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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Benefits of Boredom

A freelance opportunity to write about hair loss popped up in my email a few days ago. I considered submitting a bid. But then I jumped over to Twitter and back to the email, went to get a third cup of coffee, sipped it as I jiggled my leg and thought about my sloppy golf game. I was bored, definitely bored.

Rather than blaming my dull disposition on my inner child, I sat quietly for a while figuring out if boredom had any benefits. There had to be. At a minimum, boredom should force us to think about why we are bored. More important, confronting boredom could prevent future boredom.

Come with me and I’ll show you what I'm thinking.

Beam yourself back to the last dull meeting you attended. Perhaps you were trapped in the middle seat of the conference table, far from the door, out of coffee, and without your Blackberry. Your eyes are adjusting to the lights that just went on following a lackluster PowerPoint presentation on some mundane project. Two of your colleagues are jockeying for the attention of the group and of your boss at the end of the table, who just returned after stepping out early in the presentation, presumably to take a call. You’re feeling mentally constipated and anticipating another hour of tedium.

5 laxatives to dislodge your boredom.

1 Let’s return to the beginning of the presentation.
Lean back, cross your legs, and prop your writing pad on your lap. This will prevent your side companions from glancing at your notes. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the presenter’s spiel, do the following:
  • Write down three brief reasons why you like the presenter (you already know why you don’t). For example, she seems to have worked hard on the presentation and you respect that, or she admitted not knowing the answer to a question, and you admire her honesty and courage.

  • Next, record the three factors that drained the life out of the presentation: the room was dark, too much data on the PowerPoints, presenter’s voice was dronish, etc.

  • Now, imagine yourself making a presentation to the group. Write three reasons why the audience would like you and another three reasons why they would like your presentation.
    You might say, for instance, they would like me because I would demonstrate that whatever I say in my presentation I will do. Another: They would like me because I would use “we” much more frequently than “I.”

    Regarding your presentation, perhaps you might write:
    • I would limit my PowerPoints only to information I understood thoroughly and believed in.

    • I would sit at the table rather than stand up front and engage the group in a discussion focused on just one PowerPoint as the reference.

Boredom Benefit #1 You just learned – perhaps once again -- that you are the presentation and that the mechanicals (PowerPoints) must flow from and around you. As a result, participants will come away from your next presentation with a clear understanding of the topic and a strong desire to work with you. In other words, you won’t be considered boring.

2 Think about the dreary discussion that follows the presentation.
Before it begins, sketch the seating configuration of the people around the conference table. Then ...
  • Every time someone requests information or asks for clarification, put a question mark beside his or her name. Whenever someone expresses an opinion, put an “O” beside the name. Whenever you hear a recommendation that sounds like a possible solution, write “S” beside that name. And when you hear a complaint, can’t-do, it-won’t-work, or general whining, put down a “W.” Sure, there will be overlap, but precision is not important, patterns are.

  • After the meeting, count the number of letters in each category. Determine if there are patterns, such as:
    • What percentage of the total remarks made by the group falls into each category? An abundance of questions marks could suggest that the issue was not thought through sufficiently by the presenter. More “S” marks might reflect a viable idea that everyone can rally around.

    • Was there more negativity (more “W’s”) in one section of the room? What about opinions? Were people who disagreed seated across from each other, and where were they in relation to their boss and/or the person running the meeting?

Boredom Benefit #2 You now have a fresh perspective on social dynamics, on how factors such as seating positions influence those dynamics, and, most important, how you might manage those dynamics and organize those factors to run more productive, less boring meetings.

3 If the discussion slips into pandemonium or dullness, ask three questions at key junctures (and, yes, I am anal about three’s).
  • Using a non-threatening tone, say to someone who is monopolizing the group’s time: “What was your last point again, Tom? I don’t think I quite understood it.” You do this to break Tom’s rambling and ranting, which suppresses discussion, intimidates the timid, and bores everyone. Repetition will force him to hear what he is really saying, should cause him to edit and shorten his previous remark, will likely reduce his tension, and will open the gate for someone more interesting to slip in with a comment.

  • Another question at the right moment: “Would it be helpful if we stopped for a few minutes and go around the table to ask what each of us thinks is the expected outcome of our meeting, just to make sure we’re all moving in the same direction?” This maneuver will wake up the comatose non-participants and will refocus everyone on purpose and away from palaver.

  • If the group is deadlocked and you want to get to lunch, ask: “What if we did nothing at all about this issue? Would it go away? Would anyone’s life be different? Would anyone clamor for us to implement it?” You might be surprised by the reaction. Someone might say, “You know, Judy’s right. How critical is all of this?”

Boredom Benefit #3 Rather than being a contributor or passive observer in a disorganized, disorienting, dull meeting, you have tested out a technique that could create focus, purpose, and value, if not for this gathering then for the next one.

4 Boring meetings often result from a boring or bored person who called the boring meeting. Try this. During the sessions, study the person (your boss?) who is leading the meeting.
  • Scratch on your notepad the reason you think she called the meeting. Be honest. Sure, she wanted to air a particular issue and get everyone’s input -- or it would seem. Did she steer the group so that actually happened? How vital was the issue to her? Did she list action items at the end of the session?

  • If she actually did step out of the meeting at some point, why did she? Did the momentum, tone, productivity, or content of the meeting change after that happen?

  • How often does she speak in the meeting, and what is the nature of her comments?

  • What do her non-verbals tell you? Does she appear bored, engaged, or subtly angry?

  • If she is not leading the discussion, who is? Is that deliberate on her part or negligence?

Boredom Benefit #4 Boredom has given you an opportunity to analyze the impact of a designated group leader on the productivity of a meeting and to decide how you would perform that role differently.

5 At the point in the meeting when participants are suppressing yawns, write a one-sentence summary of what everyone seems to agree on and what the next step should be. Then suck air and offer your synopsis to the group.

If little has been accomplished, don’t suggest a follow-up meeting unless you're a glutton for boredom. If some members opt to prolong the discussion, let the meeting leader draw it to a conclusion, which is likely to be the conclusion you suggested since your sensibility amidst stupor was refreshing.

Boredom Benefit #5 You have demonstrated your ability to retrieve value from chatter and separate substance from personalities.

Richard Skaare 03.10.09

Photo credit: Toastforbrekkie


Anonymous said...

Please no more articles on being bored, you have no idea what true boredom is. I have been handicapped for 28 year and am wheelchair bound.

Please enjoy playing playing golf or just crossing your legs. We don't understand what we have, until we lose it.

Richard Skaare ... said...

Certainly, what you would have to say, Harvey, on the subject, would be far more penetrating than anything I could say. If you have written about your experience, please let me know. If you have not, I would encourage you to do so for the benefit of us all.
Richard Skaare rskaare@gmail.com

Unknown said...

With respect, and Harvey's comments notwithstanding, this is really very good and less about boredom (though that was a clever hook to hang it on) than about how to "lead from where you are" and have meetings that might otherwise be unproductive become useful. All good suggestions, particularly number 2. Some time ago some colleagues did a study keeping score this way of comments that were "for" something (proposals), "against" something (opposition) and "about" something (opinion). We then surveyed meeting participants on the value of the meeting and correlated that to the ratio of for, against, and about. The most valuable meetings were 3:1 for to against with almost no about. The least valuable were almost 100% about.

Richard Skaare ... said...

You found me out, Ed. I'm addicted to understanding human behavior. Your example was interesting. This stuff is not rocket surgery.
Richard Skaare

Anonymous said...


A quick note to let you know how much I've enjoyed your writing and your articles that appear on IABC's LinkedIn group.

Thank you!

Kimberly Smith

Sandra Zimmer said...

Boredom is a result of being disengaged from others in a given situation. Rather than evaluating what is good or bad about others, or what they are doing well or poorly, try engaging in the conversation. Offer an idea, insight or awareness that adds value to the situation. Engage rather than judge!

Sandra Zimmer