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How Back-to-Back Meetings Hijack Employees' Brains

I’m a big believer in energy management—more so than in time management. My blog on the Energy Calendar provides some background on this topic.

I’d like to build on the Energy Calendar idea by suggesting that we can prevent the adverse impacts of back-to-back meetings by making it standard practice to schedule “buffer” time in between meetings.

This buffer time allows your brain to transition to the new meeting topic and get into the mindset and focus of the meeting at hand. Going from meeting to meeting to meeting without a break doesn’t allow this necessary mindset-reset, and it reduces the value and energy we bring to the next meeting.

Buffer time also provides a little bit of padding if meetings run longer than planned, enabling a graceful exit without cutting someone off to hurry into the meeting immediately following.

Researchers recently studied the impact of meetings on our brains, and the results confirmed my thought that we need breaks and time to reset and adjust from one meeting to another. Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab studied 14 participants across two days of video meetings:

  • Day 1: 4 back-to-back 30-min meetings

  • Day 2: 4 30-min meetings with 10-min breaks in between

  • Participants wore EEG caps to monitor electrical activity in their brains.

The takeaways:

1. Back-to-back meetings cause stress

Back-to-back meetings created an accumulating buildup of stress in the brain. Anticipation of transitions caused further spikes. Short breaks between meetings allow the brain to reset and prevent the stress buildup.

2. Breaks promote performance

Back-to-back meetings resulted in negative levels of frontal alpha symmetry; a brain state connected to lower levels of engagement. Short breaks between meetings resulted in positive levels, meaning participants performed better.

The answer is that short breaks in between meetings are necessary to:

  • Eliminate stress buildup

  • Improve performance

  • Increase attentiveness and engagement

Some companies set up their calendar software so that meetings end 10 minutes or so before the hour. A standard policy of taking short breaks after meetings is a simple measure that can help employees perform better and keep stress levels down.


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