Ask Doist: I Can’t Stay Focused During My Department’s Very Long Meetings No Matter What I Do

A university employee is struggling to get through her department's hour-plus meetings

Ask Doist Long Meetings Margarida Feature
Illustration by Margarida Mouta
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My question to you is about staying focused at very long meetings. I work at a university, and we have very long meetings. I find I do very well for the first hour or so and then my brain wanders! I turn my e-mail off to try to stop me getting sucked into dealing with these but then end up doing the mail already in my inbox or looking at the BBC news or Facebook etc. Any articles or ideas to help with this type of concentration and focus? I know we try to work with our students having lectures of no more than 55-minutes due to attention spans wandering after that long.

Any advice to help longer term focus?

You have regular meetings that go over an hour? Wow!

If they don’t expect students to stay focused for longer than 55-minute lectures, they shouldn’t expect it of staff either. You’re only human. Of course your attention is going to wander after an hour. To me, this is clearly a failure of leadership to run efficient meetings and not at all a shortcoming on your part. Your first course of action should be trying to create a more productive meeting culture, if possible:

  • Can the meeting be split into multiple smaller meetings so that the topics covered are relevant to everyone there?
  • Can the meetings happen less regularly?
  • Can there be a 15-minute coffee break included at least every hour?
  • Could some of the information be conveyed in writing rather than in a meeting?
  • Can attendance be optional??

If you can’t shift the meeting culture in your department to something that’s more reasonable, I would say that email and reading BBC news may actually be a more productive use of your time than trying to force yourself to concentrate. Your time and attention are being held hostage – give yourself permission to take back some of that time for your other work.

If you’re really committed to trying to stay focused in these meetings, I would recommend the following:

  • Don’t bring your phone or laptop into the meeting with you. Go back to good old pen and paper note-taking.
  • Bring coffee and water to your meeting. The act of drinking keeps your hands busy while you listen and, either by caffeine or placebo, you feel more alert.
  • Develop a meditation practice where you observe your wandering thoughts and bring them back to the present. Meditation sounds hokey to many people, but it really is an effective way to build awareness of your attention and start learning to stay present (not to mention get comfortable with being bored). It definitely isn’t a short-term solution and takes a ton of practice. While these meetings might not be worth staying present for, meditation has benefits that go beyond staying focused at a meeting, so I’d recommend it anyway.
  • Try to gamify your focus. For example, add a tally mark for every 5 minutes you’re able to stay focused and try to build up as many tallies as possible. Not only does that make it a bit of a fun challenge, but it also breaks the meeting down into smaller chunks. It’s hard to stay focused for another 30 minutes, but now you only have to stay focused for the next 5.
  • Do you have a buddy at work who has a similar problem? Team up and make a game of keeping each other focused. eg any time one of you catches the other not paying attention, you owe them a quarter. Or do a post-meeting quiz where you each pick a question that the other person would only know the answer to if they were paying attention the whole time. If the other person can’t answer your question, you get a point.

I’m really sorry that you have to spend so much of your time in meetings that aren’t even interesting enough to hold your attention. I can say with confidence that your lack of focus is 100% not your fault, so cut yourself some slack.

Best of luck!

– Becky

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