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I’ll be the first to admit it – my mind wanders. I get bored. I have trouble sitting and focusing on one thing – especially one person talking on screen. It feels like things aren’t getting accomplished. And even though I know meetings and classes are important, sometimes my brain and my body aren’t in sync on this.

Granted, I have some mild symptoms of Adult ADHD, but I’m far from alone. In my case, since I know I have this tendency, I usually try to have something in my hand – a slinky or my Fidget Cube. Something I can do. It distracts my physical body from the fact I’m not accomplishing anything without taking my brain and eyes away from what I’m supposed to be focused on.

It was hard before COVID. Because of the nature of my remote job, I spent at least an hour a week, usually closer to 3-4, in a virtual meeting. And, in all fairness, one of them was at my request. Once the pandemic hit and everything shifted – I was still doing those meetings. But I was also trying to take advantage of “free time” and free classes, etc., that were offered. And so, things built up.

Most folks weren’t meant to stare at screens all day. But when work is there, school is there, what little social interaction is there… Yeah, we spend a LOT more time on them than even the most socially addicted teenagers do on their phones.

And eventually, it’s too much. Both sides of the equation get tired. The teachers, the students. The managers, the employees. The influencers and assisters, the people looking for something to do. We’re ALL tired. Distractions derail us easier. We find ourselves yawning all the time. No matter our best intentions, our focus drifts.

When Everything Equals Nothing

People have limited attention spans. This has always been true, but it seems to have definitely accelerated in recent years, definitely since the introduction of the smart phone. But we can’t blame everything on Apple and Android. Even before we had the constant pervasiveness of digital screens, we were bombarding ourselves with input.

Marketing studies show that we get bombarded with some 4-10,000 advertisements every day. Those numbers haven’t decreased since the turn of the millennium. Studies now show the average human can only focus on something for 8-10 seconds. And our microwave culture has affected our recall as well. Scientists say 40% of Americans forget essential information or lose one everyday item every week. They’re not talking about socks disappearing from dryers – but keys, cell phones or wallets.

Our brains are so used to it, we even confuse ourselves sometimes. Who hasn’t lost their glasses on the heads or complained to a friend on the phone that you can’t find your phone! We can barely focus on a few things – let alone ALL the things. What’s worse, trying to focus on everything directly leads to distraction – which makes us less happy and healthy.

How does this relate to virtual work and those ever-ongoing Zoom meetings?

Our brains are created to process a METRIC TON of visual information – more than most realize. In an experiment, researchers discovered that we process millions of bits of visual data in less than a blink of an eye. And faces are the things neurotypicals remember easiest and most of all.

When we’re face to face, most of us tune out the other people in the room, focused on our conversation. But in a virtual meeting – everyone is there all the time – up to 49 faces at once! The filtering process is literally shattered.

When Not Enough is Too Much

In April 2020 alone, Zoom saw 300 million daily meeting participants. 

According to Dr. Sabine Kastner, a neuroscientist at Princeton, “We are now basically confronted constantly with this sea of salient stimuli, completely overloaded, and that filter function is just not very effective.”

That overstimulation drains our energy. Not only do you have all those faces looking back at you – including your own – but there are added distractions, like pets, kids, or the stress that they might interrupt the meeting.

On top of that, if you’re a responsible person, you’re trying to stay “on” all the time. You’re scanning for visual clues and often non-visible body language. And worried that at any moment, the “teacher” might call on you.

Even on screen, distractions multiply. It’s not just your kids and your pets and your neighbor’s landscape company running the leaf blower. It’s dozens, sometimes hundreds of other people having the same issues. While everyone watches. You suddenly have a window into all your coworkers houses, and can find yourself trying to read the title off the spine on that book behind them.

Why did they paint that room green? Are they wearing pants below the camera’s sight? Or you can find yourself unusually bothered by the weird way part of their heads or hands disappear cause they’re using a virtual backdrop.

There’s even some evidence that interacting with people in tiny on-screen windows as opposed to interacting with their life-size person can cause added stress.

Days Are Longer, Even When They’re Shorter

I talked about my friend who works at Netflix in the last article. Chatting with her, she is more tired and feels overworked even though she’s not spending an hour to 90 minutes in traffic, or running up and down stairs to her office. In her old normal work days, if she had a question or issue, she could just pop into someone’s office – even two or three floors above or below her. Now to accomplish the same thing, she has to schedule a Zoom or Google Hangout Meeting – just for a few things. She literally spends 10 hours a day staring at screens, with little respite.

While face-to-face meetings are important, for many reasons, video meetings, for whatever reason, are more associated with stress and fatigue. Our brain chemistry is affected by constantly staring at screens. Microsoft Teams did a study last July and learned that remote work – even for introverts – can be more challenging than working in person. And for some reason, video calls are more stressful for remote workers than interacting through Slack, Basecamp or email.

On top of that, now that you’re home – where do you rest? The old adage about a home being a man’s castle goes out the window when you’re always stuck in that castle. Work goes longer, chores don’t get done. It’s hard to unwind when the place your brain associates with peace and relaxation is now also the greatest source of stress. And you can’t even pop over to Starbucks, or go shopping without being constantly reminded of exactly how this new world works.

Manufacturing Me Time

Thankfully, I live in a house now. For the first six months of the pandemic, I was trapped in a studio apartment. My big trip for each day was walking the 100 steps to the mailboxes and back. Now I try to find time to sit on the back patio and read at least a chapter of a book. We all need to be creative to find ways to release the tension of being at home 24/7.

Moving around is also a good idea. Even if you only have 5 minutes between virtual meeting calls, get up, walk around. Don’t just refill your coffee and sit back down. If you have 10-15 minutes, do a brisk walk around the block to get your blood pumping. You’ll be amazed how much better you’ll feel.

If you were at the office, you’d have breaks every couple of hours. Where I am in California, they’re mandatory. But sitting at home, we’re less likely to stick to that, just hopping up to grab a snack or hit the bathroom. As much as you can, schedule in breaks between your meetings. Again, even that 5 minute stroll around the house can lessen your daily fatigue of staring at screens.

What NOT to do in a Virtual Meeting

We’ve all heard the stories of the folks who thought they were muted or their cameras were off, standing up in pajamas – or less – or loudly complaining about other people on the call. The first rule of virtual meetings is not to be “that guy.” Don’t forget that while you’re home, you’re still technically in a professional setting of some sort.

At the same time, be aware of your technology. If you don’t need to be heard, mute yourself. Invariably on large group calls, there’s that one person or three people who are banging around, driving in traffic, or yelling at their kids, unmuted. It ruins the meeting and possibly other people’s days. It’s also ridiculously rude and disrespectful to the person speaking and/or running the meeting. Again, professional setting. Comport yourself appropriately.

Try to avoid eating, drinking and smoking. A quick bite or sip is fine. But if you need to eat your whole lunch, maybe turn off your camera or skip the meeting. When everyone is staring at you all the time, it gets distracting easily.

Be aware of the camera – what it’s pointed at, what it sees, and try to be mindful of actions that might look weird on your co-workers screens. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people laying in bed, sprawled out on camera. Or stretching so their joints seem to pop right into the camera. The same goes for getting up during the meeting. If you can, hold up a finger to indicate 1 minute, and/or turn your camera off, rather than rising right up. Think about it – even if you’re wearing pants or a skirt, you’re essentially putting your crotch right into people’s eyelines. Not cool.

That’s NOT Multitasking

I gave this its own separate section, cause it’s really that important. And trust me, I am just as guilty as everyone else out there of this virtual meeting “sin.”

Put your phone and/or tablet down. And by down, I mean, FACE DOWN. Mute the alerts, put it on airplane mode if you want, and turn it over so you aren’t even tempted to glance down and see what just came in.

The other people in your meeting are not stupid. They can see the phone in your hand, or your eyes casting down to it on the side of your laptop. Even if you’re answering an important business text, it just looks like you’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve actually listened to one call or audio chat on my phone, while I’m on the laptop for another presentation. Neither one got the attention it deserved.

Oh, and, especially if it’s a business meeting you’re being held accountable for attending, make it full screen. Don’t be clicking around to other tabs, checking email, or God forbid, playing a game.

Don’t be like the 8-year old who figured out how to force Zoom to lock her out of class. And I even hesitate to mention this, but some adults connived a way to loop their video to appear on when they were not paying attention. That’s NOT how you take a break.

Test your picture, sound, etc., before you get into the meeting. Don’t try to change your name or your backdrop or reposition your laptop on the call. If you get booted out for whatever reason, just log back in. Knowing you’re prepared from a technical standpoint relieves your stress as well as others on the call.

Keeping the Mental Trains Running on Time

So what can you do to keep more mentally alert while facing an onslaught of video calls daily?

Start by grounding yourself. I’m personally not a huge proponent of meditation and such, but it can be effective, even in small doses. Take a deep breath, close your eyes, and just take a minute or two before the meeting to center yourself. You’ll be more in the moment and find it easier to focus during the call.

As I mentioned before, if you have the time, work it out physically. Get up and walk, even if it’s just a couple laps around the room you’re in. It will help.

If you’re the leader or moderator for a meeting, you can use a modified form of the mindful meeting approach known as a “Minute to Arrive” at the start of your call. It was developed for in-person meetings, but can be invaluable for virtual meetings as well. Invite everyone to take a deep breath and let go of all the day’s activities, stresses and irritations, and give themselves permission to be fully present in the call. It’s a quick shortcut to being focused in the moment of the current call, and not drag baggage from a past call or experience in with you.

Go ahead and get dressed. I do my calls from my bedroom, so I always get up, get dressed and make my bed, so things are uncluttered behind me. But the repeated ritual also gives me a certain peace and puts me in the right mindset to work. I can’t separate work from my room, so I make my room as professional as possible when I need to be professional.

Environmentally Sound

I’ve already talked about silencing and setting aside your phone, as well as putting the Zoom call in full screen. But it’s still easy to Alt-Tab to another window when you get bored. And if you’re like me (or my boss), you have WAY too many open tabs in your browser. And/or too many open documents. As I type this, I have 24 other Word documents open, in various stages of writing, reading and note-taking. Use OneTab to make your browser succinct without losing your place or spending too much time bookmarking open tabs (let’s be honest, you forget to go back to many of those bookmarks anyway).

Grab a pen and some paper. This eliminates the need to have so many computer windows open. You take analog notes the old fashioned way and it grounds you in the meeting moment. It also lets your eyes rest from staring at a screen. Plus, if/when you transcribe those notes later, it helps reinforce what was discussed, agreed upon and tasks that need to be finished.

Declutter your desk/workspace. The more physical distractions you have, the easier it is to ignore what’s on screen or get sidetracked. Heck, cleaning is one of the great procrastination devices – so declutter your area, so that’s not “in your way” anymore, and you’ll have more time and attention for work things. Ideally, you want a dedicated space for virtual meetings and work.

I know some folks who literally put their desk in a closet, so they can shut the door and just be there. Doing multiple jobs, I can’t isolate or compartmentalize as much as I’d like, but I have a section that is for work and I can even drop a blue screen behind it to “wall” myself off.

Eye of the Beholder

Here’s something you might not have considered. Did you know seeing yourself is stressful? Yes, we all know those folks who love to stare into the mirror and preen. I live and work with actors who are often self-conscious, if not narcissistic. They LOVE being “on.” But even those people are stressed in a virtual meeting.

It’s one thing to perform, present, shining as the center of attention. It’s another to be tracking everyone’s faces, and suddenly distracted by your own. You may realize you have RBF (Google it), or that you look weird when you smile. Things you spot that no one else cares about or notices.

Studies also show that viewing your own negative facial reactions can lead to more intense emotions. It’s not just that you’ve been cooped up at home too long. Your brain chemistry reacts to seeing your face screwed up and heightens your natural emotions. You can get angrier or sadder. Hopefully, it works for smiles too, but I didn’t see any research on that.

So shut off the self-view of your camera on screen, once you’ve checked it and made sure your surroundings look good. Just don’t forget that others can still see you!

In most of the popular virtual meeting spaces like Zoom and Discord, you can use “Speaker View.” This way, you’re not scrolling through faces – or pages in really big meetings – for who’s talking. They’re right there, dominating the screen. You can also use the three dots at top to “Pin” one or more people to the upper right of your gallery view, so you can easily find the people who need to be your focus.

Curiosity Saved the Engagement

Development coach Armada Markarova suggests an more active listening approach. She remains curious and attentive by committing to asking two relevant questions during every meeting. It helps focus on what others say and ask. And it can turn a boring meeting into an interactive conversation. Not only is the meeting more engaging for you – everyone gets more involved.

Asking questions can also help combat the Ringelmann Effect. The Ringelmann Effect posits that the more people you have working on something, the less each one has to pull his or her weight. Of course, we know inherently that isn’t true. Even going back to middle school group projects, there are always one or two classmates who did the lion’s share.

On a Zoom call, people who aren’t engaged or actively participating can zone out even without meaning to do so. Which is a good reason to limit the number of people in your meeting, and I’ll talk about that in a moment. Knowing your purpose in a meeting is also key. Even if your boss hasn’t assigned you anything, know for yourself why you’re there.

Cross- and overtalk can quickly become issues. Pause before jumping in. Beginning to speak, acknowledge the previous statement – right before yours and if you’re building off someone else’s statement. On the audio-based Clubhouse app, moderators often ask speakers to verbally acknowledge, “I’m done speaking,” both to avoid confusion and facilitate those using assistive devices.

Some meetings will let you record, or the host will record the session. Some companies use an add-on that displays and even records captions of what people are saying. And the technology has gotten really good. While some accents and phrasing might throw the system a curve ball, most of the time, the on screen text matches the dialogue.

But I’m the Leader!

If you’re running or facilitating the virtual meeting, it’s easier to pay attention (I hope!), but it also allows you to set the tone and the level of engagement. You can utilize the “Minute to Arrive” approach I outlined earlier. Or you can let people interact naturally for a few minutes before the “real meeting” starts, just like you’d do in real life. I personally struggle with this, because small talk isn’t my forte and I’m usually eager to get down to business. But most folks need a moment or two to connect with fellow participants, especially if this is the only “place” they’re encountering them.

Allowing a healthy gap warms up the room, builds camaraderie and trust, and allows everyone to take a mental break, even if they have back to back meetings. It also causes less stress and interruption if someone pops in late. See, they’re still on time!

Dress the part. Yes, we’re all stuck at home. Again, you set the tone. Be a good example. When you present as professional and presentable, everyone else feels the urge to get to work and get work done.

Don’t be a dictator. Remember, engagement increases when meetings are interactive. Let others take ownership. Encourage other opinions, brainstorming, and questions. The more you open things up to ideas and people feeling confident that they have a purpose and role to play, the better the work will ultimately be.

Not everyone needs to be in every meeting. You value your time. Let your people know you value theirs by not asking or expecting them to appear at a meeting they don’t need to be involved with.  Successful, productive calls require engagement, and too many people on a video call can make this challenging.

Speaking of Value Assurance

In August of 2020, Seth Godin published a simple post that proposed an agreement for virtual workspaces. I’m linking to it here, but also posting in its entirety here, because it’s just so good:

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 you can egg me on and bring enthusiasm to the interaction, I can lean into the work and reflect back even more energy than you’re contributing.

The purpose of a meeting is not to fill the allocated slot on the Google calendar invite. The purpose is to communicate an idea and the emotions that go with it, and to find out what’s missing via engaged conversation.

If we can’t do that, let’s not meet.

Multi-tasking isn’t productive, respectful or healthy.

~ Seth Godin

Another point to add to this – you’re in charge. You’ve got no excuse for not being engaged. Focus, pay attention when others are speaking. Don’t ramble on and on, needlessly extending a meeting. Make sure you understand and address any concerns or questions. And be passionate. Your passion tells your people it’s important to you – it’ll be important to them too.

Not Seeing is Believing

A quick side note – not every meeting needs to be on video. Face to face is nice and helpful, but again, so many of us are doing these meetings back to back to back that sometimes a phone call is fine. Of course, if you have a visual presentation or need to show things, video is essential. But if it’s just a couple of questions, or an update on progress, use the phone.

As the boss, you can also institute a weekly Zoom free day. We forget now that we can so easily connect, that meetings, in many situations, are an interruption of the actual work that needs to be done. Some meetings are important and necessary, but many are non-essential. And like my friend at Netflix, now even the briefest conversations need to be scheduled.

Think of it as a casual Friday of sorts. Allow your people’s eyes and minds to take a full 24-hour break from virtually connecting without feeling guilty. Like many imposed limitations, you’ll probably find that everyone is more strategic about the meetings they do schedule.

Advanced User Tips

In a normal situation, you lose 90% of your audience within the first 5 minutes of a presentation. Hook them early with something that engages their emotions. Emotion adds clarity and in client minds, triggers the brain to activate buyer decisions. Help the people you’re with see what you see – not necessarily with visual aids, but by painting a picture in their minds.

Story is a powerful tool to do just that.

You see it in movies all the time. Characters are having a disagreement or argument (or sometimes just a discussion), and one of them will pause, thinking about what the other has said. Then they launch into a story about something in the past.

It seems like a non sequitur, but by the end of the story, you realize why they told that story. It’s a screenwriting trick we actually stole from Jesus, of all people. Parables, stories that help people see our point of view or the reason for our actions, beliefs, etc., are powerful communication devices.

Don’t shy away from using story to connect with your audience or team. In fact, good storytelling covers a multitude of other sins and quite often cuts right through miscommunication and into the heart of your listener.

Finally, remember to light as well as you can – preferably with the light source BEHIND the camera. And look up into the camera, not down at it. This way, people are looking at your eyes, not up your nose. It also gives a more pleasant feel, as opposed to an inadvertently judgmental look.

Last Looks

Being a part of a small business can be challenging as well as very rewarding. Just because your team or clients are no longer coming into a physical room with you doesn’t mean that changes. There are just more challenges to address.

Hopefully, this article offers some significant, actionable tips to making the situation more pleasant and productive for everyone involved. Being remote doesn’t have to be a struggle – we’ve done it here at Grow the Dream for nearly 10 years and we’re still going strong. Your business can too.

If there’s anything we can do for you, or any service we can offer, please reach out. We hope to resume our #StrategyStreams soon, but in the meantime, we’re here to help you and your business.

Let’s Grow The Dream together!