Adventures in…Getting Through the Afternoon Slump During a Meeting

If you attend meetings at work, chances are you’ve had trouble staying awake in at least one of those meetings. It’s not ideal, but I don’t know a single professional who hasn’t struggled with this at some point in their career. The good news is that I’ve noticed that it gets easier the more you progress in your career. Regardless, you may be invited to meetings relatively in your career and, due to a bad combination of events, you struggle to stay awake. Most of the time, the culprits are a big lunch, bad sleep the night(s) before, a dark room, a warm room, a boring speaker, tangents that don’t involve you. Picture it…you’ve just had lunch and have to attend a meeting. You’re full, maybe the room is dark, maybe you didn’t get enough sleep the night before, and you don’t have a major role. You aren’t the organizer or a main speaker, and it becomes hard to pay attention. Those early and mid-afternoon meetings can be so hard because you’re so tired.

I’ve talked before about how everything is a skill and this is no different. It is definitely a skill to stay awake during the afternoon slump. There are a variety of little ways I’ve tried getting through the afternoon slump during a meeting. Some of them have defintely worked better than others and none of them work every time. That’s why I keep trying new ways and combining them to see what works.

The Problem

You’re in a meeting and you need to stay awake. Yet, for whatever reason, it is almost impossible to keep your eyes open. In order to get through this meeting and keep your job, you need to stay awake without:

  • making much (or any) noise,
  • fidgeting too much,
  • looking at your phone (because that is way too obvious and distracts you), or
  • calling attention to yourself.

Those are my criteria and I’ve come up with an arsenal of tricks and techniques to staying awake and staying focused.

Methods to Stay Awake

The methods identified below are divided into Plan-Ahead Methods that you can use if you know you have an early afternoon meeting and In-The-Moment Methods that you can try when you find yourself in an early afternoon meeting having an afternoon slump.

Plan-Ahead Methods

Below is a list of plan-ahead methods I’ve used to help me prepare for that afternoon slump that happens during an afternoon meeting.

Method How Well It’s Worked For Me Notes
Eat a light lunch Great This is my favorite way to avoid the afternoon slump! I started eating a salad and light lunch every day months ago, and this has been the best way I’ve found to avoid getting tired. When I bring my own (light) lunch, it helps me get through the afternoon while keeping my energy up – without coffee!
Playing with a stress ball under the table Great This method is included under “plan ahead” because you have to plan ahead to bring the stress ball. I came across this technique recently at a conference when I picked up a swag stress ball and started playing with it during a presentation. It gave me an outlet to fidget (and stay awake) while not being distracting to me. It might be distracting to others, so do this under the table.
Have snacks Alright Snacking isn’t always acceptable at a meeting, but it’s an option if it’s acceptable. I’m not a fan of mindless eating, but eating small bites of food has been a decent way for me to stay awake. My problem with this is that my favorite snacks can be noisy (e.g., carrots and nuts) and this calls attention to yourself.
Go to bed early the night before Not so great This one is pretty cliche and sounds like something I pulled off the internet. However, it’s true. While I should do this every day, it doesn’t always work. However, it’s easier to avoid being tired when I’ve gotten enough sleep.

In-The-Moment Methods

If you have tried the above plan-ahead methods and are still tired, or you find yourself getting tired during an afternoon meeting, here are some in-the-moments methods.

Method How Well It’s Worked For Me Notes
Excuse yourself and stretch Great! It isn’t always feasible to leave the meeting, but if you can, movement is generally the best way to re-energize yourself. It doesn’t take much, but bending over to touch my toes, reaching towards the ceiling, and any other gentle, quick stretches get the blood flowing again and helps wake me right up.
Take detailed notes Decent This method has the benefit of making you look good. Sometimes taking notes engages my brain enough that I can stay awake without any other help.
Lean forward Decent Leaning forward is your body’s way of engaging in whatever you’re doing. It is a natural thing you do when you’re interested in something, and you can pretend that you’re interested in the meeting by leaning forward. This method is basically faking it til you make it, and it can definitely help you out. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work, especially if you’re really tired.
Take sips of water/coffee Decent If you have a bottle of water or cup of coffee, slowly taking sips can be helpful. This was particularly useful the other week when I had a really cold bottle of water that was like a jolt to my system every time I took a sip. I usually avoid coffee in the afternoon, but some people can drink it without a problem. Also, I do occasionally drink coffee if I’m really tired and really need to stay awake.
Subtly scratch your head Great immediately, decent over time I love this one, though that’s maybe because I love head scratches. It works better when my nails are longer, but it’s still effective regardless. Scratching the back and top of your head stimulates your brain, even just a little bit, and helps wake you up.

The trick is to only scratch your head for a few seconds, otherwise you look weird and may possibly attract unwanted attention.

Rub the bridge of your nose and/or forehead Great immediately, decent over time Similar to scratching your head, this one feels pretty good and I love it. You can either rub the bridge of your nose or your forehead just under your eyebrows – the technique is the same either way. Place your thumb on one side of your nose and your middle or index finger on the other side and apply pressure as you move your fingers in opposite directions. If you’re rubbing your nose, your fingers will move away from each other on the bone right under your eyes. If you’re rubbing your forehead, your fingers will move away from each other on the bone right under your eyebrows. It feels pretty darn good and you might want to do it a few times.

This is better than rubbing your eyes because it is like a mini-massage and won’t mess up your makeup. However, you should only do it 1 to 3 times in a row to avoid calling attention to yourself.

Tap your toes (but not your heels) Pretty well You know how you tap your toes when you get fidgety? Well, you can do that when you’re tired to help wake yourself up. I do it all the time, even sitting at my desk. However, don’t be annoying when you do it. Sometimes if you’re sitting close to other people, the vibration transfers through the chair arms or even through the table if you’re leaning on it and other people can feel it. It’s annoying to me when other people are fidgety, so I’m sure it’s annoying to other people when I’m fidgety.
Take off glasses and put back on Decent This is another subtle technique that moves part of your body, though it only works if you wear glasses. I do this
Cross and uncross your legs every minute Decent, but better if you’re less tired Here we have yet another subtle movement. Crossing and uncrossing legs can be really helpful, but you can’t do it too often or you’ll attract attention and/or annoy the person/people next to you, or it’ll look like you’re too fidgety.
Doodle (discreetly) Decent I bring a notepad and pen to every meeting I attend, whether it’s being called into my boss’s office or a planned meeting. In addition to taking notes, this lets me doodle if I want/need. I avoid making big and/or elaborate doodles, as they may call attention to my notepad and that is something I definitely don’t want to do. But little doodles work just fine and can help engage my brain enough to get through my slump.
Turn the meeting into a game Meh This technique works better if I’m bored instead of tired, but I can and have used it to get through the afternoon slump. Some ‘games’ I’ve played in a meeting:

  • Who talks the most
  • Who makes the best point
  • Who else is falling asleep
  • Who isn’t falling asleep
  • Who is checking their phone
  • Who is noticing me
  • What word is said the most
  • Arguing with the winning point in my head
  • Mentally playing Devil’s Advocate
  • Seeing if I can come up with another idea (though I have historically been way too shy to speak during many meetings)
  • Watching other people’s body language to see what they really think about the meeting
Lift both feet off the flow Meh This technique was suggested to me by someone else and it only works for a very short period of time. It might work better if my abs were stronger, but I can only do it once or twice before giving up and moving on to another method.
Pinch yourself Meh Some people are able to pinch themselves to wake up, though this has pretty much never worked for me. My thought is that I’d need to pinch myself through my clothes to avoid leaving any marks, but it still just doesn’t work for me. However, I’ve tried because I’m willing to try almost anything to see if it works.

Don’t Do

The above tables have my notes on things I’ve tried that fit my criteria. There are a few things that you shouldn’t do:

  • Yawn excessively
  • Play with a clicky pen (you know the kind)
  • Look at your phone (a dead giveaway that you’ve checked out of the meeting)
  • Be too fidgety
  • Fall asleep

Your Turn!

These are all little ways that I’ve tried to get through the afternoon slump, specifically during meetings. What about you? Have you ever struggled to stay awake at a meeting? Please share what you’ve tried and what works for you!

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