We asked The Energy Project, a Washington, D.C.–based consulting firm that links insights from physiology, neuroscience, and psychology to improvements in work cultures and human performance, for their opinion of the optimal timing and lengths of breakes during meetings. Betsy Harbison, The Energy Project’s director of marketing, responded:
The best events make meeting the core energy needs of attendees as important as the content of the event itself. The research of Anders Ericsson [a psychology professor at Florida State University] on the role of practice in expert performance makes clear that great performers characteristically focus for periods of no longer than 90 minutes, and then take breaks to rest, renew, and refuel. By inserting breaks every 90 minutes, you’ll have an engaged audience throughout the day.
Depending on the location of the event, you may want to set a minimum of 15 minutes for breaks, to give attendees time to use the restroom, grab a snack to refuel, and stretch their legs with a short walk outside of the event space. We’d recommend a minimum of 20 minutes if it takes more than a few minutes to get out of the building. Giving attendees an opportunity to get sunlight and fresh air will make for a happier and more focused group.
Longer breaks of 30 minutes are nice, but consider a full 45 minutes to an hour for a lunch break, allowing attendees time to take care of their own energy needs, while also giving them the space to check in with their office and attend to any urgent work.
You most likely already encourage folks to disconnect from their devices during sessions, but you may want to open up a physical space for attendees to use to check email or call their offices, providing a clear boundary that signals they are leaving their work behind to focus entirely on your event. It may take some training and role modeling to get attendees to use the breaks as real renewal breaks, not just for checking email. Ask the event’s governing board or table leaders to invite other attendees to join them in their renewal breaks and share how they spent their breaks upon returning to the conference.