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How to Get Focused (and Stay Focused) After a Long Meeting

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: September 17, 2016

We’ve all felt our focus slip during a meeting. It happens for a variety of reasons, ranging from our feeling that the meeting is a waste of time to simply not getting enough sleep the night before.

It could even be because the long meeting interrupted a period of our own focused work, and we found it too difficult to detach from the project we were working on so we could be fully present. A pivotal study from 1989 even found that:

40% of corporate VPs admitted to falling asleep or dozing off during a meeting (tweet this)

Regardless of how successful the meeting was (or where our mind drifted off to during it), the moment immediately after a long meeting is nearly always a struggle. Post-meeting work typically goes down in a few of the following ways:

-You try to reclaim the focus you had before the meeting, but it’s difficult to get back to where you were.

-You’re on the maker’s schedule, in the Paul Graham sense, and the meeting disrupted your work day and perhaps even lowered your ambitions for getting focused to tackle an important project.

-You’re an introvert and, while meetings can be invigorating for extroverts, they are especially exhausting for you.

-The long meeting actually ended on an actionable item, and you first need to compile minutes, capture the agreed-upon solution, or otherwise focus on some sort of post-meeting work.

-You pat yourself on the back for participating, and rationalize why you should take an extra-long lunch break or cut your day short.

To be clear, there are countless other reasons. But while there’s a veritable movement rallying around how meetings sap productivity—and seemingly infinite list articles about how to make meetings more productive—there’s strikingly little out there about how to get focused and stay focused after a meeting.

So what does getting focused after a meeting look like? 

For starters, it means not coming back to your desk having to make a bunch of micro-decisions before you can go deep. Ideally, you’ll come right back to your desk and know exactly what you need to work on. 

To immediately dial-in like this you’ll need to pre-prioritize which tasks first need your attention, what can be completed in the time allotted, and what might be better off pushing to the next day.

Here are 3 ways, based on some of our own challenges over the years, to reclaim focus after a long meeting:

1. Have a pre-meeting meeting with yourself and/or your team (I know how counterintuitive that seems, but stay with me).

The most frequent meeting time is 11am, and the average meeting length is 31-60 minutes. Look what happens to the average team’s Flow activity throughout the day. Productivity takes a big dip, particularly with Tasks Completed and app opens:

Lunch is certainly to blame, but it’s worth expanding that blame a bit. If the average meeting is at 11am, that means it’s typically followed by lunch, and that means your focus was disrupted for a long period of time right in the middle of the day.

And you aren’t able to get it back to where you had it in the morning.

A major challenge in returning to work after a meeting is that you aren’t sure what to work on. Do you go back into focus mode or do you try to complete some small tasks so you can set yourself up to get focused later on?

A pre-meeting meeting can help you establish this. Take a few minutes before the meeting to jot down—either in an app or on a Post-It note—precisely what you’ll work on after the meeting. These few minutes of thought will help you organize which tasks are most important, and this means you’ll be better equipped to navigate that difficult post-meeting transition.

2. Channel the rest of your day’s focus by tapping into what science tells us about team size and productivity.

Notice how as teams get larger than 5 or 6 people, the sheer number of tasks the team completes doesn’t grow? 

Research shows diminishing returns of working in a team larger than 5 or 6. Smaller teams typically mean greater focus and less chance for distraction. In short, going from a meeting directly into focused work as part of small team can be a great way to reclaim post-meeting focus.

If you’re working on a collaborative team project after a meeting, find a way to break a larger team into groups of 5-6 people (or smaller), and designate which part of the project each team should focus on. This decision to break your team up could help each member stay focused on the task at hand.

3. Be the change by making your post-meeting focus a habit.

In Edgar Schein’s book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, he writes:

…if a basic assumption comes to be strongly held in a group, members will find behavior based on any other premise inconceivable.”

In other words, focus needs to become such a part of your team’s culture that the premise of not-focusing is inconceivable.

Elements of a team’s culture (good, bad, or otherwise) are difficult to break when they’ve been exhibited so many times that they reach what Schein refers to as a “basic assumption.”

How to make that happen? Be the change. The best way you can let the important ripple of focus spread throughout your company is to exhibit it. Don’t just say how important it is to you, show it. And show it on a regular basis.

Here’s how. Before your next meeting, and in addition to #1 above, figure out which colleagues outside of your immediate team would benefit from knowing your post-meeting plans. Pull them aside, briefly, and let them know what you plan to work on immediately after the meeting. 

Even something like:

Hey Jenn, just a heads up that I’m going into focus mode for a few hours after our meeting today. I really want to wrap up the Q1 marketing report by end-of-day. I’ll be available around 3 if you need me.”

This will give your colleague the heads up and you the pocket of uninterrupted work time you need.

This small act can go a long way to making focus part of your team’s culture.

Focusing as an individual outside of work is one thing, but getting focused when you’re part of a team in the workplace can be quite another. Once you’ve made getting focused at work a personal commitment, the next step is communicating this commitment with your team.

Need a way to kickstart that conversation? Sharing this article could do the trick.


-Lead illustration: Bully

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