Both “attendance” and “attention” have the same root: to “direct one’s mind or energies” from the Old French atendre. But they’re worlds apart in practice. You can be present at a meeting, but not be really present; if you’re guilty of this, it’s probably hurting your reputation.
Meetings have increased in length and frequency over the past 50 years, to the point where executives report spending an average of nearly 23 hours a week in them, up from less than 10 hours in the 1960s. That’s half the work week – and it doesn’t even account for quick hallway confabs.
Simply attending a meeting is not enough to position you as a high potential employee; you must also discipline yourself to bring focus and attention. If you’re having trouble staying present, try to skip the meetings that don’t add value. You may not be able to choose all the meetings you attend (some meetings choose you), but eliminating the least productive allows you to be more engaged in the ones where you’re required. Offer to send an email progress report instead of attending. Ask your manager to give you cover when you have a higher priority project. “I can catch up on the important information tomorrow in 15 minutes. I’d rather spend the hour finishing the research you asked for.”
Technology presents a constant temptation to stray. Even the most mundane email becomes irresistible during a dull meeting. And your inattention is contagious. Once one meeting attendee starts surreptitiously checking her phone, everyone feels they have permission. Eventually, only the hapless meeting leader will be really paying attention.
Inattention in a meeting sends the signal that the subject or project doesn’t matter that much. That attitude can carry over to the actual work people do, making them less motivated to do their best. Eventually, useless meetings become a self-fulfilling prophecy: the project becomes less likely to succeed so no one invests much into meetings about it – or the work they’re assigned.
Your attention matters, even if you’re not the most important person in the room. Your good behavior will be contagious, inspiring others to be more fully present. Especially if you’re a leader (or aspire to be), your mindful attention will be one of the traits people notice. In a survey of 2,000 employees, Bain & Company found that among 33 leadership traits, including creating compelling objectives, expressing ideas clearly, and being receptive to input — the ability to be mindfully present (also called centeredness) is the most essential of all.
If you’re struggling with being more present in meetings or conversations, try a mindfulness exercise. Take a few minutes (3 or 4 will do it) before the meeting to center your focus. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and evenly, and focus your thoughts, either on the project at hand, or using a mantra to clear out mental clutter.