Importance of Being Present

Being Present

Have you ever sat in a meeting where everyone stares at their laptops? You look around the room and can’t tell if anyone’s actually paying attention. Chances are they’re doing their own thing: Checking e-mail, Playing Minecraft, who knows?

As laptops and mobile phones have become more ubiquitous, the problem worsens.

It’s easy to stare into your screen while someone else is talking. “I’m just checking this one e-mail,” you think to yourself, or “What if our servers go down?! I have to be able to respond on IRC, right?”

I found that more and more, I would just be refreshing Twitter or checking Hacker News.

In other words, I wasn’t present.

So for the past year, I haven’t brought my laptop to meetings, and I don’t check my phone.

It’s been fascinating.

The Results

  1. The people who are talking ONLY look at you. Everyone else has their laptop open, so the speaker’s eyes are fixed on you because you’re the only one looking at them and making eye contact. Maybe everyone else is subconsciously aware of what’s being said, but it’s really interesting to see everyone else staring at their screens while you and the person talking are actually communicating.
  2. Meetings take less time. If one person is totally engaged, it quickly becomes clear that things are going off track and they can speak up and say “Hey guys, let’s keep it moving.”

This doesn’t happen if people are staring at their screens. Instead, they just continue typing or doing whatever it is they’re focused on and assume that the conversation will naturally continue and get itself back on track. You think, “This is a great opportunity for me to check the Oculus Rift forums and see if my order’s shipped yet” or “Time for me to check Reddit repeatedly!”

When you don’t have your laptop, your only option is to sit and stare at the wall.

You see this happening over and over again. Though people feel like they’re being more efficient by bringing their laptops, it’s not really true. You have people who sit there and do other work during a meeting, but because they’re forced to listen and pay partial attention, that work suffers. It would actually be better if they just excused themselves and did their work in a separate room instead of contributing halfway to the conversation and halfway to their work.

What a colossal waste of time.

Take the 10-15 minutes that it takes to listen and then do your work separately, in a place where it’s actually quiet and you can focus. Not only will you complete your work more efficiently, but the meeting will actually take less time!

Two caveats

  1. Some people have said, “But Brad, I work in an organization where we regularly have meetings that are 1.5-2 hours long.”

    If your meetings regularly last that long, you’ve got bigger problems to solve. To start with, don’t bring your laptop. Be present, and others will hopefully realize that your time is valuable and spending two hours watching each other’s mouths move is a waste.

  2. Perhaps you need your laptop for a presentation. Maybe you have some data to show, or a new prototype you want to show off. That’s fine. While you’re presenting, pull out your laptop, plug it in, and present away. Once you’re done, turn it off and close it. You’re done presenting.

The Benefits

I’ve found that I remember more from meetings and have heard constant comments from people that they love how ‘engaged’ I am. In other words, “I appreciate the fact that you actually paid attention to me when no one else did.” That’s a terrible thing for someone to have to say! Presence matters to people. They notice, and they care.

So next time you go to a meeting or are sitting there talking to someone over coffee, put your laptop away, put your cell phone away, look the speaker in the eye, and be present.

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Image Credit: Unknown Artist