We’ve all done it. You are on a virtual meeting and your attention wanders. Although you’re technically in the meeting, the subject doesn’t pertain directly to you, so you quickly review that one document that needs your review, you exchange texts with someone, and wait – was that a squirrel that just ran past the window?
Zoom Distraction has set in.
Like like a lot of bad habits, we inch our toe over the line. First it’s just checking email during a meeting, but later it becomes watching Tiger King (that was about the worst example I could think of, and no, I never watched Tiger King during a meeting. I saved my Tiger King watching for the evening so my wife and I could watch it in horror, together).
Regardless of what we do when we’re distracted, the fact is most of us experience Zoom Distraction. I’ve been doing some thinking about this and want to share a few practical tips to help defeat the monkey mind that routinely distracts.
First, there is a reason we find it harder to stay focused during a virtual meeting compared with a physical one: The Ringelmann Effect.
In 1913, a French architectural engineer named Max Ringelmann was able to set up a series of experiments that confirmed something we might take for granted today: when faced with a physical task (such as pulling a rope, in the Ringelmann experiments), people pulled harder when they were pulling by themselves, but as people joined in and the rope-pulling team grew larger, each individual ceased pulling as hard as they had when they were an individual.
This flies in the face of some other observations about teams enjoying a multiplier effect when working together. I wrote a post some time ago about just such a phenomena related to draft horses.
But as it relates to meetings, we can easily see how we are more engaged and attentive during a 1×1 meeting than we are if there are 30 people in the room. The bigger the group, the less responsibility we feel toward the meeting. We don’t feel the same degree of ownership. We slack off in pulling the rope.
This effect is very much at play while we sit through a day of back-to-back virtual meetings. Even when we had a day of back-to-back meetings in the office we at least were occasionally getting up to walk to a different conference room. The lack of movement between virtual meetings only exacerbates the problem of Zoom Distraction.
Here are some tactics you might employ to improve your meeting attention, courtesy of this Harvard Business Review article on the Ringelmann Effect:
- Define your value beforehand. What do you intend to contribute to this meeting? What information is most important for you to take away from this meeting?
- Acknowledge previous statements. This helps avoid the frustration people often feel with cross-talk. It keeps the conversation more focused. Plus, it’s a good practice to follow anyhow.
- Bring your attention back. This connects to the “monkey mind” video I linked to above. Our mind wanders – that’s normal. I find note-taking to be a great forcing mechanism to stay mentally connected to the call. More on that here. Another idea is to create a Google doc and have everyone contribute (“Bill – could you put that into our meeting notes?”). More on that idea here.
- Don’t be afraid to ask a question. Specifically, don’t be afraid to ask people to clarify a particular point. Since we all get distracted, people are pretty forgiving when you say “sorry – I lost track of the conversation – can you repeat that last point again”? I got over any concern about that years ago (I’ve been working from home for over 20 years). Subsuming my ego in this way – I might say “could you say that again?” to insure clarity – to the higher goal of being informed and connected has enabled me to learn a lot more and spend less time worrying about what I missed.
Finally, you may want to make a pledge similar to Seth Godin’s “Zoom Agreement”. Here it is, in part:
If you promise not to check your email while we’re talking, we promise to not waste your time.
If you agree to look me in the eye and try to absorb the gist of what I’m saying, I agree to be crisp, cogent and on point.
If you are clear about which meetings are a waste of time for you to attend, we can be sure to have them without you.
If we can’t do that, let’s not meet.
Multi-tasking isn’t productive, respectful or healthy.
A quick point on the last word in Seth’s agreement, which is “healthy”. This 2010 article from the Harvard Gazette shows that our wandering minds make us less happy and less healthy.
Being of one mind during a call is hard. I find it incredibly difficult sometimes. But being of one mind in most anything we do is worth the mental energy it requires.