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The Brain Science Behind Meeting Breaks

The Brain Science Behind Meeting Breaks

To find out how to help attendees get the most from meetings, we contacted health and stress expert Heidi Hanna, PhD, a speaker, author, and the CEO of Synergy, a consultancy that creates specialized health and performance solutions for organizations. Here’s what she told us.

MeetingsNet: How do you design a meeting agenda with brain health as a priority? 
Heidi Hanna: The most important thing for meeting planners to keep in mind is that while time is a finite resource, the value we get out of the time we have depends on our ability to bring our full and best energy to that time.  

To do that, we must create an optimal performance pulse or rhythm throughout the day. That means having segments of time where we’re fully engaged followed by time and space to recharge. 

Studies have shown that most people do well spending no more than 90 minutes at a time focused on one task. I suggest that it’s actually less than 90 minutes, due to the fact that people are constantly multitasking and have trained their attention to drift more regularly. So I recommend chunking up the day into 50-minute focus times followed by 10 minutes of break time. This allows for not only a mental break, but also time to transition out of what you were doing and into what you plan to do next. That’s critical, because it reduces the stress of feeling like you are racing from one session to the next.  

Breaks should encourage both mental and physical shifts, such as moving from analytical/task mode to reflective/creative mode and from sitting to standing, stretching, or walking.  

In addition to how the day is scheduled, it’s important to be aware of how participants are refueling throughout the day. Many programs invite a wellness speaker but then offer unhealthy lunches and snacks, or fail to include snacks at all. Have healthy choices available.

MeetingsNet: Why do you describe the ideal agenda as following a “pulse” or “rhythm”?
HH: Everything about the human system is designed to oscillate—from heartbeats, to brain waves, to blood sugar. But most of us “flatline” our way through the day, feeling stressed out from the moment we get up in the morning until we toss and turn our way through restless sleep at night.  

This puts us in survival mode, which not only harms our health via toxic stress hormones, it also diminishes our productivity and engagement. At meetings and conferences, we are typically presented with new information that is important for us to incorporate into our business But if we’re functioning in survival mode, we get stuck in old patterns with habituated thinking, and it’s very difficult to assimilate any new information, let alone figure out how to incorporate it into our already busy schedules.

If we want people to learn and change, we must present information in a way that is engaging and experiential, and allow them adequate breaks and recovery time to reflect on what they’re learning.  

MeetingsNet: What constitutes an effective meeting break?
HH: The key with recovery is to incorporate activities that allow the brain to shift out of task mode into a more reflective mode. This is where most of our memory consolidation happens and where we have more insight and creativity. Most people know that their best ideas often come when they’re least expecting them—while they’re in a more relaxed state, such as taking a shower, getting a massage, or trying to go to sleep. We want to encourage this mindset shift more often so we can use all the different areas of the brain, not just our stress-based analytical mode that can keep us locked into habitual thinking.  

MeetingsNet: What would your perfect day at a business meeting look like?
HH: Here’s how I would schedule it:

•  45 minutes of interactive, engaging discussion

•  5 to 10 minutes of a recharging activity, such as walking, going outside for fresh air, listening to music, doing some deep breathing, stretching, or other gentle physical activity that allows the brain to relax and reflect on the information learned

•  5 to 10 minutes, if needed, for participants to reengage in work activities so that they’re not stressing about what’s waiting for them back in the office. This should be communicated clearly ahead of the meeting. Knowing they have this time blocked out will allow participants to fully engage in the sessions. Otherwise they’re only partially listening to the presentations while also partially worrying about what’s going on back at work.


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