Why you should doodle in meetings

Margaret Heffernan

(MoneyWatch) Doodling is good for you.

Before I explain why, let me confess that I'm a compulsive, if uninspired, doodler (see the image at left for a sample of my work). I cannot sit in meetings and not doodle. I've always felt that being able to absentmindedly scribble away helped me listen better. In environments where that was inappropriate, I was always more eager than usual to get the meeting over with.

It turns out that my compulsion is not only common, but also constructive. When psychologist Jackie Andrade studied doodling, she found that her doodling subjects retained 29 percent more information than those who sat through a meeting unoccupied. It's worth noting that their doodling wasn't stunningly creative, either; it mostly consisted of coloring in boxes.

And that could be the point. Dumb doodling may reduce distraction and allow you to focus more fully. Deeply creative doodling may demand too much attention. I regularly sit next to a board member who is a gifted portrait artist, and I'm pretty certain that his drawings of colleagues distracts us both.

I was drawn to this research, of course, because it confirms what I want to believe about myself -- that I'm not secretly trying to "be" somewhere else when I'm stuck in a meeting, and that I'm being more, not less, attentive. But I'm also drawn to it because it seems to imply something about meetings that is important -- that they require a lot of concentration, which can be hard to maintain.

What should you be doing in meetings? Listening and thinking. What do most people do in meetings? I asked a group recently and here are the replies I got:

- Figuring out what the boss wants to hear
- Trying to see which way the wind is blowing
- Counting the minutes until it is over
- Making sure the idiots don't win
- Trying to sleep with my eyes open
- Deciding how to get onto the winning side

You can't help but notice that none of this involves thinking or (strangely) arguing. It's all about second-guessing and politics. My advice, should you wish to think about what's being said, is that you pick up your pencil and draw. 

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.