I hate opening my work calendar on Monday morning and seeing how many meetings I have lined up each week. Whether they’re a mere 15 minutes or an hour, just the thought of sitting in a stuffy conference room and trying to politely pay attention to issues I have very little to do with makes me antsy. And that feeling only intensifies if I’m the one leading the meeting.
Meetings are notorious time sucks at companies all around the world. According to a 2007 MIT Sloan Management Review study, people spend an average of 23 hours a week in meetings. That’s insane. It’s also a complete and utter waste of time.
Few people enjoy meetings, but every company piles them on. Most executives think meetings are a daily necessity to get shit done. Unfortunately, research like this Harvard Business Review article proves that meetings are actually one of the least effective ways to complete tasks, encourage productive discussion, and get teams on the same page. No one is paying attention — we’re all worried about the tasks piling up at our individual desks, not what’s on the meeting agenda — and the dull environment zaps attention span, focus, and productivity.
Meetings don’t have to destroy your entire day. If you bring a few different fidgeting habits into the conference room, you can ensure you’ll stay productive, engaged, and mentally sharp throughout every awful meeting.
Here are 5 tips to take your meetings from dull time wasters to efficient conversations:
1. Take a Stand
Meetings look the same at every company in the world: attendees arrive at the designated conference room and take a seat around a large table. Everyone remains seated (expect for the presenter, in some cases) for the duration of the meeting.
But sitting down is stupid. It creates the perfect environment for attendees to doze off. Bored out of your mind, you’re not going to pay attention as soon as your brain starts itching for a distraction of any kind.
Instead, suggest standing up at your next meeting. Instead of taking a seat, suggest that everyone try thinking on their feet to gain new perspective. What will really happen is you’ll get the whole conference room fidgeting. When you stand up, you change your literal perspective and give your brain what it wants: distraction. As your mind works on seeing from this different, less familiar angle, you’ll be able to better concentrate on what’s being said. And it might even prompt you and your coworkers to participate more.
2. Doodle All Over Your Notes
Look at the notes you took at your last meeting. Do they make any sense? Do you even care about what you wrote down? Although taking notes is a smart way to try to trick yourself into paying attention, they aren’t always effective. But doodling can help you stay focused and attentive.
Doodling is one of my favorite fidgets. Sure, people can see you doing it, but it’s so common that no one will question your odd scribbles. While your scribbles might seem like a distraction, you can actually remember information better if you doodle “right.”
Instead of just scribbling randomly, try to draw different doodles based on where the meeting conversation goes. For example, if your boss begins discussing the importance of communicating with clients, draw a series of connected circles. When the topic changes to workplace tardiness, switch to boxes. After the meeting, look back at your doodles — those images can help you better recall what, exactly, was talked about when you drew each unique design.
3. Write Down Only Some of What You Hear
Another great way to fidget with your meeting notes is to reduce the gibberish: instead of writing down every single point made in the conversation or presentation, jot down only the most important phrases.
Selectively taking notes keeps your brain on its toes. It’s free to tune out when you understand a concept, but you give it a “wake up” jolt when you jot down new information as the meeting delves into different topics. For example, instead of writing down “Photo editing: resize all photos to 1900 x 1200, use special resizing program, check quality” try writing down just “Photos: 1900 x 1200.” The task of taking notes becomes less boring and provides your brain the opportunity to wander as it likes to during dull tasks.
4. Chew on Your Pen (Carefully!)
If you tend to chew on your pen or pencil when you’re working, thinking, or staring off into the distance, you aren’t alone. It’s a common habit, and it’s also a fantastic one to fidget your way to better focus. Don’t be afraid to chew on your pen when you’re in a meeting, even if you think it’s a weird act.
Chewing, gnawing, and chomping are all wonderfully helpful fidgets — even the simple act of chewing gum can stimulate a bored brain just enough to spur productivity and attention to detail, as a St. Lawrence University study found. Chewing is such a great form of fidgeting that it’s one I highlighted in my own book as a top tip.
So, go ahead and chew on your pen during meetings. Just make sure you don’t gnaw too hard. You don’t want to wind up with a huge ink stain on your lips!
5. Sip on Something
Here’s a little-known fact: drinking something, absolutely anything at all, can lead to better focus and more creative thinking. Bring your cup of coffee, morning smoothie, afternoon tea, or water bottle into every meeting and take drinks whenever you feel the itch of distraction. It’s perfectly cool to bring beverages into meetings, and you’ll keep your mind busy without anyone even realizing that you’re fidgeting.
When you’re stuck in a boring meeting, your brain becomes desperate for something new, something different than the monotony happening in front of you. Taking a sip of a drink every time your attention wanes sends your brain a “hey! something new!” message, letting it focus on the drink, its sensation, and what’s happening in your body. It’s like a mini break for the mind.
Want to make this fun fidget even better? Choose a drink that’s super cold or steaming hot. Your body and brain will both react, prompting you to feel more awake — even if it isn’t coffee that you’re drinking. Sipping with a straw also boosts the productivity benefits of this fidget, especially if you’re a frequent straw chewer.
Get Fidgeting in Every Meeting
Each of these fidgets will make your meetings more productive — and they’ll help you be more engaged and focused as you sit through yet another workplace discussion. Subtle and quiet, these fidget-y behaviors are the perfect balance of low-key and effective. No one will notice that you’re improving your attention span and your productivity while the meeting is happening, but you’ll reap the benefits.
Put these fidgets into practice this week! Instead of surviving meetings by gazing off into space, you’ll become an active participant (and you’ll hopefully hate all those meetings on your calendar a little less).