Pizza, again, ribs, again, meetings, again. In two weeks I was in about 90 hours of meetings/conferences in San Francisco and New Hampshire. For some executives, this may be the norm. Not for me. By the time my return flight touched down I was ready to hibernate. Some days felt harder than others, and some meetings I simply could not “attend” due to the lack of attentional fuel in the tank. But going into those two weeks I had an intention and goal for myself: to be as present as was realistic.
What’s “realistic” in how many hours of meetings we can push through is biologically grounded. That is to say, our brain power limits how much information we can take in over a day of meetings. “Attend” with rapt attention, all systems GO, for several hours non-stop and you’ll find yourself cuddled in the corner with lukewarm coffee and a headache by 3pm. Well, that was my body’s reaction when I tried that strategy. Our brains have an amazing ability to switch between tasks and context’s, however it is taxing and over time burns up all our fuel. To keep this analogy going, imagine driving across the country and not looking for a gas station until the car has stopped. Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it also happens quite often. My goal was to monitor my fuel gauge, MPG, and where the damn gas stations were.
Attending meetings and conferences can feel like a highway of information transfer. You’re moving fast, with an intention and direction that is unhindered by stop signs and stop lights (for the most part). Similar to highway driving, we can get lulled into unfocused meetings, and end up on full cruise-control. In my experience, the limiting factor to avoiding this vapid-eyes-to-space state is not as much the length of the meetings as the breaks allowed.
Breaks in both the car world and meeting world are meant to be restorative. My intention on breaks were to refuel as much as I could. Turns out, going outside or event viewing images of nature can help restore our attention. So into the snow I went - or onto my phone to gaze at the Olympic mountain range. This may sound silly but a growing literature of research backs it up. I won’t dive into the details of why natural settings can restore attention that our society so efficiency drains, but I do find it useful (and fascinating).
Aside from taking intentional breaks, what got me through the two weeks were breathing, and exercise. These are foundational tools to help ground me and give me a larger perspective on the day. To breath/meditate is to give myself the space to feel beyond the incoming thoughts rattling around my head. It’s easy to get sucked into the moment and work being discussed and just-how-important-it-is. The most practical technique I’ve found is a 5-second in, 5-secound out breath that helps activate the parasymtetthic nervous system. This is our “rest and digest” branch of the autonomic nervous system, the other (sympathetic) branch being involved in “fight our flight” behavior. Tense meetings and prolonged discussions about the details of work and why every-little-thing-must-be-like-THIS can lead us to lean on the fight or flight response if we aren’t aware of it. This too contributes to burning up our fuel faster, and in general leaves us irritated and tired by end of day. The simple 5-in, 5-out breathing steps in and helps break up the momentum of tense or tiring tirades.
I’m not going to say I was a perfect attendee - I got tired, frustrated, and ready to leave plenty of times. But that wasn’t the goal. Instead, I felt aware and accepting of those negative moments, along with the positive ones, throughout. I’m convinced it was because I was able to use tools to keep my fuel gauges in check and my perspective grounded. But for the love of god I hope this week I don’t have another catered lunch.