Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash

The Real Reasons you’re still Zoom Fatigued

And what to do about it

Zoom Fatigue is a term that didn’t even exist in the beginning of 2020. And while the flurry of google searches has gone from a blazing fire to a slow burn, you are still exhausted at the end of the day from all the video calls.

Here’s a few reasons why your video meetings are taxing your brain, and what to do about it.

Two People talking maxes out your ability to listen

Your attention has a limited bandwidth, just like your internet. It’s hard to measure, but some estimates have put your attention span at 120 bits per second. One person talking is ~60 bits per second. If there’s crosstalk in your meeting, it saps your ability to focus.

In “real life” we can focus on certain sounds and filter other ones out more easily based on distance, using our eyes to lip read and even tilting our heads, ever so slightly, to help us focus on particular sounds. This is what happens at cocktail parties (if you can remember them) and scientists have used insights into what they term Dichotic listening to help air traffic controllers do their jobs safely.

On Zoom, not so much. Every person speaking has the same basic volume based on your computer’s volume setting. Your brain can’t filter crosstalk so easily.

The simple fix is to Set Clear Speaking Rules. Nominate a moderator or facilitator and raise your hands, or go around the room one at a time to hear from everyone. My favorite way to get everyone to share is to have the person currently speaking “pass the mic” to the next person who wants to share, or for them to pick someone who hasn’t spoken yet.

Watching yourself that much isn’t natural.

It’s a Zoom default feature to have your self-view on. Even more strange — you are the same size as the other folks in the session!

One person talking takes up half of your attention bandwidth. Reading people’s facial expressions and your own thoughts can easy take up the rest. In fact, there is research that suggests that we can often regard our image in the mirror as another person in the room that we need to consider and interact with. Ignoring it would be impolite!

The cognitive load of checking your hair isn’t something you need to do more than once in a meeting. See above…120 bits per second is your max attention, one person speaking is 60 bits…how much is checking out your cowlick? Can someone do some more science on this one?

The simple fix is to hide your “Self-View” after you’re sure you’re looking sharp. (If you need some advice on how to look better on zoom, look no further than here.)

We need eye contact to communicate.

It’s impossible to make eye-contact on a video call. And it turns out that eye contact is nourishing, stimulating, humanizing and transformative.

When you look at a screen, you’re not actually *looking* at the people you’re trying to connect with. You look like you’re *looking down*, instead. Looking straight at the camera can help make a person or group feel more connected to you — like you’re actually making eye contact.

What do to about this? Well…it’s complicated.

It’s hard to look a little white light and feel a human connection. So, years ago I started doing the sticky smiley trick, pictured below.

As a facilitator and coach, I use a sticky note to remind myself to serve the person or people I’m working with and make eye contact with them…even if I can’t get the same feeling back from them

This is a zero tech way to help your online calls more human...for others.

So to sum up:

1. Draw a smiley face on the sticky side of a sticky note.
2. Stick it just above your camera.
3. Look at the face when you are talking or actively listening to serve the other people on the call.

You can’t do it the whole time you’re talking…but it’s good to come back to that sticky smiley face throughout your session.

Click here to share this idea onward.

Constant Gazing is Numbing

The fixed “brady bunch grid” of a zoom call can become numbing over time, due to the Troxler Effect. Our neurons simple get used to any fixed stimulus over time.

The simple fix is to regularly break up a conversation online into pairs and pods (groups of 3–5). Zoom is the problem AND the solution — random breakouts on zoom are easy-peasy.

This shift in conversational size means we aren’t looking at the same grid and talking in the same format until we numb out. There is a strong temptation and tradition that drives us to keep an entire group together for a whole meeting, but trust me: short breakouts will create energy, dynamic connections and amplify all the voices in the room.

Here are two more simple fixes to give your brain a rest and still get things done:

Have a silent meeting.

After you kick off your next meeting, have *everyone* turn off their video and get on a shared document together. Then turn off your mics and have a collaborative written conversation around the agenda topics.

It doesn’t matter if you use Google Docs, Sheets, Mural, or Slack…get on a shared, collaborative space where everyone can contribute easily.

Having a silent meeting can be a change of pace, but also incredibly productive.

You might be having too many meetings

It’s way too easy to default to a meeting to solve a challenge. Try having smaller and fewer meetings and working asynchronously. This approach takes discipline and trust, but it’s worth asking, as a team, “do we meet too much?

To learn more about the team communication/trust curve, listen to my interview with Emily Levada, the Head of Product at Wayfair and read her article here.

Rethink your Meeting Operating System.

It’s easy to blame zoom. The fact is, your meetings weren’t that awesome in January — Sorry!

HBR was publishing articles like “Stop the meeting madness” back in 2017 with insights like:

We surveyed 182 senior managers in a range of industries: 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together.

All real living is Meeting

These words, from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, are a goal for all of us to reach for in our gatherings, every week, each day: How can we make them come alive?

My opinion: Design them better, from the ground up. I wrote a book about it called Good Talk: How to Design Conversations that matter. You can get some free chapters at that link and start rethinking the conversations in your work and life.



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Daniel Stillman

Daniel Stillman

Host of and @gothamsmith co-founder. Often riding bikes to the ocean.