It’s Hard to Focus When You’re Exhausted

I’ve done a lot of travel lately: Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, England, Ukraine, Austria, Croatia, and now South Africa in just the last few weeks.

In those places, I’ve had many long, detailed meetings with prospects, customers, and colleagues. During those meetings, it’s sometimes been very hard to maintain mental acuity and focus.

So, why does this matter? Well, at some point you might find yourself hosting people who’ve come a long way to see you, for instance:

  • A customer visit to your headquarters
  • An annual or quarterly sales meeting
  • A user conference

To get the most out of the opportunity, you need to appreciate what they’re going through, so you can accommodate but still be effective.

[this post is part of an ongoing series of rants constructive observations to help HQers understand and appreciate what it’s like to be on-the-road]

After a recent day that had two meetings – one was two hours long with two people, the other was five hours long with seven people – I tried to think back to the sessions and I honestly couldn’t separate them or recall details. I’d done most of the speaking, from our side, so there was little opportunity for me to take notes directly. That evening, my brain just couldn’t recall sufficient detail to separate the conversations.

I also keenly remember during one recent conversation with a colleague, at the end of one of my country-hopping trips, I just madly typed out everything he was saying in real-time because I’d recognized that my short-term memory had turned off, so the only way to maintain the conversation was to live-type it for myself. Before composing my response, I’d actually read what he had just said so that I could process it.

I just madly typed out everything he was saying in real-time because I’d recognized that my short-term memory had turned off.

In Mind Wide Open, Steven Johnson explains that,

“Even if the proverbial man on the street continues to think of attention as a unified thing, the neuroscientists and psychologists now know it to be a collection of different skills, sometimes overlapping and sometimes not. The concept of attention is a prisoner of our language: we think of these different skills as qualitatively alike because we have one word that embraces them all.” (p89)

He goes on to further explain that,

“The attention system works as a kind of assembly line: higher-level functions are built on top of the lower-level functions. So if you have problems encoding, you’ll almost certainly have problems with supervisory attention. When people notice attention impairments, they’re usually detecting problems with the focus/execute or the supervisory levels, but the original source of the problem may well be farther down the line.” (p93)

“Neuroscientists and psychologists now know (attention) to be a collection of different skills…The attention system works as a kind of assembly line: higher-level functions are built on top of the lower-level functions.” (Mind Wide Open)

There are something like a dozen different components to attention and focus, and if any one of them is having a problem then your whole system can get in a dysfunctional tizzy. Being exhausted is a surefire way to start knocking off these systems.

On my recent trips, I was keenly aware of different parts breaking down. It was problematic, sure, but the awareness at least helped me to implement strategies to cope.

OK, everyone feels badly for me now (or thinks I’m a baby)…but what does this have to do with HQers?

Many companies have, once or a couple of times a year, a big conference that brings in all the remote folks. This conference is usually a few days to a week in duration, and is often characterized by four to eight hours a day of presentations.

Or, maybe you’re hosting some folks from a customer or prospect, and they’re doing a kick-the-tires visit to make sure your company is more than just a website.

We, as HQers (I’m an HQer myself) tend to get angry or hurt if we see people nodding off or leaving the room during our presentations. After all, we’ve spent a long time polishing our message, making our slides pretty, thinking about what the audience will value, etc. So who the hell are they to fall asleep?!?! How very inconsiderate.

Here’s what it’s easy to forget: that room is full of people from all over the world. Some traveled for 12 hours across five time-zones. Some traveled for 30 hours across 12. They are all exhausted.

My own recent travel has rekindled my sympathy and appreciation for these challenges, and has renewed my interest in what can we, as HQers, do to help out the folks who’ve traveled so long and so far?

There are all sorts of tactics (e.g., vary the sessions, only use dynamic speakers, keep the sessions shorter, change the venues, have frequent breaks, ask them to present a topic, etc.), but I think the number one thing is to understand their perspective and appreciate that they’re absolutely exhausted.

Just starting with that appreciation in mind is a great start.


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Everything, Marketing
3 comments on “It’s Hard to Focus When You’re Exhausted
  1. This is a very interesting post about focus and attention. I just checked out the book “Mind Wide Open” on Amazon. Did you read it? It looks like it is less “scientific” than I thought.

    • Lee Brooks says:

      Hi Madeline,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

      Yeah, I read Mind Wide Open – you can see my thoughts here. I’d say it’s got a lot of science in there (state of the art as of 2004), but it isn’t exclusively scientific, as it periodically wanders into related disciplines and concepts. I found it wandered a bit much, but I still enjoyed it overall.


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