Depending on who you ask, American office workers spend an incredible 35-50 percent of their workdays in meetings. And I probably don't need to tell you that many of those meetings are utterly useless and soul-crushingly boring.
We all hope for the day when managers wise up and scrub our calendars of these time-sucking irrelevancies, but we all hope for world peace and an end to disease too. Sadly, none of the above is likely to occur in our lifetimes. So while we wait for the definitive fix to the problem, is their any way you can salvage a scrap of productivity from the most useless meetings on your calendar?
Experts insist that whatever the circumstances, there is always something positive for you to covertly do while your colleagues discuss irrelevant information or engage in circular arguments. Here are a few ideas:
1. Count your blessings.
Neuroscience shows that consciously counting your blessings actually rewires your brain for greater positivity, so why not use that dead time stuck in the conference room (or on that pointless call) to practice a little gratitude?
While the speaker drones on you can silently brainstorm things you're grateful for, or alternately make a mental list of a few specific people who you'd like to send a thank you note or even thank face-to-face after you escape your torturous meeting.
I confess to being an inveterate doodler -- without a pen and a bit of paper, I basically can't make it through a meeting or lecture. I always felt guilty about it (sorry, basically every college professors I ever had!), but these days I'm less worried about this habit.
Why? A ton of science says doodling isn't just a way to fight off boredom. Not only does drawing help you work through half-formed ideas and be more creative, it actually can also help you recall boring information. So go ahead and sketch your way through that hideously pointless meeting without guilt.
3. Practice mindfulness.
Time use expert Laura Vanderkam has a fun suggestion for surviving boring conference calls -- knit, sew, or engage in your quiet hobby of choice. Of course, unless your office is extremely open to quirky in-person meeting behavior, this won't work for in-person meetings, but Vanderkam notes that pursuing these sorts of activities while on the phone isn't just useful, it's also "zen."
Experts to back her up. Psychologists and others insist that activities like knitting, painting, or cooking that focus our attention on the present work like a form of mindfulness, and offer many of the same mind-clearing, stress-reducing benefits as more formal meditation. That means you're not only making a nice scarf, you're also centering yourself mentally for the rest of the day.
Or if you're stuck in the fluorescent glare on a meeting room without access to knitting needles, try a stealth meditation. "If you're at work and there's a contentious meeting going on and tempers are starting to flare, you don't have to open up the closet and pull out all this equipment, sit down cross-legged, light the incense and look weird," meditation expert Sharon Salzberg says. "You just need to settle your attention on your breath. No one even knows you're doing it."
4. Daydream (the right way).
If you're hawk-eyed boss is watching participants for any sign of wandering attention, some of the above ideas may be impossible. But even the most unreasonable manager can't police your thoughts. So use them productively while in time-wasting meetings.
That doesn't mean zoning out imagining your next vacation. Instead, engage in what Harvard psychiatrist Srini Pillay dubs "positive constructive daydreaming." The idea is to let your mind wander "on a leash" by imagining or rehearsing an upcoming event or project. Pillay insists this sort of semi-focused daydreaming helps you think through and prepare for the future, improving real-life performance when the time comes. (For example, you could imagine talking to your boss about getting rid of useless meetings, which brings us too...)
5. Develop a plan to destroy time-wasting meetings.
All these ways of getting some use out of boring meetings are helpful, but the best alternative, of course, would be to not have pointless get togethers in the first place. You can use today's lost time to plan for a less meeting-filled future.
There are all sort of techniques to reduce the amount of time you spend in useless meetings, from team-wide initiatives like having employees "pay" for meetings and simple gizmos that nudge people to use their time more effectively, to personal strategies for winnowing the number of meetings you're obliged to accept. Another possibility is corralling all your meetings into one day to give yourself unbroken time for deep work.
Ponder the possibilities while your current meeting chugs along and consider which works best in your situation and how to tactfully approach your colleagues about making a change.
How do you make the best of pointless meetings?