Train Yourself to Stay Alert in Boring Meetings

Last Updated Jun 22, 2008 11:09 AM EDT

  • Bored at work.The Find: Psychologists to the rescue: researchers have discovered a method that allows people to train themselves to stay alert during boring tasks and seemingly endless meetings.
  • The Source: "Self-Alert Training: Volitional modulation of autonomic arousal improves sustained attention" (say that five times fast) by Redmond O'Connell and colleagues in Neuropsychologia, highlighted in the BPS Research Digest blog.
The Takeaway: Researchers first asked test subjects to perform mind-numbing work -- in this case watching hundreds of single digit numbers on a screen and pressing a key whenever any number but three appeared (suddenly endless PowerPoint presentations don't seem so bad). Half the participants then underwent "biofeedback training."

Rigged up to a computer, the biofeedback trainees were able to see their level of intellectual arousal or alertness as measured by their perspiration. As the participants started to drift off, the researchers clapped their hands and called "wake up." Alertness spiked- no suprise there - but through practice and watching the computer's feedback on their mental state, participants were able to learn to give themselves a little juice of alertness in time with simply saying "now." No clapping researchers required.

And when they sat down again to the laboratory equivalent of a boring stack of mindless paperwork, the test subjects were able to use their new skill to perform significantly better than the control group who had lolled around playing a video game while the other group underwent the training. Neat trick, and several instances in which it could prove handy for business people (or fighter pilots) spring immediately to mind.

The study was undertaken to assist those who suffer from ADHD, but the technique may soon be coming to a consultant or coach near you.

The Question: For those of us without a computer biofeedback system, what's the best way to stay alert when a task or meeting is less than scintillating?

(Image of gentleman in need of alertness by polifemus (out of order), CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.