It’s Thursday afternoon. You’ve been called into a meeting that doesn’t really concern you, but you can’t get out of it. As soon as you find a chair toward the back, you look around and can tell right away that your coworkers feel the same way. Everyone’s itching to wrap up their work for the day and go home, but the meeting leader is launching into a soliloquy that would put Hamlet to shame.
You glance at your watch. Only four minutes have passed since you last checked the time. Face it: You’re trapped here, and it’s going to be agonizing—unless you give yourself something productive to do.
Why Everything Drags When You’re Bored Out Of Your Mind
When you’re working on a project and firing on all cylinders, the time flies by. When you’re sitting in a tedious meeting you have no need to attend, it doesn’t. Making the most of things starts with understanding why, and the psychology there is actually pretty simple.
Your perception of the passage of time has a lot to do with what you’re paying attention to. When you feel really engaged with something you’re working on, you’re focused exclusively on that. Your brain is completely immersed in solving problems, interacting with the other members of your team, or what have you. As a result, you notice the various aspects of the project but not the amount of time you’re devoting to it.
In a boring meeting, though, there isn’t much to pay attention to. Nothing that’s being discussed strikes you as very important, so you’re not able to engage with it—your attention has nothing to focus on. Plus, you might be cooped up in a bland room or seated in an uncomfortable chair. The only thing you can pay attention to is the passage of time, so it seems to drag.
This much is pretty intuitive. But one interesting thing about the perception of time is that works differently in hindsight. When you look back on an event, your sense of how much time it took depends on the amount of information you have in your memory about it—not how long it felt while it was happening. That boring meeting doesn’t have a lot of landmarks in memory, so even though it drags on, it won’t feel that way when you look back on it (if you ever do). A great collaborative project, though, will have lots of highlights in memory, and so it’ll feel longer in retrospect than it did while it was happening.
This is all worth bearing in mind when you come up with ways to pass the time productively in a boring meeting. Here are a few good options:
Make A List (But Not A To-Do List)
Instead of just doodling on the notepad or Starbucks napkin in front of you, put it to good use. Now’s a good time to start a running list of important ideas you generally don’t have the time to think about. Maybe you’ve been trying to figure out how to approach a colleague about a disagreement. Or maybe there’s an organizational problem that’s been bugging you, but never rises to the top of your to-do list.
In fact, don’t make an ordinary to-do list with items you need to accomplish more or less right away—that will only make you more impatient to leave. The key is to nudge your focus out of the present moment and toward something a little more distant in the future. Boring meetings are a great time to make some headway on those longer-term issues. Give yourself permission to let your mind wander in the direction of those unsolved problems.
And don’t worry about blocking out time to actually tackle them just yet–the sheer exercise of mentally planning can have some hidden upsides. It turns out that one of the best ways to solve difficult problems is to walk away from them for a while.
Actually, you can doodle—without feeling bad about it. Part of what makes boring meetings feel so horrible is that your body and mind are both cooped up. If you can’t free your mind, at least you can free (some of) your body. Grab that notebook and draw. Even abstract shapes will help to keep your mind occupied.
The physical act of drawing can boost your creativity and help you commit ideas to memory. What’s more, one illustrator who’s created three coloring books for adults told Fast Company recently that doing the more tedious parts of his illustrations became an unplanned mindfulness exercise, somewhere “halfway between intense focus and zoning out.”
Mentally Plan A Better Meeting
Finally, you can use your experiences in really boring meetings to become a better meeting planner yourself. Pay attention to what makes meetings particularly dull. You might even jot down some notes as though you’re scoring the meeting leader’s performance.
For starters, this gives you something to focus on that you’d otherwise tune out—which in turn will make time go by a little more quickly. And second, it can help you think more critically about what it takes to run a more engaging meeting yourself. This way, when it’s your turn, you can create a really good agenda, keep your own remarks to a minimum, and use the time in a way that makes for an experience less agonizing than the one you’re trapped in right now.
Hang in there, it’ll be over soon—and once it is, you won’t remember how much it dragged.