M&M's and Dirty Doodles: How to Survive a Boring Meeting

Illustration by Andrew Joyner

I’m writing this sentence while stuck in a meeting. I’m standing by a glass wall, scribbling onto my notepad but making sure that every few minutes I look up and make eye contact with the person who’s speaking so it appears as if I’m paying attention. You can’t tell, but the original version of this paragraph is adorned with several ridiculous doodles. I just drew a puppy.

To be fair, sometimes a group discussion is necessary. At one weekly gathering, we go over the story list for the next Bloomberg Businessweek issue—a process I genuinely like. I get to hear other writers’ ideas and our editors’ reactions to them. And I have to pitch my own articles, which can be both fun and nerve-wracking, especially when a reporter has just explained a possibly groundbreaking story about the euro and then I come along and say, “So a bunch of people think Alexander Hamilton is hot.”

But useful meetings are rare. More often than not, they’re too long, too dull, and when they’re over, my notepad is covered in pictures of animals and flowers. But none of my meetings are nearly as tedious as the ones Jennifer Heller endured. Before she founded her own Web design company, ArtsyGeek, Heller worked at a nonprofit in Berkeley, Calif., that had a regular planning meeting which lasted up to six hours. She quickly learned how to amuse herself by using Google Chat on her phone, pretending to take notes, and drawing. “Once I doodled a caricature of a fellow board member,” she says. “He was this older guy who had a very funny, old-fashioned hat and a full beard. He looked over in the meeting, saw what I was doing, and said, ‘I love it!’ Luckily I don’t think he realized it was of him.” One of Heller’s co-workers used the meetings to knit an entire sweater.

The six-hour marathon meeting may be extreme, but the boredom Heller felt is pretty common. SalesCrunch, an online network for sales professionals, estimates that a useless meeting can cost companies $250-$1,100 a week, depending on the number of attendees and their salaries. Maybe that’s why there are programs such as Meeting Ticker, MEETorDIE, and The Cost of Meeting App that allow you to calculate just how much money you’re wasting when you’re stuck in a conference room.

That’s the key word: stuck. If you’re not running the meeting, there’s very little you can do to improve a discussion’s productivity level. But you’re not completely powerless, says Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management professor Bill White, who’s also author of the career advice book From Day One: CEO Advice to Launch an Extraordinary Career. “If you have a good relationship with the meeting’s leader, you can ask them, ‘How can I help?’” White suggests. “Ask them, ‘Can I work on the meeting agenda?’ and then you can streamline the process.” Most people can tell from their listeners’ body language that they’re leading a terrible meeting and will welcome any advice to fix it.

“I had colleagues who just refused to attend a meeting, even if it was mandatory, if they weren’t given the proper materials to prepare for it ahead of time,” says Marcy, who until recently worked for the federal government in Washington. Of her 10-hour workdays, Marcy says she often spent six or seven hours in back-to-back meetings. “It’s the federal government,” she says, “so we had meetings, meetings to prepare for meetings, debriefing on meetings we’d just had, even meetings about how to conduct more meetings.” Marcy had to develop tricks to help her cope with the mind-numbing tedium of her daily schedule—enjoying a piece of chocolate during a boring presentation, counting the number of meaningless phrases the speaker used, writing grocery lists—but her favorite one is a game she and a colleague played with M&M’s.

“The M&M game is designed for a large-scale, all-hands-on-deck type meeting where you’re not expected to participate,” she explains. She and her friend would each get a packet of peanut M&M’s and then sit on opposite ends of the conference room, but within eye contact of each other. “We’d pick a set of buzzwords ahead of time—like ‘mission-driven,’ ‘nonproliferation,’ ‘efficiency,’ or ‘the president’—and then whenever one was used, we’d eat an M&M. If you finished your bag of M&M’s, you won.” This, my friends, is the American government in action.

Marcy’s M&M game is more creative than anything I’ve ever done in a meeting. I wondered, what other tricks do people have? I e-mailed friends and asked people on Facebook and Twitter how to cope with a boring meeting, and this is what they said:

• Bring a phone and browse the Web.

• iPad. Get an iPad.

New York Times crossword app.

• Interrupt with a bad pun based on whatever was just said.

• Draw a picture of the speaker and put thought bubbles over his head with inappropriate comments.

• Imagine sexual pairings between other meeting attendees.

• Live-tweet the stupid things that are said. (Uh, these suggestions are anonymous, right?)

• I examine people’s hair very, very closely.

• I once made a short comic with talking clouds.

• Leave.