Mindful Planning: Minimizing cognitive fatigue in event design


By Ben Moorsom

Sleeplessness. Overeating. The pace of change. The stress of everyday life. Information overload. It all contributes to fatigue.

Fatigue is the collateral damage of our time. Whether chronic or non-chronic, most of us have experienced it. So how do we design events that optimize energy and minimize physical and cognitive fatigue?

The Cognitive Quotient

First you need to understand what it is. When we say fatigue, we really mean brain-tired cognitive fatigue. Imagine your brain is a glass of water, where the water is information. The more water you put in the glass, the less room there is for any more, until it begins to overflow. At that point the utility of the glass of water is zero. No more information, can be tolerated. The glass says, “I give up.”

It’s the same with the real brain. If it’s too stressed by any or all of the stressors mentioned above, it will not have the capacity to absorb information.

The way we talk about it in business, especially in meeting and event design, is subject to the expectations of business. For example, we say how tired we feel, or how hard it is for us to pay attention and stay productive. So when we talk about fatigue, we are talking about a lack of energy and positive emotion, which leads to poor attention and diminished cognitive performance.

In a society that seems to be getting faster every day, it’s probably not that surprising that we are often feeling worn out. Non-chronic fatigue is everywhere. Not only does fatigue negatively affect our health, but it also affects our ability to process new information, to be convinced of new messaging or simply listen to colleagues in meetings.

How Does Fatigue Affect Us?

First off, how does fatigue work? Is it worse to pull two all-nighters or to work two weeks sleeping six hours each night? Most of us would be surprised or even shocked if an employee stayed up all night once a week, but we do not blink an eye at colleagues who sleep only six hours every night. Is this justified, or just a cultural norm?

According to a 2003 Sleep Research Society study, getting six or fewer hours of sleep per night for two weeks produced cognitive performance deficits equivalent to up to two nights of total sleep deprivation.

The effects of fatigue are cumulative: being too tired puts us out of touch with how tired we are and how it is affecting our performance. According to the same study, participants tended to underestimate their own “sleepiness” and level of cognitive impairment when fatigued. For events and meetings, this means that even if we are introducing breaks and actively monitoring our audience, they might not be aware of how mentally taxed they truly are.

We need to assume the worst.

There are many causes of fatigue that impair performance, like eating too big a lunch or listening to a speaker or colleague for too long. By understanding the many different factors fatiguing our colleagues or audiences, we can build better meetings and events. For example, with a bit of research we can avoid creating an event agenda that prioritizes the quantity of time in sessions over quality time. Similarly, we can structure content within sessions or meetings to minimize the effects of fatigue, reduce the psychological cost of information sharing and improve performance. We can choose a location that is surrounded by nature for its restorative powers. We can construct zones of silence within the event site that allow participants to temporarily “turn off” so that they approach new information with fresh eyes and ears.

As event designers, it is our responsibility to navigate our audience around these cognitive pitfalls to drive better results.

How to Manage Fatigue

The effects of fatigue are easily underestimated. What can we do to take back control of our meetings and events?

Problem: No amount of motivation prevents declines in attention over time.

Current theories suggest we have limitless cognitive resources, but that we lose control over those resources with time. It may not be that our audience does not want to pay attention; it may be that they just can’t. A 2016 Neuroimage study showed that regions in the brain that help us control our thoughts and attention show decreased activity as mental fatigue increases. Even if the audience is motivated to learn more, long meetings can reduce attention and retention.

Solution: Break up long blocks of content with micro-breaks, even as short as 45 seconds long, which have been shown to improve short-term performance. By giving your people a quick mental break they can do better work and learn more in less time.

Problem: Too much quantity, not enough quality.

When we schedule meetings back-to-back or completely fill our event agendas, our objective is generally to achieve the most that we can in the least amount of time. Looks good to our efficiency-obsessed bosses, but guess what: operational efficiency does not equate to effective communication. Squeezing in an extra meeting is not effective if we become more fatigued and they are less attentive and productive. It may even cause resentment — which will kill any possibility for retention, let alone action.

Lack of intermission times may lead to more multitasking, as our colleagues or audience members end up using their phones to address unrelated work issues. Studies have shown that we cannot multi-task, and that when we attempt to do so we actually are rapidly switching our attention between two tasks — performing worse overall.

Solution: A jam packed schedule is not a productive one. Provide lengthier intermissions and consider not only the quantity of breaks, but the quality of breaks. Breaks are most cognitively restorative when they are taken freely, allow us to detach psychologically from work or other obligations and allow us to do whatever we choose.  For this reason, it is usually ill-advised to regularly schedule icebreakers, games or informational talks during rest periods.

Problem: Lack of adaptive behaviours.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to event design. Consider both the temporal and spatial contexts within which the event occurs. For instance, weekend events should consider the weekend routines and habits that people have as opposed to those they have during the work week.

Solution: We cannot fully control the behaviour of event attendees or business colleagues, but we can try to move it in a desired direction. For example, before deciding on an arbitrary start time for a weekend event, consider that people tend to deprive themselves of some sleep during weekdays and recover that sleep by sleeping in during the weekend. In this case, a later start may improve event satisfaction and provide some much-needed sleep recovery.

Problem: Artificial environments galore.

Packed agendas mean extensive time within a meeting venue. Attendees go from room to room, travelling indoors, breathing in stagnant air, and sitting under artificial lights. We can all relate to the uncomfortable feelings that occur when we are kept inside too long. In fact, built enviornments often lack the stress reduction and cognitive restoration that occurs when there are natural environments nearby.

Solution: Another way to improve recovery is through exposure to nature, which has been shown to have restorative effects on mood and memory performance. Asking participants to take a nature walk might be a tough sell but having them passively view nature can be just as beneficial. Select a break area with a natural view, position chairs towards windows and shelter the rest area from excessive noise.

If getting outdoors to view nature is not possible, then bring the nature indoors.  Studies show that just 45 seconds of exposure to real or artificial nature can improve attention and performance on subsequent tasks. Create a beautiful nature loop and have it playing on -screen between sessions.

Problem: Didactic presentations = boring sessions & little retention.

We have a limited working memory capacity. Like any other storage device, when it’s full, the only way to get more info into your brain is to take some out. Take numbers for example. We’ve done ‘chunking’ exercises with audiences. At most people can typically remember 3–5 digits, letters or other chunks on the first try. (Think about your phone number. The numbers are grouped that way for a reason.) Add an extension and international area code, and you will have far more difficulty remembering the entire number.

Solution: So how do you combat cognitive overload in a session? Here are some techniques to consider:

  • Chunking: Simplify content by breaking it into bite-sized chunks. The more clear and concise, the less space is used in working memory.
  • Elaboration: Add information to make it personal or meaningful. Devise a simple slogan or phrase to make an idea more memorable, for example, “Neuroscaping —  it’s like ergonomics for the brain.” This is how any great advertising or political campaign has ever worked.
  • Event flow: Movement forces people to reinterpret their surroundings and your content. If you’ve lost their attention, moving spaces gives you a chance to get it back.
  • Presentation format: Build up to a big or complicated subject. If you break it down into subtopics, then everyone will retain more when it comes to the main message. The more complicated/unfamiliar a message, the more you need subtopics beforehand.
  • Breaks/pauses: Give your audience time to think. It takes time to build a strong memory. The more deeply people think about a piece of content, the longer it stays in memory and the easier (and more likely) they are to think about it often. Breaks can also restore resources and improve performance.
  • Interaction: Interactive sessions are good for retention, but they are more cognitively demanding. Because of this, people often rate them poorer than lectures but they learn more. Use them for the most important concepts at an event to maximize retention without burning out attendees.

In Conclusion

It’s quite shocking how many of us operate on a working schedule that deprives our brain of sleep and leads to fatigue. We are all victims of trying to get too much done in too little time. Therefore, as Event Designers it is absolutely critical to design events in a way that provides a balance between information absorption and mental relaxation. Assume that a significant percentage of your attendees are suffering from one form of fatigue or another and you will already be in a better position to design for them.


About Ben Moorsom:

Ben Moorsom is the world’s leading practitioner of neuroscaping. Since founding the Debut Group in 1997, Ben has made it his mission to challenge and disrupt ineffective conventions of business communications, pioneering new approaches that engage people and truly capture their attention. By applying advances from psychology and neuroscience, Ben and his team turn audiences into participants. They use neuroscaping techniques to cut through the noise and competition at the gateway to the human mind, placing business messages near the front of the line. Ben is a frequent keynote speaker and co-conspirator at global conferences on communication thought leadership.

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