Woman knitting during online remote meeting

How to Stay Focused During Remote Meetings

A simple and pleasurable solution to an increasingly common challenge

I once heard from a child psychologist that a common mistake parents make is to believe that while their child is busy playing with toys on the floor, she’s too distracted to hear what they’re talking about. In fact, the more focused a child looks while playing with her hands, the more she’s actually listening and absorbing all that’s going on around her.

This idea really resonated with me when I started having endless meetings while working remotely. Many were presentations or large team meetings where my participation was not required. What I did have to do, however, was to actively listen and retain the information being shared. But sitting in front of your computer during a meeting is a recipe for distraction — you’re soon checking email, replying to chats, or even making edits to a project.

To prevent myself from getting distracted by the endless possibilities my laptop provided, I started doodling during meetings. The problem was that I don’t really like doodling, so I got bored with it very fast. So I decided to learn how to knit.

Knitting changed everything. All of a sudden, I could pay close attention to even the most boring of meetings. I would happily sit through an hour and a half of backlog grooming. I would not lose focus or get bored because I was effortlessly listening to every word being said. I started to actually enjoy meetings I dreaded before and, when a meeting was over, I felt like I was fully up to date with the work my team was doing.

The Two Rules of Maintaining Focus

What I learned was that the #1 rule of staying focused during a meeting is to not touch your keyboard, your mouse, or your phone (unless of course, those things are necessary for the meeting itself).

The number #2 rule is what makes #1 possible and easy: choose a manual activity that feels easy and natural to you so you can keep your mind focused while others are talking.

There are a few criteria I’ve found helpful when choosing a manual activity that truly helps you focus. For best results, pick something that:

  • Engages your hands but that doesn’t require much thinking
    Something that is easy and repetitive works well. When I knit during a meeting, I always pick a mindless pattern that doesn’t require me to count stitches or to follow a chart.
  • Allows you to look away from what you’re doing often so you can look at the video or the screenshare
    I’ve found that if you can look at the screen about 50% of the time that’s more than enough to not miss anything. Of course, sometimes I do have to look at the screen for longer, but in that case I simply put my knitting project down.
  • Requires very little or no setup
    If you need a lot of tools it might end up being too disruptive and you’ll end up not doing it.
  • Can be started and stopped easily
    You’ll often need to suddenly stop your manual activity to send something to someone, or share your screen, so it can’t be something that would require people to have to wait.
  • Is something you enjoy doing
    This criterion is the most important of all. :)

Manual Activities to Try

There are probably hundreds of manual activities that fit all of the criteria above. If you’re looking for some ideas, here are a few things I have personally tried or know people who have.

  • Knitting or Crocheting
    These are by far my favorite options. After I mastered knitting, I decided to learn how to crochet as well. Apart from the immense joy yarn brings me, I love the feeling of making things I can actually use. I once finished a scarf in one 9-hour-long day of back-to-back meetings. Crocheting was the only thing that allowed me to stay focused for that long.
  • Coloring
    There are tons of adult coloring books out there nowadays. Shopping for colored pencils is also fun (but not during a meeting, of course).
  • Zentangle
    I was introduced to Zentangle years ago by a fellow UX designer. It is an amazingly simple, relaxing, and beautiful pattern-drawing activity. I used this book to get started.
  • Building Legos
    I’ve tried following instructions or just making up stuff to build and both work really well as long as the instructions are not too complicated.
  • Watercolor Painting
    I used to think water-coloring required a lot of materials and set up, but after participating in an inspiring workshop by a dear former colleague, I realized I was totally wrong. It can be simple to the point where it’s easily portable.
  • Sketchnoting
    If you Google sketchnoting, you will find many beautifully crafted visual notes that are an absolute pleasure to look at. But the beauty of it is that you don’t necessarily have to be great at drawing or strive to produce something beautiful. Sketchnoting is for anyone and everyone.
Crochet scarf
Scarf I once crocheted in one day of back-to-back calls

⚠️ One word of caution:

When engaging in these types of activities during a meeting, it might appear that you’re not paying attention because you’re not facing the camera the whole time. In my case, I knit or crochet even while having meetings at the office, so by now most people I work with are used to it. But if you’re trying out something new, it’s a good idea to let your team know so they don’t think you’re distracted.

If you’re working from home and are not required to be at your desk, I’ve found that other types of activities around the house are great for helping me actively listen too. For these types of activities, I would recommend a wireless Bluetooth headset.

  • Doing your nails
  • Wrapping presents
  • Folding clothes
  • Putting away dishes (you’ll need noise-blocking headphones)
  • Sweeping, mopping the floor, dusting surfaces
  • Making the bed

I hope these tips work for you, especially during these times when a lot of us are adapting to the new reality of endless calls and remote meetings. If you have other ideas for staying focused, I’d love to hear from you.

Acknowledgments

🙌 Big thanks to Dania Marinshaw for her help editing this article and to Jonathan Ruiz for the beautiful illustration. And a very special thanks to my wonderful friend Lisa Jones who taught me how to knit and crochet.

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