be moments when you should be able to reference back to what people said in this exercise in order to ensure your intended audience is kept at the centre.
The entire exercise should take no longer than 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the your group, but it’s an extremely powerful - and useful - way to make sure that your customer is always kept at the forefront of whatever problem you’re trying to solve. It may not completely solve the issue of an intense meeting culture, but it might make some of the important ones that little bit better.
I’m currently in Finland for the next fortnight. More specifically I’m currently in the happiest town of the happiest country on Earth right now. I’m here to try to better understand what we can learn from its residents, as well as from a suite of experts in Helsinki on the future of work (plus am making a pilgrimage to many of Alvar Aalto’s architectural masterpieces).
Then it’s back to our new hometown of Mallorca once the heat and crowds have receded, and a return to Australia for a few weeks in September. A busy but fun few weeks.
Until next month,