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Take Ten: The 50-Minute Meeting

The clock on the computer screen blinks 3:00 p.m. and it dawns on you that you haven’t eaten your first (or second!) meal of the day. Nor have you stood up from your desk to stretch your legs or used the restroom. Your back feels tight and you have the early stages of a raging migraine. The diagnosis? Meeting fatigue. You had a calendar full of back-to-back meetings with zero time for yourself and are starting to feel the repercussions. Research shows that employees’ stress levels mount as they bounce from meeting to meeting without a break, even when working from home. The solution? It could be as simple as cutting ten minutes from your hour-long meeting.

Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab recently conducted an experiment to investigate the toll continuous meetings take on our physical and mental health. They looked specifically at the brain’s reaction to a full day of meetings. Beta waves, the brain activity associated with stress, increased when study participants were shuttled from meeting to meeting without a meaningful break. It is also key to know that the actual transition from each meeting (dialing in to a new call or gathering your notes to walk to a new location) tended to add to their stress levels as well. Without a chance for a real break, your stress levels only increase as a meeting-filled day goes on. You may be on overload by the time you are called on to deal with an unexpected situation and overreact because of this “trigger stacking.”

The good news? When participants were given just ten minutes of down time to rest or meditate, their beta waves decreased. This reset time allowed them to be more present and engaged in their next meeting. So, the real question is, do you want your meeting participants to be alert and ready to innovate? Or are you okay with participants who are too stressed to focus?

While scientists are tackling the long-term solution, a good step in the right direction is to limit the meeting length at your organization (or at least on your calendar) to allow for rest breaks. Introducing this idea at work can start with little fanfare – model the behavior first. Start scheduling your meetings to start ten minutes after the hour or plan for an early departure. Communicate the reason for this adjustment and what you plan to do with the time: “Our meeting is going to run 50 minutes, so we all have a chance to rest and refocus before our next commitment. I plan to take my dog outside for a few minutes and come back ready to go!”