Psychologists and professional trainers tell us that we should give audiences a five-minute break every 60–75 minutes. Psychologists know this from research; trainers know this from experience. They know that after a break, people’s attention spans are restored and the distractions of needing to go the bathroom or needing some water, caffeine, or nicotine have been addressed. I can validate all this from my own experience, having given hundreds of presentations over the years.
Recently, I was leading our quarterly planning meeting at IBEX Payroll. I noticed a few people going the bathroom at about 90 minutes in, then I had to go myself at two hours in. As I left the room, I glanced at my watch and realized how long we had been going at it. It was well past the recommended time for keeping people’s attention. I would never do this to an external group I was speaking to, so why would I do this to my own team? I called for a 10-minute break. At least one-third of the team went straight to the washroom, others rushed to deal with small issues or get a cup of coffee. When we returned, I called for a quick game of rock-paper-scissors to get the blood flowing before we sat down again. It was a different group. Where energy had been waning and people starting to tune out, we were all focused and much more energetic.
I have repeated many times what author and trainer Linton Sellen has taught me about the role of a leader – that is to promote the performance and well-being of the people we lead. Giving your team appropriate breaks during meetings is one very simple way to demonstrate that you care about their well-being and an easy way to enhance the quality of your meetings.
P.S. If your meetings are too short to include a break, you can still use an icebreaker right at the beginning – preferably one that gets people moving and laughing. Here is a blog we wrote listing some of our favourites: