How Taking More Meetings Could Save Your Life
What you’re doing right now could kill you.
You’re sitting, aren’t you? Chances are high that you are. The typical American sits for an average of 9.3 hours per day. That’s nearly an hour and a half longer than we’re sleeping. And all that sedentary inaction is really, really bad for us.
In addition to the stats you already know about how inactivity is contributing to the widespread obesity epidemic, the data on sitting is startling. Sitting more than six hours a day makes you 40% more likely to die within 15 years than someone who sits for less than three hours. The kicker? That’s true even if you exercise.
It’s clear that our cultural comfort with sitting presents a challenge, but what can we do about it? Silicon Valley executive Nilofer Merchant says that “sitting is the new smoking,” and she shared her solution on the main stage at the 2013 TED conference earlier this month.
Merchant looked at her busy schedule and realized that meetings made up a good portion of her day. Crowding around a conference room table or slumping down at Starbucks started to feel stale, particularly since she was finding it hard to make time to exercise. Her solution was almost too perfect: walk-and-talk meetings.
Walk-and-talks turned out to be the elegant solution with lots of benefits. Difficult-to-schedule exercise time was incorporated right into the workday. Since changing her meeting style, Merchant now estimates she walks 20 to 30 miles a week.
A change of scenery also has benefits for the quality of your discussion and idea-generation. At the Dent the Future conference this week, Think Like Sherlock Holmes author Maria Konnikova told the audience that studies show walking in nature for 30 minutes enables a person to solve problems they might not otherwise be able to.
“Being inside the construct of a conference room shuts down your openness to new ideas,” explains frequent walk-and-talker Kristen Galliani. “Walking meetings are great for brainstorming, giving feedback, and hashing through tough problems.” Merchant adds, “Something about being side by side lends it self to facing into a problem together.”
Walking also makes the meeting more memorable. Dr. Ted Eytan with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Total Health says that being on the move in changing environments actually helps us get to know someone when we’re meeting them for the first time.
Sitting is the New Smoking; Walking is the New Golf
Merchant isn’t the only executive taking her meetings on the go. Google Senior Program Manager Mary Ellen Player says, “Walking is the new golf course, particularly for women. It’s where business is getting done.” When she met with master networker Heidi Roizen (of business school case fame), they walked Roizen’s dog around the neighborhood.
Player says the unconventional networking meeting was actually much less stressful than she expected. “You’re walking side by side, so it doesn’t feel like a face-off where you might have a tendency to fidget.” Dr. Eytan says science backs that up: When people walk, they’re in better control of themselves, their environment, and their emotions.
According to Player, the walking meeting made the “ask” seem easier as well: “I felt like she got something out of the meeting. It was like a carrot—meet me and get a workout in.”
Merchant completely agrees. “People ‘score’ a meeting with me if they're willing to do [a walking meeting]. People have flown in from Alaska and Belgium (with taxis waiting) to do this. It lets me say ‘yes’ easily to entrepreneurs who want time with me so that I can also get something I need [to do] done.”
How to Walk-and-Talk
So, the benefits are clear, but how can you incorporate walking into your meeting schedule? Here are some tips from the walk-and-talk pros:
Keep it under 60 minutes. “Most people burn out on discussion after an hour,” explains Merchant. “It's about how long one can hold attention and discuss an idea.”
According to Merchant, walk-and-talks are best for exploring an idea, building a shared purpose, or getting to know one another more deeply. But routine planning meetings don’t work well for a walking venue. “Project management meetings where you’re just trying to get through status updates aren’t a good fit,” says Galliani. “Walking meetings are more about ideation than about ticking the box.”
Comfortable walking shoes are a must, but Merchant says if you’re going to wear athletic attire, don’t go overboard. “I tend not to wear Lululemon. I'll wear North Face pants since they are cut more like normal clothes. Icebreaker shirts and sweatshirts look street-ready but are workout capable and comfortable. Plus, they don't smell, so I can go from a walking meeting to something else.”
Although the hills around Silicon Valley are full of great hiking trails (including The Dish), Merchant says she does walk-and-talks in every city. “This week, I'm doing The High Line in NYC and a path in Brooklyn someone else is mapping out. It's a great way to orient [yourself to] an urban area.” If you’re worried that the city scene might not be secluded enough, Dr. Eytan warns not to judge too quickly: “I find that dense urban environments can actually be more private—no one can find you.”
Even if you can’t do a full walking meeting, Dr. Eytan recommends walking together to the conference room or coffee shop and using those first few minutes together to set the agenda and activate the brain. “Any walking makes it a walking meeting,” says Dr. Eytan. “You just have to get out there and do it.”
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