Developing a Zoom-Like Focus

Zoom is, of course, the app everyone is adding to their toolbox these past several months. I’m using it more now than ever (It’s been the go-to app for long distance meetings within the UUA for years). As useful as it is, I hate it with a fiery passion. It’s exhausting, and we all know it’s exhausting. I need a nap after every meeting.

Plenty has been written already about the whys of Zoom fatigue. This article from the BBC has made the rounds, and it pretty closely describes my own experiences in constant-virtual-meeting-land. Despite this, it’s also pretty clear that Zoom or Google Hangouts or other conferencing apps are the best we have for maintaining some sense of productivity and connection while we’re still living with social distancing.

But, can we build real connections with other human beings through our screens, no matter how high def they may be? The causes of our Zoom fatigue certainly pose significant barriers to our sense of real togetherness – and it is the sense of togetherness we are craving most at this time. We miss touch. We miss eye contact. We miss the sound and experience of just breathing in the same room together. Meanwhile, virtual “presence” will need to be the standard for the foreseeable future. How do we get to some approximation of what it is we’re missing?

I’ve begun to find my answer to that problem in the one Zoom interaction I have each week that does not exhaust me, in fact leaves me feeling energized and ready to face the world with some courage . . . my weekly practice with my improv team.

Virtual improv. It sounds ridiculous saying it. It sounds like it shouldn’t work. But I came away from our very first practice on Zoom believing that remote improvisation over computer screens not only worked, but that it could be an effective training tool both for performers and for those just looking for a way to be more present in their telepresence.

The trick lies in how we are expected to focus on our teammates when we improvise. We are taught to listen to their whole selves with our whole selves, not just to the words we are hearing but the emotions behind them, the body language that accompanies them – all of these are clues to the new thing we are building together in the moment. Over video, we have to listen that much harder. We need to double our efforts to move past all the little distractions and frustrations that make Zoom exhausting in the first place in order to hear the multiple languages of our scene partners.

“And this is energizing?” you might well ask.

It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But here’s the thing: When you’re working on two-person scenes, there is just one other to focus on; and when the two of you are focused in on each other and working on building something together, the process of creation cuts through the exhaustion. Creativity, especially in the spur of the moment, is a hell of a drug. Literally. Adrenaline (we have a challenge to hurdle), dopamine (we surpassed the challenge), serotonin (my team appreciates my contributions), and oxytocin (I feel safe knowing they have my back) are all released into the system while we create together.

“But, John,” you say. “Not every meeting on Zoom can be an improv session.”

Well, no. But I’ve found that there are practices and exercises that have grown out of my virtual improv work that push me in the direction of feeling more connected to the people I engage with on the other side of the screen. Much of this came into further focus while Zooming with my spiritual director during our monthly Zooms. Some are technical settings, and others are personal practices that set me up for a more mindful virtual meeting.

1. Choose Your Meeting Space

Physical space is incredibly important to my own state of mind and my ability to do and/or be as needed. YMMV, of course. For me, if I’m Zooming from my work office, I’m much more able to be in a “getting business done” mindset. If I’m in my studio/study at home? Not so much. My brain wants to go to creativity/fun-land. I can do business there, but it requires that much more focusing effort on my part. Conversely, if I were practicing with my team from my office, I know my mind would be bouncing around the unfinished “to-do” items in my Spreadsheet of Doom™. Your own psyche may not be so intimately tied to space. At the very least, it doesn’t hurt to set yourself up in a space where your distractions are limited. Distraction limitation is the first big step, which leads me to . . .

2. Close Your Tabs

“Multi-tasking” is a lie, and attempting to achieve something like it is my downfall. Unless I need quick access to information or a doc to screen share, I turn my browser off. Otherwise my little ADD brain goes hunting down Google rabbit holes the minute someone says something that reminds of something else that reminds me of something else and so on. (PRO TIP: Meeting hosts on Zoom can set their screen up to let them know when attendees have tabbed away from the meeting and for how long they’ve been gone. Big Brother is watching!) In fact, to avoid temptation, I put my app into full screen mode so there are no icons or browser tabs tempting me from the periphery. Meanwhile . . .


The mental ones, I mean. It’s always a good idea to be conscious of what part of you you’re bringing into a room, and that goes for the virtual meeting room, as well. Take some time to do a rundown of your laundry list of worries and gripes – and even of the things that are exciting you outside of the moment. Name them for yourself if you need to, if only so you have an inventory for later . . . because you’re going to check them at the door. You don’t need them for this meeting. The guy who cut you off in traffic won’t be there. That argument with your sister will not be won in the Zoom room. The cookie your daughter just baked you will still be waiting for you when you finish. Close all the brain tabs, too, and then . . .

4. Breathe

Take a minute for yourself before you log on. If you’re a meeting host, let folks sit in the waiting room for a minute (the waiting room is your friend, folx!). Close your eyes and just be with yourself. Feel yourself in touch with your chair, where you are in relationship with the desk, where the camera might be in relation to your face. Get a sense of how you’re breathing in this moment. Get used to the hum of the room. You’re about to enter a space where you’re going to lose some of the feedback that comes from being physically present with others (the source of so much of our Zoom fatigue), so you’ll need to be that much more in touch with your own presence to your own self. That feedback is going to bolster whatever minimal sense of connection that might be passing between others across the ether. This is also a chance to shift gears, to finalize that daily grind coat-check process I mentioned above, and to consciously break from the last thing to the present thing. Seriously, take that minute. You’re not going to miss much. And, while you’re breathing . . .

6. Let Your Focus Go Soft

There’s so much going on on-screen in a video conference that it’s hard to where to know where to focus. So stop trying to pick one thing to focus on and let your vision go soft for a bit (one reason to close your eyes for that breathing minute). Literally try to see the whole picture. Meanwhile, set your app to “speaker view” rather than “gallery,” which will give you one face to focus on at a time. If it’s working right that’ll be the face of the person talking who you should be focusing on in the moment. But, keep that focus soft, because while you’re paying attention to the speaker, you’re going to need to . . .

7. Look Into the Light

Eye contact is next to impossible. The minute your focus goes sharp onto a speaker’s eyes, you look away from your camera. To the person viewing you, you look as though you’re casting your eyes downward and away from them – because your eyes are cast down; not a lot, but enough to make it appear as though you’re avoiding your partner. The green light next to your camera is your friend (or whatever color it happens to be). Look into the light, and your partner will get the impression that you’re looking at them. Look into the light with your own soft focus engaged, and you can look into their eyes while they look into yours. It’s not the same as having eye contact with someone in the room. However, the approximation is so close that it can still produce that rush of brain chemicals that comes from interacting with another person IRL.

This is just a start, of course. I’ll be back soon with some more tips on how to engage with others online in ways that can begin to mirror in person human interaction.

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