Can't focus in meetings? You're not alone

A whopping 83 per cent of UK professionals can't focus in meetings for longer than 45 minutes, according to recent research by Sharp. If this sounds like you, it may be time to evaluate your work style. Read on for simple ways to improve your productivity in meetings.

How can you improve your focus in meetings?

Prepare yourself

Distractions during meetings come in many forms: hunger, thirst, fidgeting, tiredness, worrying about all the work you have to do when you get back to your desk ‒ the list goes on. Half the battle of combating these distractions happens before you walk into the meeting. Simple behaviours like eating a snack, drinking coffee or using the restroom beforehand can all contribute to improving your focus during meetings.

Set aside 10 minutes in your calendar before the start of each meeting to 'prepare'. You might take a quick stroll, fill up your water bottle or tidy your desk so that you don't return to a messy workspace afterwards. Whatever it is, if you give yourself time to prepare, you'll be more focused during the meeting.

Park your mental thoughts

No matter what you do or who you are, you'll always have random, unrelated thoughts pop into your head and distract you during meetings. They'll lead you down thought tangents until all of a sudden, your attention is brought back into the meeting and you realise you've missed an important point that everyone else seems to be agreeing on.

When this happens, Rich Fernandez, CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, recommends not trying to suppress the thought. Suppressing it will only make it dig in and distract you further. Instead, 'make note of it, acknowledge it and put it in a mental parking lot to think about later, when you can discuss it with someone else, or when you're not at work and have lots to do'.

6 tips to improve productivity in meetings

1. Create an agenda

If everyone knows what the meeting is about and what needs to be discussed, you're more likely to stay on topic. Therefore, create an agenda, send it to all attendees before the meeting and then stick to it. This will help keep the room focussed.

2. Start with an attention-grabber

To ensure your meeting is as productive as it can possibly be, try starting with something that will get people to interact. It could be a short game, a joke or simply a question about weekend plans – something light-hearted that will make everyone forget about what happened before they walked into the meeting. This is a useful technique to channel everyone's focus by forcing them to engage with something fun, in order to gain their attention for the real stuff.

3. Eliminate distractions

Ever sat in on a meeting and all you can focus on is the sound of your colleague tapping away at their laptop? Or maybe your phone keeps lighting up on the desk in front of you alerting you to new emails? Phones and laptops are two of the biggest distractions during meetings. However, there is one very easy solution for this: Ban them. Suggest a new rule that laptops must remain closed and phones must be face-down during meetings, whenever possible. If you start to eradicate the distractions, you'll give yourself more room to focus.

4. Get moving

Ever heard of a walking meeting? Or a standing meeting? It may sound very Silicon Valley, but many companies are starting to engage with the idea of an unconventional meeting format.

A walking meeting is exactly as it sounds – a meeting that takes place while walking. Evidence suggests that walking increases creative output by 60 per cent, so it makes perfect sense that discussions that would normally occur in a meeting room are now taking place on a casual walk. Another example is a standing meeting, where employees take a break from sitting at their desks by standing during the conversation.

Not only can these alternatives to traditional meetings improve employee engagement and focus, but they can also help to keep the meetings short and concise.

5. Change it up

When you're squashed into a windowless meeting room and forced to sit in squeaky, uncomfortable chairs, chances are the only thing you will be thinking about is how long you have until you're allowed to leave – not the best feeling to have when you need to focus. Therefore, suggest a change of scenery for your next meeting. Take it outside to the courtyard, a nearby park or even the break room of your office – anywhere that's outside of your usual routine and provides a new experience for everyone involved. The act of doing something unexpected helps to grab attention and bring the focus back into the room (or wherever you choose to have the meeting).

6. Keep it short and sweet

One of the most effective ways to hold everybody's attention in meetings is to keep the meeting short and sweet. Stick to half-hour meetings whenever possible, and, as a whole, try to stay on topic. A good way to do this is to appoint one person to chair the meeting. It is this person's responsibility to ensure everyone follows the agenda and get the meeting back on track when the conversation starts to wander off.

Final thoughts

Focussing in meetings is not going to be achievable for everyone all of the time. Sometimes, life gets in the way, other projects are on your mind and your seemingly never-ending to-do list needs attention. However, if you're going to commit to attending a meeting, you may as well make it worth your time. Close your laptop, put your phone face down and work with your team to set up structures that help everyone keep productive. Your career ‒ and your boss ‒ will thank you.

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