In Blog, Brevity


What’s wrong with multitasking during meetings? Well, think of the most important business decision your facing right now. Now, imagine you’re in a meeting with an 8-year-old to help you make that decision. How does it turn out? Is the 8-year-old able to assess all the necessary details? Is he able to stay focused on the task at hand? Or is he jumping out of his chair to ask if there will be a treat later?
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against 8-year-olds. One of the great joys of my life is hanging out with my 8-year-old son. He’s clever, mischievous and sports a contagious smile. But he isn’t ready to run a business or manage a team yet.

Science agrees

Apparently, executives that multitask during important meetings shouldn’t be making important decisions either. Because when we multitask, our IQs drop to 8-year-old levels. This from Forbes a couple years ago:
“A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they’d expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.”
I see people multitasking in meetings almost daily in nearly every business I work with. And it’s not limited to the occasional under-the-table text (which, by the way, everyone can see). No, it’s increasingly out in the open. I was in a meeting recently and all twelve attendees had their laptops open and their iPhones on the table. And they didn’t hesitate to use them.

The cost of multitasking in meetings


Most people would agree that this isn’t a very courteous practice for professionals. That aside, let’s consider the cost of this behavior: Pulling together a dozen executives or senior professionals for an hour or two can cost thousands of dollars of salaries (not to mention the opportunity cost of taking them away from the work that they’re being paid to do). Plus the fact that these very valuable high powered executives are performing with the mental maturity of a room full of third graders. Well, now the investment of their time doesn’t seem worthwhile.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when these meetings yield poor decisions, get off track or don’t reach the stated objective in the allotted time. After all, this is how 8-year-olds act.

So what can we do about it?

Well, we can fight for their attention by being more engaging. Certainly something to shoot for. I’ve also heard of some executives taking an old school approach and forbidding smartphones in the meeting room. (Just like the sad day I got my He-Man action figure confiscated by the teacher for bringing it to class.)
But I’ve also found that following some common-sense best practices for meetings will increase engagement and minimize the temptation to multitask in meetings. Consider the following:

4 ways to maintain attention at meetings

1. Send the objective and agenda out prior – Make it clear what you expect them to bring to the meeting. If the objective can’t be stated simply in one sentence then ask yourself if you’re meeting is trying to do too much. People can become disengaged by the part of the meeting that isn’t relevant to them. And they turn to nearest distraction and the multitasking begins.
2. Be more exclusive – Only invite people who really need to be there. If you have people in your meeting who aren’t speaking, it’s a sign that they’re wasting their time (unless they’re auditing the session as part of professional development.) Inviting someone because something “might” get said that “might” apply to something they are working on is a pretty weak excuse to take 10 percent of their day in a meeting.
3. Cut the meeting in half – Meetings will expand to the time allotted. If the meeting time is short and the objective is clearly defined you’d be amazed at what can get accomplished. Don’t let your calendar tell you a meeting should be 60 minutes. Make it 15. Make it 5, you’re in charge!
4. Be empowered to say “no” – If you’re on the receiving end of a meeting request, you have every right to ask for a clear objective and agenda. If you don’t get it or determine the meeting isn’t a good use of your time, don’t go. Ask for short, written summary instead and clear your calendar for more productive work.
These are just a few ways to avoid multitasking in meetings. I’m sure there are many more. Send comments with your meeting tricks to keep people from reaching for their smartphones and turning into 8-year-olds.
Which reminds me: maybe if I bring treats to my next meeting…
About the author: Charley Thornton is a lead instructor for the Brief Lab and the Sheffield Company. He specializes in conducting Narrative Mapping Workshops, BRIEF Workshops, creative planning and strategic consulting. He’s worked with top Fortune 500 companies from Harley Davidson to elite Special Operations Units within the Military. Follow Charley on LinkedIn.
PHOTO CREDIT: INVAR TECHCC

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