>Just as visual artists know that white space is a key element in a good design, good facilitators know that break time is a key element in good meeting design.

When there is a lot of work to be done or information to be conveyed, it is tempting to schedule every minute, but this will work against you in the end! No one can focus and attend to business for hours nonstop. Bodies need to wiggle, eat, pee, and otherwise make themselves comfortable. The sharp focus elements of our brains need to relax and stretch. And people need time to connect with each other in informal ways – greet each other, chat, make plans, meet someone new. If you don’t build time for these things into your event, people will still do them anyway – but they will be doing them during those work sessions you have so carefully planned!

(Read anonymous online humorist MeetingBoy’s guest blog on this issue.)

Give folks enough time for lunch, and don’t expect formal work to be done at that time. A meal doesn’t count as a break if you are shoving information at them the whole time! Know that if you speechify during lunch, folks won’t really be paying much attention to its content; nor will they really be able to do the connecting with each other that they need. Once again, they will snatch time out of other sessions.

Shorter mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks need to be long enough for folks to get to the bathroom, check their voicemail, and get a drink. The larger your group, the longer these breaks need to be in order to accomodate everyone. Fifteen minutes is a minimum.

Once you’ve placed a break on the schedule, START IT ON TIME unless you have a very compelling reason. If you go overtime, folks will be antsy, looking at their watches, and starting to sneak out. Don’t let them out on break late and then expect them to show up at the next session on time; they won’t and your whole carefully crafted schedule will back up.

The organizers of the week-long bellydance festival Rakkasah were masters at scheduling. Throughout the day they would insert five to fifteen minute “catch up” blocks in the schedule. This would usually accomodate all of the technological glitches and late starts that often set schedules awry.

There are meeting structures like World Café and Open Space Technology that take the creative connections that happen in the hallway and lunchroom and turn them into the main event.

The more you can stop thinking about breaks as empty space and instead embrace them as important elements in your meeting, the happier your participants will be.