What’s the best way to stay awake in meetings?

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US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is reportedly prone to dozing off in meetings. He’s not the only one. So is there a trick to stopping those eyelids from suddenly feeling so, so heavy?

Meeting-induced sleepiness – it happens to the best of us.

Former vice-presidents Joe Biden and Dick Cheney; former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Clarence Thomas – all famous faces who have made headlines for being caught napping during speeches and meetings.

Mr Ross is the latest politician to be criticised for being reportedly unable to “stop falling asleep in meetings” at his department, according to Politico. But his staff denied his focus was so erratic that long meetings were avoided.

So how can you avoid the tempting pull of sleep during your next meeting – and how might you keep everyone awake the next time you have to lead one?

1. The right time…

Elise Keith, founder of Lucid Meetings, a US-based meeting coaching company, says that while time preferences may vary among individuals, research indicates that some periods may be better for achieving certain goals.

“Things like status updates and logical thinking – you want to do those earlier in the morning,” she says. When impressing people is important – like status updates, sales demos, interviews – the morning, “when sharpness and enthusiasm are at their height”, is best.

“Closer to the end of the day is a really good time for brainstorming… because the energy that you had in the morning has started to wear off,” she says. “People loosen up, which is also what you want when you’re trying to illicit cool ideas.”

And of course, never do meetings in the “dead zone” period – right after lunch.

UK-based author and workplace culture expert Judi James, however, says the exact time “matters less than we think” and ensuring a meeting has a clearly stated end time is more important.

“We often fall asleep in meetings out of boredom, not tiredness.”

2. … and right place

While some sessions must take place wherever the work can get done, meeting in unconventional locations can help boost creativity.

Standing meetings – where, as the name suggests, participants talk without sitting down – have also been praised by many efficiency experts for keeping things efficient.

Ms Keith suggests walking meetings or spaces outside for more creative sessions.

3. Be prepared

“The kind of meeting that leaves people to fall asleep is one where they probably shouldn’t be there in the first place… or where other people are talking at them,” Ms Keith says.

“Have clarity of what the meeting is about and a plan for reaching the outcomes of that meeting, which then allows you to only invite relevant people.”

One recent study found American workers on average felt just 33% of leaders were well-prepared for meetings. And most managers, Ms Keith notes, may spend 80% of their time in meetings without ever having been trained how to lead one.

Ensuring a clear agenda is a common piece of advice from productivity gurus.

Annette Catino, a healthcare executive and entrepreneur, told the New York Times an agenda was essential, “because if I don’t know why we’re in the meeting, and you don’t know why we’re there, then there’s no reason for a meeting”.

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“One of the ways that people stay awake is that they’re in a meeting that’s interesting to them and relevant to their work.”

And if you’re not certain who should be there? Make the meetings optional and see who shows, Ms Keith suggests.

*If you’re still with us, now might be a good time for a stand-up-and-stretch break.

4. Stay alert throughout the day

Ms James recommends standing up from your desk every half-hour or to stretch and “invigorate” yourself throughout the day.

And though some companies like Google, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and online retailer Zappos, have offered employees spaces to get some shut eye during the work day, Ms James cautions that “power naps aren’t always effective as they help you see the workplace as a sleep place”.

5. To snack or not to snack?

While Ms James suggests turning down hot drinks or carb-heavy snacks before a meeting if you are prone to drowsiness, Ms Keith says the right kind of snacks can help improve meeting culture.

Snacks can keep people alert, for one thing, but are also a “symbol of caring” in many cultures.

“Why not bring that into your meetings? Why not show the people there that they are cared for, they belong, their wellbeing is something that matters to you?”

Of course, avoiding loud or smelly snacks is important, as is being mindful of participants’ dietary restrictions.

5. Engage

Putting it simply – you can’t fall asleep if you’re participating.

“Speak up during the first three minutes,” Ms James recommends. “It gets your voice into the room and allows you to feel like a contributor not a listener.”

Ms James also suggests making active body language contributions – “nod , use eye contact, and non-verbal responses to what you hear”.

Taking notes can also be helpful in keeping your brain alert.

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“If the meeting is dragging on, make yourself the note taker, search for key points, decisions that seem to be getting made but nobody is articulating clearly,” Ms Keith says.

“Raise your hand, interject, make sure they get called out. You can help other people be heard and ask questions.”

For leaders, Ms James says make sure to adhere to the agenda and only the agenda – tacking on “other business”, she warns, is “when the bores kick off”.

6. Fidget away

When all else fails, keeping your hands busy can help.

Ms Keith’s fidgeting tool of choice is a pipe cleaner – simple, and quiet, if a little odd.

Doodling is another longstanding go-to for bored meeting goers, but Ms James says it can make you even more drowsy.

Sometimes, it may just take a pinch on your own arm instead, she adds.

And if you do happen to nod off?

Both Ms James and Ms Keith agree, if you succumb to sleep, it may be best to leave.

“Make a swift excuse that doesn’t sound attacking, and if possible, get up quietly, apologise and leave,” Ms James recommends. And if you notice a colleague drifting off, only nudge them awake if you are friends.

And after any such meeting, Ms Keith emphasises the importance of providing honest feedback.

“If you’re in there and you’re sleeping because the meeting is so poorly planned, so disengaging, and such a big waste of your time, then that’s a massive bit of wasted investment for your company and the leading cause of employee disengagement,” she says.

“That’s the kind of thing that makes people quit.”

Reporting by Ritu Prasad

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