does it look unprofessional to draw in meetings?

A reader writes:

I am a college student in my low 20s, two years in to my absolute dream job. I work for a medium-sized nonprofit that functions as an umbrella organization for six branches. I am the first assistant to one of these directors, and I’ve known her for years. The executive director (my boss’ boss) is known to be very serious and no-nonsense. He’s not very friendly and rarely acknowledges me at all.

Anyway, I have a pretty serious … attention issue. Meaning I can’t focus for longer than a few moments, even if it’s a one-on-one conversation with full eye contact. There’s a long story as to why I’m not medicated, but the point is I can’t be. To solve this, I’ve taken up drawing. I mean, like, filling the margins of my papers with doodles. I’ve actually gotten quite good at drawing cartoons after many years of failing at paying attention. I know it probably looks bad, but it truly does help me focus. I will retain much more when I draw than when I don’t. I do try to write some notes so it doesn’t totally look like I’m ignoring the speaker. I usually bring a notebook into all of my meetings so I can for sure have something to draw on.

My boss doesn’t mind this at all and fully understands I perform better when I am allowed to doodle while I listen. The problem is that the executive director does not. He recently mentioned to my boss that he’s noticed that I don’t pay attention in meetings (which I do, I swear, he’s just misinterpreting my drawing as boredom instead of necessity). My boss claims she was able to explain it and that he understood, but I’m not so sure. I don’t want to be naive and assume he will look past this. I really, really love my job and want to have a future here, but I’m worried this is going to give me a bad standing with the big boss. The thing is, I have tried every other possible method to help me focus, and drawing is the only thing that has worked. If I can’t draw, I’m not really sure what I can do to help me pay attention.

So what should I do? Do I need to give up my doodles? Is it really that bad to be drawing during a meeting? Can I somehow look professional and attentive while drawing a skateboarding dog on my memo? Help!

There’s a growing understanding that some people focus better when they can do something with their hands — hence the bowls of fidget toys appearing on some corporate conference room tables — but the message definitely hasn’t reached everyone yet. Lots of people still think that doodling — or doing anything other than taking notes or making rapt eye contact with the speaker — means you’re not engaged and not paying attention.

Some of this, I think, is human nature. When you’re speaking and see someone actively engaged in another activity, we’re programmed to read that as not listening, bored, or distracted. For people who don’t need a secondary activity to fully focus in meetings, it takes a deliberate effort to adjust that thinking and realize not everyone is the same in this regard.

And to be fair, sometimes when someone is doodling, it does mean they’re checking out! So it helps, when you can, to be explicit that you’re doing it because it helps you focus.

In your case, it sounds like your boss has had that conversation for you. She talked to her boss and felt he understood. It might bring you peace of mind to go back to her and make sure she really thinks it’s a non-issue now, or ask if it would be worth you explaining it directly at some point (possibly to others at the meeting too, if these are small meetings where that wouldn’t be weird). But if she’s confident her boss gets it and it’s fine, I’d believe her unless you see evidence to the contrary.

That said, when you’re doing something that can read as “disengaged” to a lot of people, it’s smart to find ways to demonstrate that you are engaged. If the meetings allow for it, make sure you’re actively participating — nod, ask questions, contribute ideas. That kind of participation can carry a ton of weight if people would otherwise be wondering how present you are.

It might also be worth revisiting what kind of drawing you’re doing. People may assume drawing a detailed cartoon takes a lot more focus on the drawing than random doodles do, whether or not that’s true. And when it comes to creating a potential distraction for people around you, drawing a skateboarding dog might be more distracting (because it’s more interesting) than random patterns would be.

If cartoons are the only thing that works for you, then so be it — but if you have options, there are some optics there to factor in.

{ 242 comments… read them below }

  1. Cobol*

    I have this same issue. It’s good that your boss understands, and they might have convinced your ED.

    This is a very specific suggestion, and may not work for you, but I’ve transferred my movement to my toes (not feet). I can wiggle then all I want and even with open toe shoes, it’s not really noticable.

    1. EmbracesTrees*

      This is a great suggestion if movement helps OP! I don’t really have this difficulty but still find myself wiggling my feet when I’m bored in meetings. =) I’m a professor and *wish* more students would do something like this (wiggling toes OR doodling) because I know it can help many of them from zoning out (yes, even in my super fascinating classes lol).

      That said, I teach interpersonal communication and cannot reiterate strongly enough Alison’s suggestions to “make sure you’re actively participating — nod, ask questions, contribute ideas.” Even if speaking up is not appropriate, you can *demonstrate* your engagement through nonverbal communication:

      -pausing to look up and make eye contact on occasion or gently nodding in agreement (both of those esp when it seems like an important point was just made!);
      -acknowledging, for instance, when a new speaker begins talking by stopping for just a moment to look and listen (*always* with an expression that conveys “I’m thinking deeply about this important topic”!);
      -doing whatever you can to physically (body, face, posture, gestures) that you are actively listening, understanding, and acknowledging what is happening around you.

      You may be doing many of these things now, OP, but if you’re just sitting still except for your drawing, it is common in US culture to interpret that as focus on what you’re looking at, not what you’re (maybe, maybe not) hearing.

      I also suggest trying very hard not to do things that indicate you *are* focused primarily on your drawing: sticking the tip of your tongue out, biting your lip, frowning while staring at the page, hunching close to the page, never looking away from the page even when someone is verbally emphasizing a point. All of these (or none!) could be second nature to you and, if so, I’m sympathetic that changing physical patterns is diffcult. Still, these are each nonverbal indications to others that someone is very focused on what they’re doing and don’t want to be interrupted. Good luck!

      1. WorkingFromCafeinCA*

        Completely agree with proactive nodding and pausing to look at the speakers to really convey you’re following the conversation.

        This is a little off topic – but @EmbracesTrees, could you tell me more about your work teaching interpersonal communication? What kind of organization do you work for, what are common job titles? I do a lot of public speaking/teaching adults in my work and enjoy it. I’ve been thinking about a career change from teaching about tech/design, to more helping others feel more confident communicating, but I have no idea what options there are career-wise and what additional training I would need to get.

      2. TardyTardis*

        Oh, yes, this is my story too–whenever I am in business meetings, I must actively fight sleep unless I’m the actual presenter. So I take serious, killer, Hermione Granger over the top notes, and if there isn’t enough to take notes on (some people can say nothing at great length), well hey chapter summaries of my next novel, but I really am paying attention, honest! I must admit, my note taking ability has translated into killer minutes for the meetings where things really are going on.

        But again, the appearance of paying attention absolves many sins.

        1. Cassie*

          OP, what about decorating your notes? Calligraphy or illuminated-manuscript style letters, rather than pictures? Would that work for you? It shows you’re paying attention to what’s being said, because you’re writing it down, but still gives you the ability to draw and have that little bit of focus on something else.

    2. Laufey*

      He he, as someone who has done the same, just be careful when wearing shoes or boots with buckles on them – if they are decorative and/or not very tight, they will rattle and your coworkers will wonder what’s making that noise.

    3. Artemesia*

      LOL. I used to type with my toes during meetings. e.g. move my toes as if they were fingers on a keyboard typing out relevant subject phrases. No one can see toes in shoes but perhaps it was an attention thing for me.

      A colleague ‘took notes’ and did geometric doodles in the margins. One approach might be to take notes. And maybe even ask a question while referencing your ‘notes’ — ‘Your second point about Llama wool conditioners is interesting can you elaborate about what works best.’ to establish that your activity is focused — and confine doodling to doodling rather than elaborate drawings when in meetings with the uberboss or clients or otherwise strangers although in our regular department meetings they already know what you are doing.

      1. 10Isee*

        For me, note taking disrupts my ability to listen in a way that doodling does not. I think it’s because taking notes engages the language part of my brain in an “output” instead of “input” while, for me at least, doodling is purely visual and mechanical.

      2. Momma Bear*

        I agree that it would probably help if OP made comments or suggestions to indicate that they were actually listening to the conversation and thinking about the task at hand. Or list action items and read them back at the end (which is very common to do anyway) to ensure that you got them all and then make very sure to do them timely.

  2. Booksnbooks*

    Perhaps getting a letter notebook cover, or something else that might naturally mask exactly what you are doing with your pen would help, too.

    1. Puppychan*

      I’m a special ed teacher and also ADD. I teach kids to doodle what is being talked about. There is a whole concept called doodle notes. It can be a great help foe these kinds of situations.

      1. WMM*

        I’m very intrigued by doodle notes! With this new year of school-via-zoom, I have encouraged my ADHD-inattentive kids to draw and doodle either while waiting for things to begin or while listening to class. If I can eventually encourage them to target their drawing to topics at hand, I think that might help a lot as they get older!

        1. Lexi*

          There’s a book called The Sketchnote Handbook that includes a process for doing visual note taking. While I failed miserably at it, someone with a bit of artistic talent might be able to use it well.

          1. Krabby*

            We actually did this as part of my history class in highschool. Our teacher allowed us to have notes in quizzes as long as there were no words on the papers. I did better on that final than anything else that year and I usually suck at History. I actually remember the contents of that class to this day (shout out to my lion-doodle of William Lyon Mackenzie King).

        2. TardyTardis*

          There is a novel called FLEDGLING (sequel is SALTATION) by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, where the heroine makes sense of higher level math with crochet (insert joke about string theory, the rest of us all did). Fortunately the heroine was in a class where she was allowed to do that.

      2. Nela*

        It’s called sketch notes / sketchnoting, there are books on this subject for anyone interested! Some folks actually get hired to make visual notes for their clients.

        I regularly draw sketch notes during conferences and webinars and not only does it help you pay attention, but it’s a great resource to refer to later or even share with colleagues.

        OP, if this method can also work for you, it can actually very positively impact your reputation :)

      3. dog in a bag*

        +1 doodle notes. My manager and I will go to town whiteboarding ideas or concepts when we have 1:1s, and we adopt the same technique (although in paper margins, rather than the actual whiteboard) in wider meetings. There are visual learners in every field, for every subject.

        If doodling about the topic is not possible (I have ADD, so I get it), I think a little disclosure can go a long way when it comes time to speak. “Just a quick disclaimer: I listen better when I have something to occupy my hands, apologies if it looked like I was disengaged. Now, regarding Bernard’s point about glazing…”. I’ll even say this at the beginning of meetings if I’m taking conventional notes, to explain any long pauses before I reply. Of course, this only helps if you do get the opportunity to speak. Not so much when you are shadowing, or note taking.

      4. livelaughandrun*

        My daughter had a math teacher require this in her junior year. It did not translate at all in her brain and made her miserable the entire time. I don’t really think she learned much. Its great it helps some people and gives me some idea where the concept came from.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I think the important thing to aim for when teaching different learning strategies is to show the options then allow the students to use what “clicks” with their brain.

          I’m a note taker. Hubby is a note taker/doodler. Old kid is a doodler converting to note taker. Young kid – unknown as of yet. Variety is the spice of life.

      5. Tisiphone*

        I did this in high school. And then the teacher announced that at the end of the semester he was collecting the notebooks and grade out note-taking.

        That night, I stayed up all night converting the drawings to regular notes in a different notebook. Ugh! I’m glad there’s more awareness of different ways of retaining knowledge.

        1. Rachel in NYC*

          how can you grade note taking? that’s ridiculous.

          what? I get an A because handwriting my notes helps my learn stuff and focus more then reading stuff but the person who can learn better by reading something better gets dinged?

          1. JustaTech*

            My 6th grade history class graded our note taking, but it was part of the assignment (read chapter 2 and take notes) and honestly I think half of the point of that class (and a lot of classes that year) was to teach us how to do things like take notes and read a syllabus. We all complained at the time, but I’ve incorporated a lot of those habits into my notetaking from then on.

            But yeah, you have to tell everyone in advance.

          2. H2*

            Well, the concept of learning styles is a (very pervasive, and even harmful) myth, first of all. The best way for people to learn is to have exposure to material in a variety of ways. So, as a college professor, yes, I love it when kids are explicitly taught to take good notes. If they are in the form of pictures, fine, but capturing details is really important (in classes and in meetings)!

            1. Blerpborp*

              I’m a college librarian and I have a professor who has their students do a whole paper related to to their “learning styles” based on a quiz and then research “their” learning style. It’s hard to find any scholarship in the past decade taking learning styles seriously so it’s a challenge, over time she’s been gently convinced to move away from the assignment. Her class is specifically to help students get acquainted with college reading and writing and she does a lot of great stuff teaching them how to take notes and prepare for tests…things I think most students could use help with but that assignment drove me nuts!

        2. NotAnotherManager!*

          Well, I’d be That Mom under those circumstances. My child has dysgraphia and a severe visual-motor integration disorder. Their handwriting is terrible, and their ability convert information they see and hear to handwritten anything is practically zero. They’re also autistic and have trouble separating main ideas from details, particularly on the fly as someone’s presenting, and identifying what to write down.
          They, however, have a truly impressive memory and can recall, without writing down, pretty much everything you said at that lecture two weeks ago.

          If they were doing well on tests and projects and then got a surprise grade for note-taking, I’d be camped out in someone’s office to complain. I can request accommodation or deal with a graded project, in advance, if we know about it. Bear trap my kid with a project they can’t do, and I will be unhappy.

  3. Philly Redhead*

    OP, have you tried visual note-taking? One of my co-workers does this, and we recently turned one of her pieces into a marketing poster.

    1. JR*

      I came here to say this. You can do a google image search for “visual note taking” for examples. If this satisfies the same urge for you, 1) anyone watching would notice that your doodles are connected to the meeting, and 2) you’d then have a deliverable to share with the group, which adds value, is cool, and also shows that you were engaged. I know someone who is paid to do this for board retreats and such!

      1. Sue*

        Exactly what I was thinking–people LOVE those so it might even become a skill you can offer to the company.

    2. H2*

      I definitely agree with us! You can use your notes instead of doodling, and it satisfies both the need to keep your hands busy and the need to look professional. Invest in some highlighters or colored pens/pencils, for some extra happiness!

    3. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      I was going to suggest note-taking, but this is so much better! I did not know this was a thing!

    4. MissDisplaced*

      I think this is a great piece of advice if the OP can work in some actual text along with the images/doodles and have them relate to the meeting. If you ever look at a lot of creative people (think film directors, writers, designers, engineers) they use some variation of this process when thinking of ideas. And it would definitely show you are paying attention and understand the discussion.

    5. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      One of my coworkers does this and it is amazing. She basically turns our meetings into a cartoon strip. The people are stick figures and she fully illustrates the concepts they talk about. I’d say most of us have grabbed her drawings at some point to add them to our own presentations

    6. Goldfish*

      You also might want to Google “graphic facilitation” and, like an earlier commenter said “doodle notes”.

      People pay graphic facilitators money to visualise their meetings… just saying.

      1. this is ka*

        A company that bids work from my company employs someone like this to attend progress meetings and even the final interview. It can be distracting (her markers squeak!) but the end result is really neat and they usually include scans of her work in their final proposal to show the feedback they received during progress meetings and how it informed their proposal.

    7. Erdbird*

      Long time reader, first time commenter. OP, I am just like you – an eternal, chronic fidgeter. I always am moving in my chair or doodling or playing with a koosh ball or something.

      Adding another vote for visual note-taking (I learned it as sketchnoting). You can doodle your way through everything, plus you can bring a whole bunch of pens to colour code it and it looks amazing afterwards! I find it more useful in webinars/learning/planning sessions than quick day-to-day stuff, but your mileage may vary.

    8. The New Normal*

      I cannot even begin to tell you how helpful this comment was. I had never heard of visual note-taking until now, so I googled it and realized that I have always done some form of this naturally when needed. My co-workers always bring their laptops to meetings to type notes, but I absolutely have to have a physical notepad and at least 3 different colored pens to get through a meeting.

      I am going to be looking into sketch noting for sure.

      1. Blerpborp*

        I also had never heard of this…well, that’s kind of not true, I’d come across books about it at work and kind of rolled my eyes but didn’t think about how I am compulsive doodler and I also worry it makes me look less than professional. So why wouldn’t I try something like this? It sounded silly to me in theory but hearing real people talk about it is much more compelling!

    9. Half April Ludgate, Half Leslie Knope*

      I had this same thought – I’ve been to a few virtual meetings where we hired a visual note taker, so who knows – it could even become a side gig for you!

    10. Sleepy*

      Such a great idea.

      I once had a consultant submit a report as a cartoon instead of a written report and I thought it was amazing. He said he did it because he thought people would be more likely to read it. If your org shares meeting notes with people who didn’t attend, it could be a great way to incentivize them to read them.

    11. Tiny Soprano*

      I’ve done something similar for years. In high school my Ancient History notes were cartoons (which my teacher did not get at all, but I topped the class so he couldn’t fault my work). When I did my music undergrad I used to draw whoever was performing in class and now I only have to look at the drawings and I still remember everything, even ten + years on. And I’m one of those annoying people who can’t just doodle aimlessly, or transfer the movement into a fidget toy. It has to be a drawing or it doesn’t work for me.

      Now I’m doing psychology and I’ve found out why it’s such an efficient way of remembering information: a) it provides an extra layer of very easily-accessed retrieval cues, which aids recall, and b) it doesn’t overload the verbal parts of your brain the way trying to write and listen at the same time does for many people, so they’re freed up to just process what you’re hearing. Which in turn makes it easier to demonstrate you’re listening by actively participating in the meeting.

      I’m glad your boss gets it. I’m super glad she’s explained the situation to the big boss. I think so long as you’re demonstrating that you’re taking info in and actively participating in the meeting and not drawing full page tentacle hentai, do what you need to do to help your brain function.

  4. Triumphant Fox*

    I can relate to this! Something like a mandala design might be better than cartoons. The repetitive, detailed strokes register more as meditative doodling than focused cartoon-work.
    I agree too that you need to be extra vigilant about your general appearance of being focused and up-to-speed in other ways. You will probably have less leeway when someone asks you how many X were ordered last week or where the Y document is and you fumble for an answer. It sounds like you are doing great, so it’s probably not an issue, but I’ve noticed that less grace gets extended to employees who don’t fit the mold of being type A and attentive.

    1. kalli*

      With a small caveat that mandalas do have spiritual connotations and culturally/religiously symbolic elements and depending on who is in the meeting, drawing one may come across as culturally insensitive.

      A generic design that happens to be in a circular frame and have several axes of symmetry isn’t a mandala for the purposes of Buddhist teaching or meditation as constructed in Indian culture, but some care towards doing the former and avoiding the latter – or using another art form such as mosaic drawing, scrumbling or doodle art (such as the unfortunately named Zentangle method – also not related to Buddhism).

    2. Rachel in NYC*

      This is why in really large meetings I knit. It sounds ridiculous but if I pick a simple pattern, I can keep my head up and be actively engaged while my hands knit. Otherwise, I get easily distracted by anything and everything shiny.

      1. Persephone Underground*

        I’ve been doing this recently while working remote- no more distracting than a fidget cube but eventually you get a scarf/sock/hat out of it! It does take two hands so I have to alternate with note taking, but in meetings where I don’t need to take notes because of the nature of the meeting it works great.

    3. PlainJane*

      Zentangle is good for this.

      Though if cartoons would better help with remembering the meeting–say, drawing one of the concepts being discussed–then sure.

      The whole letter is a mood for me, though. I’m an inveterate doodler on my notes, though I never got very good at it. I had a high school math teacher who used to grade our notebooks to see how well we we were copying down what she put on the board (and therefore, apparently, paying attention) and I always bombed that grade. But I managed to ace the tests, so I can’t see how it did any harm that my notes were covered with doodles.

  5. laughingrachel*

    I also have this issue, and honestly try to work more note taking in. I write down notes even when they are like “oh don’t worry, I’m going to send this deck out to everyone.” I just say it helps with my retention to write it as well, but that they don’t need to slow down on my account. Occasionally I will just be writing random words or I’ll ~jazz~ up my notes a little and that will satisfy my doodling. trace over and over the words of a header, doodle a little thing that pertains to our notes.

    It satisfies my need to move my hands and not make eye contact (I loathe eye contact, I don’t know what it is), while it looks more engaging than straight cartoons. Plus you can get a reputation as someone with all the answers. It came up in my ecliptic 360 that one of my peers noticed that I take notes in EVERY meeting no matter how informal or quick so that they knew they could always come to me if they forgot something from the meeting. For me it’s because it truly does imprint it in my memory when I physically write something rather than just read/reference it a bunch

    1. peachie*

      I am the same way! I rarely look back at my notes, but just taking them is enough of a ‘fidget’ to keep me engaged. OP, it sounds like you’ve tried that and it didn’t work, but would it help if you thought of it not as ‘writing notes’ but as ‘doodling words’? That sounds silly, but what I mean is that I use it more as an opportunity to practice handwriting. (I have so much ADHD, btw.)

  6. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    Is taking notes by hand an option for you?

    I took some classes in school that required VERY detailed lecture notes in order to pass, and if I’m in an awful meeting, I will revert right back to that. It looks more professional (oh wow so thorough!) but be forewarned that people will ask for copies of the notes, so watch what you write in them. (Not, “Fergus is so boring his slide deck is a violation of the Geneva Convention.”)

    1. Esmeralda*

      Haha, I write snarky remarks like that, but I don’t write them out as a sentence, I write it one letter at a time in the same spot, so it ends up as a filled-in square or circle. As long as no one sees the first few letters (OMFG, or KILL ME NOW) I’m good.

      I’ve been a doodler since elementary school. I’d get in trouble for it the first few weeks of class, then once the teacher got my homework (pristinely tidy, my mom made sure I copied over my artistically embellished work), they’d leave me alone.

      Alison is right tho about making sure the doodles are not distracting other people. I find geometric shapes and borders, cartoony alphabets and numbers, that kind of thing, helps me focus without being particularly interesting to people who can see my paper.

      LW might also try making the doodles fairly small. If folks can see your drawings from across the room, that’s distracting to others (BTDT way too often)

      Once you get a reputation for the excellence of your work, LW, this will be less of a problem.

      Nobody thinks I’m not paying attention — haha, I’m sure some of my colleagues wish I were in fact focusing on my doodles rather than what they’re saying/not saying.

      1. kikishua*

        I do that too! (Writing something like “this is just so beep beep annoying” with all the letters in the same spot. Best thing about virtual meetings – you can keep your hands busy AND keep your own honest notes ;)

        1. JustaTech*

          I write my “color commentary” in cursive, partly to keep in practice, partly to make sure I know it’s not part of my notes and partly because I’m not sure how many people can actually read it. I do keep people’s names out of it, just in case someone is looking at my notes.

          I’ll have to try the “write all on top of itself”!

    2. Evan Þ.*

      That reminds me of the time I was trying to teach myself the Greek alphabet, so I took notes on my Sunday School class using the Greek alphabet (phonetically, to write English words). It actually worked great, except when someone asked if I could give her a copy of my notes afterwards!

      (At the time, I was thinking of going on to actually learn Greek, but I ended up not doing it. I still remember the alphabet, though – so I can read Greek but have absolutely no idea what I’m reading.)

          1. Quill*

            On the side of maybe don’t, it is very hard to study when all your history notes are written in the ancient phonecian alphabet.

            1. Evan Þ.*

              Fortunately, I gave it up before Greek letters started making other sorts of appearances in my physics notes.

            2. NotAnotherManager!*

              It depends on how much you use it. I haven’t used the cypher I created in middle school (and used all through high school) for decades, but I can still read it without much effort if I come across it in old notebooks or boxes. (And, yes, I am a huge nerd.)

        1. old curmudgeon*

          I was seriously obsessed with TLOTR during high school, taught myself Fëanorian runes, and took all my class notes in Elvish. Besides making me look deeply studious, it annoyed the everlovin’ heck out of the kids who used to try to cadge an easy A from the work of others, which was a side benefit.

          1. Quill*

            I fondly remember when the class cheaters would sit next to me and suddenly see their grades drop… because I can cypher.

          2. Lentils*

            Um, hello, did I post on this thread in my sleep? I still sometimes take notes at work (or “take notes” because no one can see if I’m just scribbling random stuff, lol) in Elvish because it helps me focus!

      1. adk*

        Same! But I took 2 years of Greek classes in college. No longer remember what any words mean, but can read it beautifully.

    3. Environmental Compliance*

      Also fun when you are so bored that you’re writing in a different language, just to keep your mind busy, and then someone wants copies of your notes because So! Thorough! and then you have to explain that well, sure, but I need to translate it them for you first because today I decided to write in German.

      1. MayLou*

        Ha yes, for a brief period I tried to take my lecture notes in shorthand… that wouldn’t have been much use to anyone wanting to borrow them!

    4. Antilles*

      Yeah, that was going to be my suggestion as well.
      Doodling during a meeting looks like you’re ignoring the speaker, bored, not paying attention, or something of that sort. Taking detailed notes still keeps your hands busy, but just looks like you’re being conscientious and making sure you stay on top of things.

  7. Young Lawyer Whoops*

    I am a lawyer, and I too think best when I’m doing something with my hands, usually twiddling paperclips. If I cannot find a paperclip, I will fiddle with a binder clip. I do not do anything with pen tops, because they click, and clicking pens should be a criminal offense.

    One day I am a young attorney at a hearing, and I was completely bereft of available paperclips and binder clips. I know I will have a hard time concentrating, so I grabbed the only thing available to me that would be silent, which was a rubber band. I tried to twist it unobtrusively until I accidentally shot it across the room towards the judge. It was a small room, a conference room and not a courtroom like you see on TV. The judge was very nice about it (my horrified expression likely helped with that) but I now have a large stash of paperclips in my purse and attached to all files.

    Recommendation: Please do something other than draw if you have to look at your hands the whole time you are drawing. Few people in your hopefully long career will believe you are paying attention if you are looking down all the time. I do not suggest anything involving rubber bands though.

    1. JobHunter*

      Rings are another option. You can quietly trace their designs or slide them around while your hands are hidden under the table. Or in plain sight, most people will ignore it.

      1. Lahey*

        There are actually fidget rings available. They’re probably the best type of fidget tool to get if you need to look professional.

      2. Alice's Rabbit*

        I bought my niece a bracelet to fiddle with. Each bead is unique, so she has lots of textures and patterns to trace.
        But if drawing is the only thing that works, then I second Alison’s advice to ask questions and volunteer answers when possible. Good, insightful questions show you’re not only listening, you’re processing what’s being said.
        Also, force yourself to look up occasionally, make eye contact, and smile and nod like you’re agreeing with what they’re saying, before going back to your drawing. Takes a couple seconds at most, but doing it once or twice each meeting will drastically change the speaker’s opinion of how attentive and engaged you are.

      3. JustaTech*

        My husband’s wedding ring was like that: two rings that could be turned sandwiched inside an out ringer to keep from catching on stuff. I say “was” because he broke it in a bike crash (the only injury of the crash, thankfully) and the company with the 100% money-back guarantee didn’t make them anymore, so now his ring doesn’t keep him entertained.

    2. MsMaryMary*

      I once shot a broken rubber band towards my boss at a client meeting. We had a big stack of materials and I had rubbed banded the pile together to keep it from getting unwieldy. I feel your pain, but it’s probably worse to shoot a rubber band at a judge.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I don’t click my pen, but I have snapped the pen pocket clip off many pens and launched them across the room in the process of breaking it. The good news is I’ve never hit anyone. You can also end up unscrewing the whole assembly and losing your writing capabilities if the spring falls out and rolls away. Always have a backup. Pens are dangerous.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Sort of funny side note to my pen habit. . .
        I don’t have ADHD, but my teenage son does. Once, he brought home all his stuff from middle school at the end of the year, and he had an entire pencil bag full of disassembled pens.

      2. AGD*

        I do this too! One of the reasons why I only buy cheap recyclable plastic ballpoint pens. I assume I’m going to break about one in every five.

      3. Jaydee*

        I no longer use the cheap ballpoint pens because of the many, many times I took them apart (or chewed them apart) in school and ended up with ink stains on my hands…or worse, on my face.

        I have also snapped the pocket clips off hundreds of pens over the years. Rather embarrassing in meetings. But I assume less so than chewing through a pen in a meeting, so I stick with it.

      4. JustaTech*

        I joke that using a fountain pen at work has a high correlation with ADHD (3 out of 4 I know is a pretty strong correlation) because it is so endlessly fiddle-able. Right up until the boss fiddles a bit too much and explodes the ink all over everything in the middle of a meeting.

        Thankfully he doesn’t use indelible ink in his pens.

    4. Anononon*

      Oh my gosh, I have totally accidentally flung pens in the courtroom while fidgeting with them. I feel your pain!!

      1. The Rural Juror*

        My dad, a probation officer, was in court often and played with the rubber bands that were holding his files together. He once accidentally shot one into his own eye. He managed to hold himself together, but immediately went to the optometrist afterwards. Turned out he had scratched his eye! Not bad, it healed in a few days. He was pretty embarrassed about it, though. I think someone made a joke about him crying in court.

    5. We Are on the Record*

      I’m a court reporter, and attorneys clicking pens in deposition is a frequent major annoyance! Paper clip fidgeting is much, much better… though please don’t remove them from the exhibits :)

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        I spent hours as a paralegal once reorganizing depo exhibits that a fidgety associate had pulled ALL the paper and binder clips out of during witness prep. And then put the loose pages back in the redwelds out of order. (They assumed the court reporter would put them back on and reassemble the exhibits… I was like, “Um, they’re going to be transcribing the proceeding, not organizing your papers. Think you’d like them giving full attention to what the witness is saying….”)

    6. PM Jesper Berg*

      There was another thread about this sort of thing a year or two ago. OP should not doodle. Others will perceive that she is tuning out, or actively being disrespectful. I suggest that she buy a pair of kolomboi (Greek worry beads) if she feels that moving her hands helps her concentrate.

  8. I'm A Little Teapot*

    OP, I believe you when you say you can’t concentrate and can’t be medicated. But doodling during meetings, in every single work environment I’ve ever seen, is going to be heavily frowned upon. Even with prior explanations, it really wouldn’t fly. Work on finding something else, preferably something small and unobtrusive so others don’t realize you’re doing it.

    It sucks I know, but frankly you’ll be dealing with people who are not going to believe you when you say you’re paying attention, even with prior evidence, for probably forever. Get your focus aid, whatever it is, out of sight.

    1. KnitsOnZoomCalls*

      This can be highly dependent on organization, though. I had a boss in tech who brought her knitting to meetings. It was always stockinette or garter, so she wasn’t focused on pattern details, and much like a fidget spinner it was just a way to occupy her hands and keep focused. And literally no one gave a damn because her output was so high in the org. She got promoted twice.

      Based on that, I have learned to check the culture. Knitting at a client meeting? Inappropriate. Knitting at a regular internal meeting after clearing with boss? Fine. And doodling is even more normalized than that. Some companies that wouldn’t fly at all. It really is about finding a company that works for your workstyle if you can.

      1. Bee*

        One thing I have really liked about doing Zoom meetings is that it’s SUPER easy to knit off-screen where no one will notice, and it makes it easier to pay attention during the long drawn-out parts that have nothing to do with me!

        1. MayLou*

          I attended a Teams training afternoon and managed to sew an entire pair of dungarees during the session (I’d already cut out the fabric). I just muted myself and had my camera off, except when I had any genuine input to offer.

          1. Forrest*

            Ok, I have my sewing machine and overlocker on the same desk as my computer and I knit during meetings anyway, but that is next level. Respect!

        2. Quiltrrr*

          I recently did this in a Teams meeting with 40+ people. They wanted cameras on, but there are too many people to fit on the screen, and if you don’t fit on the screen, just your initials show. So, I kept my camera off, no one even noticed, and crocheted during a 2 hour meeting. Most of it had nothing to do with me anyway.

        3. Project Manager*

          Yep, I’ve been cross-stitching during our long meetings where I need to listen and take screenshots but rarely have actions or detailed notes. I tend to get distracted by email and other (work) tasks, and since it’s a virtual meeting, I can’t close the laptop like I could in an in-person meeting. Solution: cross stitch!

          I may attend all design reviews virtually from now on specifically so I can stitch while listening.

        4. Washi*

          Yes, I am someone who loves knitting in meetings but would also be distracted by someone else knitting in a meeting. So remote meetings are great for this!

        5. Ama*

          Meee, tooo. I have finished a sweater that I started in April — about 80% of it was knit on Zoom calls, particularly in the early going when my workplace hadn’t quite figured out that we didn’t need to have all staff meetings every week to keep people engaged. I’m attending a virtual conference this week, and I’m working on a new sweater for that, too.

          I really wish I could find a way to make it acceptable for me to knit in in person staff meetings, or at least in my cubicle when I’m on committee conference calls. When the meeting content is interesting I feel like my mind wanders less if I’m keeping my hands busy, if it isn’t interesting, I feel less like my time has been wasted if I at least got a few rows in.

        6. AGD*

          Same here. I would never take my knitting to work but no one’s going to see it off-screen, and most of my meetings are a lot longer and less engaging now.

        7. mdv*

          SO true! I’ve taken knitting into meetings — got permission when I was trying to deal with a case of sleep apnea that was suddenly so severe I was falling asleep without even noticing in the middle of meetings, and having something to “do” with my hands helped me stay awake a lot!

          And zoom! I have basically finished the bottom half and sleeves on a sweater during my weekly meetings in the past several weeks. Today, I knit 2 inches (x 24″ wide) on a new project during meetings!

          OP, I wanted to suggest you try taking up something like knitting — it will be a lot easier to appear engaged, but also keep your hands busy.

      2. Colette*

        Yeah, I doodle in meetings all the time – or take my pen apart and put it back together, or otherwise do something with my hands.

      3. pug life*

        This, exactly. It’s dependent on who you’re around. I’m actually thrilled that I’m working remotely due to covid right now because it means that I never had to have the “I can’t focus unless I’m doing something” convo – I just knit simple things off camera. No one is the wiser.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          I’m also loving the remote work because my ideal way to concentrate is to pace in circles. Works great for me since most of our meetings are audio only. On the few video ones, I just throw on a background and take the laptop on a pace with me.

      4. Lilyp*

        I think it’s important for the OP to understand that in many offices this could really hold her back professionally though. That’s not right or fair but it’s true. If they really can’t find a different fidget or a different way to manage their symptoms then they’ll have to be a more selective in which office jobs are the right fit for them to really excel in.

      5. College Career Counselor*

        I had a colleague at another institution who was a REGULAR knitter in professional association meetings (I have no idea if this person did it in front of their own staff, the president of the college, trustees). I will say that this person seemed to make it work (well established in the field for decades), although I have no idea of the reason (attention aid, fidgeting focus, quirky, etc.) That said, I did occasionally find it distracting visually when I was trying to pay attention.

        So, my advice to the LW is that whatever you do, try to make sure that *your* attentional tool doesn’t shade into distraction territory for the people around you. Using a folder/notebook, held in your lap or propped up slightly (vs. spread out on a table for all to notice), may be useful here.

        1. JustaTech*

          I think being well established in the field might make it easier to knit in big meetings. I was at a conference last year where one of the attendees (sitting in the back) was knitting and frankly , I was jealous. I had a knitting project back in my hotel room, and the conference room was freezing (as usual) and if I’d been willing to knit I knew I could finish (and then wear) my shawl.

          But the person who was knitting was also clearly senior and well known, whereas I am junior and new to this conference group, so I didn’t want to risk it.

        2. BethDH*

          Yes, I am really easily distracted by what other people are doing, especially if it involves them focusing closely on something. If I’m teaching a class and the students are using their fidget things, it’s hard because I want them to do what works to focus but it’s often really hard for me and other students to work around.
          I had one student who was a doodler who found a useful solution — her doodles were all small and followed the line of her notepaper. Even though I knew she was drawing something that was basically a line of emoji, the pattern and timing of the motion was much easier to absorb. She also paused frequently in a manner that was pretty similar to the way that people who do take verbal notes would do.

      6. Clumsy Ninja*

        I crochet at continuing education meetings. It always has to be a mindless pattern so that I don’t have to count or pay attention to it. And I put it down from time to time to pick up my pen and make a note. I’ve also (for all day meetings) gone up to introduce myself to the lecturer and explain that, yes, I’m paying attention, but that I fall asleep if my hands aren’t moving, so this is way better than snoring at the desk. One speaker told me he had a former student who had won awards for the stuff she knit during his classes!

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I was considering if it would be better for the OP to give the ED their full attention, even if they are retaining nothing. Then ask their manager afterwards to recap. I’m betting that these meetings don’t have many actionable/accountability items for the OP as a new assistant, so it may be better to just make a show of it to make a good impression.
      When the ED talks, pay attention. When other people talk, doodle.

        1. Persephone Mongoose*

          Yes, this. OP’s manager has been incredibly accommodating already. Don’t make this into their problem.

      1. Alli525*

        OP *is* paying attention while the ED is talking. Perception is the issue, not attention/comprehension, and a good ED will listen to the manager’s explanation. It might help if OP can speak up once or twice during the meeting to indicate their engagement.

      2. Aggretsuko*

        In my experience in an unsympathetic office, my office would rather I stare raptly looking like I paid attention and not remember anything much than the alternative. Sigh.

      3. New Jack Karyn*

        They are paying attention. The doodling adds to their ability to pay attention.

        It is not a case of “doodling means they aren’t paying attention”. It’s the opposite of that.

    3. Lily Rowan*

      I’ve always doodled in meetings — along with participating, taking notes, etc. My ratio of notes-to-doodles has shifted over the years to be more notes, but I still have doodles in the margins. It’s fine. I don’t think anyone even notices anymore (since I’m not filling up sheets of paper with repetitive doodles).

      1. MCMonkeyBean*

        Yeah, to me I feel like there is a difference between doodling and drawing and just doodling in the margins shouldn’t really be distinguishable from taking notes, so I’m curious what it looks like when the OP is doodling. Can she just try to position herself such that someone presenting can’t see what’s getting on her paper but just knows that her pen is moving? I would say also if possible try not to just stare directly at your paper the whole time but look up at least occasionally at the speaker. That way you don’t appear totally checked out.

    4. Mbarr*

      I’m inclined to agree with this. Personally, I don’t mind a few doodles, but I definitely notice when people doodle for extended periods of time. Even my colleague who knitted during meetings seemed dubious. Academically I know that the doodling/knitting helps people focus, but I definitely struggle to not judge people.

      That being said, I’m somewhat okay seeing fidget toys being used… So maybe switching to that would help?

      1. KayDeeAye*

        It would really bother me to see someone doing elaborate doodles. Little ordinary ones wouldn’t bother me at all, but the ones the OP is describing sound pretty amazing!…and for someone who doesn’t cope with this problem themselves, it’s very difficult to equate “amazing doodles” with “paying attention.” I am not doubting the OP for a minute; all I’m saying is that I would struggle not to judge people for this habit, so if the OP can find something else, that would be the best approach. Otherwise the OP is going to have to try to retrain every single supervisor and coworker throughout her entire career. Which sounds exhausting.

      2. Le Sigh*

        But I also think your comments and some of the others underscore the need for everyone, on the whole, to reconsider professional norms as we better understand how brains work. Yes, LW needs to be mindful, but I also think collectively we all need to force ourselves to check these sorts of things.

        You even note you’re somewhat okay with fidget toys — why is that, sincere question? How’s that any better? Other people might be fine with doodling but not fidget toys. And the LW even said doodling has been the only thing they’ve tried that’s worked.

        1. KayDeeAye*

          For me – can’t speak for everybody, of course – the difference between fidgeting and the elaborate doodles the OP describes is that fidgeting takes almost no attention (nor do really simple doodles), and that’s pretty obvious, whereas elaborate doodles *appear* to take a lot of attention. In some cases, (such as the OP’s) apparently they don’t, of course, and when I’m a meeting with a doodler, I’ll try to judge on a case-by-case basis rather than making an assumption.

          But the thing is, I *have* been in meetings – as have we all, I’m sure – with people who absolutely were paying far more attention to their phones or their doodles or their fingernails than to the people presenting. So if a phone or a cuticle can be a genuine distraction, I don’t see that it’s wildly out of line to think that an elaborate doodle is a distraction, too. It’s something that takes a certain amount of skill, so I don’t think its unreasonable to fear that it is also taking attention away from the meeting. And since this is exactly the mindset that OP asked about, I thought it would be useful to explain it.

    5. Esmeralda*

      It really depends on the office/employer. And your position and reputation within it.

      LW’s problem here is that they are young and fairly new as well. So it the optics have to be managed in this case.

      I’ve doodled in meetings with the head of our very large academic division (vice provost level). Has never prevented the division head from asking me to serve on and even head various committees. But I’ve been around a long time, and have a reputation for good work and for paying attention: I’m doodling and I’m also asking good questions, offering good suggestions, etc.

    6. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      And yet so many folks here have had other experiences, where doodling isn’t that big of a deal. You really shouldn’t speak in absolutes, as if your experience is the only one to be noted.

      I appreciate your experience and the advice, other than the sweeping generalizations as if this is the most common place situation. In a society that’s ever evolving and embracing each other’s differences and accommodations required to make them the most productive as possible.

    7. Office Rat*

      Not necessarily. It really depends on the organization. I used to work for a big federal agency and often found myself in meetings with big corporate heads. I draw people. I often do characters drawings of who is speaking. More than once it’s been a useful icebreaker for a very contentious meeting and allowed me to slip in and deescalate adversarial parties. The key is to draw everyone in a flattering light. I always draw everyone at least 10 pounds lighter and 10 years younger. That definitely helps.

    8. PuzzledPuzzler*

      I would disagree. I am in STEM so won’t speak to this, but my dad works in a buttoned up, suit and tie environment. He has been doodling on his legal pads for decades. Given there’s no like, sweeping sketch movements you could see from the other side of the conference room, but just little geometric shapes everywhere, still it’s apparent that he is drawing during his meetings. He remains engaged because he asks questions and solves problems. Really I think the crux is being an active listener. But if you are really junior in position maybe you aren’t supposed to contribute much? That isn’t something I can speak to.

  9. Observer*

    Follow up meetings with an emial to your boss, cc’ed to GrandBoss with specific action items from the meeting, preferably in regards to things that either directly involve Grandboos or that he talked about. Keep them short and easy to quickly scan. You don’t want to drown him in emails, you just want him to be able to quickly see that you actually did follow what was going on.

    1. C in the Hood*

      I’m wondering, too, if OP could occasionally ask a relevant question or make a comment, reflecting how she *is* listening. That does depend on the nature of the meeting and any expectations of people speaking up or not.

      1. Jules the Goblin*

        Came here to say this. Look up for a brief second, even if you don’t make eye contact with the speaker. Nod like you’re digesting some truly profound information (lol). Nod while you’re heads-down taking notes. Put your writing tool down for a few seconds, nod and look serious, go back to doodling. Something like that?

        Slightly OT but when I worked in Japan, their phone etiquette is to CONSTANTLY give the speaker verbal feedback (uh-huh, yes, I see) to assure them that you’re there and you’re listening. It’s a habit that even now I struggle to break, because I think that in American culture it reads as interrupting rather than listening. But in a time when many in-person meetings have turned to Zoom or Skype or Webex, it’s really a struggle to balance “total silence” vs “giving the speaker verbal reinforcement”.

  10. Anonymous at a University*

    I think it’s good that you found something that works for you, and that your boss is sticking up for you. I definitely second showing that you are participating, though. I’ve had students who needed to doodle to remain focused in class and could still do well, and I’ve had students who said they needed to and then couldn’t answer basic questions and accused me of having “never mentioned” something when I had literally just mentioned it but they were too focused on coloring their cartoon in. The doodles are fine as long as they’re not elevated above whatever the content is that you need to pay attention to.

  11. C in the Hood*

    As a related side-note, I was once in class where we had a substitute teacher. One student drew the entire class; he was an awesome artist, too, so the drawings were very elaborate! The sub derided him, saying that he won’t get that far in life if he just doodles all the time! The student’s response: “I’m valedictorian!” (and he was, too!)

  12. Meeting Fidget-er*

    If it works for you, I have found a playing with a small (quiet) fidget toy while maintaining eye contact/eye direction on the person speaking or presentation works well. It conveys that I am still focused, but gives me the outlet that I need in order not to zone out.

  13. Double A*

    Is this something worth talking to HR about as a reasonable accommodation? So you have documentation? I mean, it’s a bit odd because it’s nothing your employer has to *do* for you, but this is an activity that allows you to do your job and in no way negatively impacts the organization. A few commenters above are talking about how it “looks bad” and how no one will ever accept it as professional, but it is an accommodation for a disability. There are also people who think it “looks bad” or is “inconvenient” to install ramps into buildings. Their lack of understanding about disability isn’t a reason it shouldn’t be accommodated.

    1. Antilles*

      The problem is that there’s not a lot HR can really do here since it’s all about perception…and most of the people OP runs into aren’t going to be digging deeply into the HR file describing OP’s documentation of medical need to doodle.
      The Executive Director who “rarely acknowledges OP at all” certainly isn’t bothering to read that HR file. Colleagues in other departments in these meetings (and yes, other people are assuredly noticing the doodling) won’t know anything about the medical reasons and will just assume OP isn’t paying attention. Later in OP’s career when dealing with clients/non-profit donors/customers/etc, they’re going to have that same lack-of-understanding.

    2. Aggretsuko*

      I’ve debated trying to get diagnosed so I could get work accommodations, but I think I’d just end up in more trouble, and what Antilles said.
      This kind of thing is always going to be a battle that the OP loses more than wins, probably, because most people don’t have ADD/whatever and literally can’t contemplate how you operate. Once in a while I find someone sympathetic to my having this problem, but not since I entered the workplace, really.

    3. BelleMorte*

      If this is disability related, it’s really important to get this documented. If you get dinged for this later in terms of reviews, raises or even performance plans or layoffs, then you have some documentation to back you up. Any accommodations even if informal acknowledgements that you do X because of Y disability, should be documented in writing to your manager and bcc’d to a not-work address.

      So yes, document it, even if there is nothing that helps perception, it will help your case later on if it comes to worst.

  14. Helen J*

    I was in a construction meeting with the Grandboss. after a few minutes, he started drawing. By the end of the meeting, he had drawn a fairly intricate beach scene including a sailboat.

  15. beanie gee*

    I had a coworker who took notes in meetings on his phone. Even though I believe him when he said that’s how he preferred to take notes, visually it was so distracting to see someone on their phone every meeting. Sometimes even when people say they understand, it can be a distraction to others in the meeting.

    I think Alison’s advice to find ways to show everyone you’re still engaged will be a huge help!

    1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Ohhh, this brought back an unpleasant memory – back in the pre-Covid days, I joined a new philosophy meetup group. The founder was a philosophy prof and his plan was to discuss books and ideas, facilitate discussions etc. First meetup event went smoothly, but at the second, he stopped mid-talk to angrily reprimand the only person in the group that was taking notes. She used a note-taking app on her phone (because who the heck brings a notepad to a bar) and his rule was no phones. She offered to show him the app and the notes, but he didn’t care. Don’t know what happened to that meetup group after that, I never went back, even though I wasn’t planning on taking notes myself. I was going my usual adult-ADD “zone out, catch a tail end of a sentence, admire its depth, zone out again” which was completely acceptable I guess! For the note-taking in work meetings, back when we were in the office and had in-person meetings, most people brought their laptops with them and used them both to take notes, and to look up the answers to any questions that might come up during the meeting. But, I guess, it all depends on the workplace culture, and I don’t know if a laptop would fly (figuratively, of course) at OP’s meetings.

      1. Aggretsuko*

        “I was going my usual adult-ADD “zone out, catch a tail end of a sentence, admire its depth, zone out again” which was completely acceptable I guess! ”

        Hahahah, sums it up perfectly for me!

    2. SomebodyElse*

      I may be a bit of a hypocrite on this one. I hate seeing phones in a meeting. But I do exclusively use an iPad with pencil for all of my notes.

      (OP: I know this can be cost prohibitive, but if it’s an option I would recommend a tablet/pencil + note taking app. It’s a great way to satisfy the doodling, take good notes, and keep yourself organized. This is only a suggestion if it’s a reasonable expense for you or your company issues tablets. I’m not saying that you should be required to run out and buy one, but if it’s something that you already have and are willing to use for work, then it might be a good option)

      I think the difference for me is that it’s pretty obvious I’m taking notes vs. someone clicking on a phone keyboard. And even if it’s true the person is taking notes, yeah it’s optics.

      1. Antilles*

        One trick I use when taking notes on my phone is to actually announce that’s what I’m doing *before* I start typing away – “ooh yeah, that’s a good idea, let me note that down real quick” or “going to be jotting down some of the key points today (wave phone); isn’t technology wonderful?” can’t some other similar 10-second comment. No long explanation or anything, just a short explanation.
        It seems amazingly unnecessary, but I’ve legitimately found that even taking those 10-seconds upfront has made a world of difference in how people respond and making sure people understand that it’s actually me taking notes rather than just screwing around on my phone.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      Yes, I think the really hard issue is that we talk a lot here about how doodling or fidgeting or whatever helps pay attention and there’s a lot of discussion about that side of things… but the presenting side is important too. Standing up and talking in front of a group of people is something a lot of folks find difficult, and when it looks like people aren’t listening to you it can really throw you off! I am really bad at both sides of this myself. I physically tremble when speaking to a large group, but I also am so bad at looking like I’m engaged when I’m on the listening side (it’s something I’m often conscious of because I yawn a lot and I feel so bad when I yawn while someone is presenting, but I can’t help it!). It can be hard to meet both people’s needs. But I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t just whether you are listening or paying attention that matters. It also matters whether the person speaking feels heard!

      So if it’s possible to do your doodles but look up on occasion, or make eye contact a couple times, or nod at appropriate places, or ask a couple of relevant questions, or *something* to indicate you are there and present it can go a long way toward making people know that you are listening. If that’s honestly not possible than it is what it is and all you can do is explain, which it’s awesome that the boss here has already done so. But I do think we need to keep both sides of the presentation in mind when we talk about these things.

  16. Wakeen Teapots, LTD*

    Well, I have done this my whole career, which turned out to be a pretty good career SO.

    I will say that if I had it do all over again, I would change my doodle habits. I have a few cartoon face doodles that I’ve doodled for 45 years (since grade school), over and over again …. and a few cube box designs. There was a point in the last few years, as The Big Boss, that *light bulb* I realized that my habits might send a message that I didn’t real care about what (vendor, direct report, whomever) was saying. Yada yada, it’s the *opposite* BUT, after light bulb I worked on more discreet.

    So, I’m team doodle to focus but in hindsight, I wish I had employed the same strategy only in the context of the subject matter at hand and not unrelated doodles.

    1. JJ*

      I had a sort of similar experience; since middle school I’ve had one paper for notes and another for elaborate drawing out on the desk, always. Only one teacher ever commented on it, and it was positive. Since I’m generally an achiever, I assumed mosts folks would look at my output more than my drawing.

      Fast forward to several years into a design career, where I would draw while taking notes in all internal meetings (not client meetings)…sometimes related to the project, oftentimes not. The creative director approached me after one meeting like “Oh, I FINALLY get why you do that! I always thought you weren’t paying attention!” It was jarring.

      Even in creative fields, people have this perception, so beware! I don’t do this at all anymore. I also don’t take paper notes anymore, so the temptation is less anyway. Focusing on taking overly-copious typed notes can help as a substitute.

      When you are drawing though, make a special effort to participate and have heads-up time every few minutes to show the speaker you are concentrating on them (even though you already are). I would also echo other commenters on the content of your doodles…I would avoid cartoon animals altogether, and focus on something more abstract, like geometric shapes, natural things like trees, or things related to your field. If it’s possible to draw stuff related to the meeting topic, that’s some good plausible deniability too, like “oh I’m just sketching out ideas based on what we’re talking about!”

      1. Wakeen Teapots, LTD*

        Same. Because I am a high achiever and engage in meetings, I assumed that everyone would “get” what I was doing (or maybe I thought I was invisible?)

        I don’t regret the strategy but I regret the implementation (over a 35 year career, ooops).

  17. SomebodyElse*

    I think you also need to look at “how” you are doodling.

    In most cases it should be indistinguishable from actual note taking. So unless you are setting up an easel and paints I think you can do a few things to help keep what you are writing to yourself.

    1. Don’t have your paper visible to anyone else. May take some practice, but if you tilt your notebook or whatever up in your lap and resting on the table you should be able to keep eyes off of it.
    2. If you do have your notebook on the table try to at least shield it, not so much as you would if your arch enemy in 7th grade algebra were trying to copy off of your paper, but at least so that people who aren’t sitting right next to you can see.
    3. Actually take notes! doodles and drawings interspersed between text is going to look a lot less conspicuous

  18. Quill*

    So during my internship I attended an eight hour presentation conference… and quickly became known as “that girl who does cartoons of animals.” (I think fat, redwallesque squirrels trying to paint a house came into play at some point.)

    While entertaining for me and my colleagues (and ultimately not impactful of my career given that there was no way I was getting hired directly out of that internship regardless) the reputation stuck for a while. Something less obviously off topic might be a better choice of material, though I do routinely get complimented on my holdbeasts – i.e. critters drawn while I’m on hold with IT, which is a pretty reliable way to spend your first week at any new job.

  19. HugsAreNotTolerated*

    Doodling is far more acceptable than crocheting! This reminds me a lot of the “Is it okay to knit during meetings?” column. I swear, my ears just work better when I have something in my hands. I think it’s because even if I don’t see the progress being made in the conversation/meeting, I can see it in the item I’m making.
    Stick to random doodles, or squiggles. Mine are usually geometric shapes that I don’t have to really look at. As Alison said, detailed cartoons look like you’re not paying attention, random squiggles just look like fidgety fingers.

    1. TiffIf*

      I swear, my ears just work better when I have something in my hands.

      *shrug* My ears work better when I put my glasses on. I’ve literally told someone on the phone to hold on while I put my glasses on so I could hear them. (It was my mother, she found it hilarious.)

  20. Anon for this*

    My daughter has a similar issue. She also draws, but it is closer to taking notes in pictures than doodling. If your doodles are more relevant to the topic of the meeting (e.g., you are talking about a food bank, so are drawing bananas and canned goods) it might help.

  21. High School Teacher*

    I teach high school and have a few students who prefer to draw/doodle during lectures or discussions, because it helps them focus. Doesn’t bother me at all – hopefully this will become more accepted.

  22. Bob Loblaw*

    I am a successful lawyer and lifelong doodler. Over the years, I have more often than not made the calculation that, in long term/repeat work relationships, my work would eventually speak for itself and I was willing to take the initial reputational hit/skepticism associated with being a known doodler. My doodles are intricate and geometrical.

    When I cannot doodle (e.g., in short-term interactions where I cannot overcome an initial impression), I write in longhand with my (non-dominant) left hand. I write stream of consciousness words. I have no idea why that serves roughly the same function as doodling, but for me, it does. And it looks like I’m taking notes. And yes, I know it’s weird :)

    1. PuzzledPuzzler*

      This is so cool. I’ve never heard of another person that likes to write with their non-dominant hand for fun. The reason why it probably helps is because using your non-dominant hand overcomes automaticity (the mode our brains are in when we do routine stuff) so there is more conscious activity for focus.

  23. Lifelong student*

    I have crocheted at seminars for years! For many years- before webinars became a thing- I had to do 80 hours of continuing education every two years. I considered getting one usable idea per 8 hours a win! So I brought my crocheting along and accomplished something each time. And yes, I can hear a speaker and look at a power point which is up for minutes at a time – and still crochet successfully!

    1. HugsAreNotTolerated*

      High five to you, fellow yarner!
      My favorite crochet during a seminar story is when I checked in with a co-worker in the morning because she looked visibly distressed and she confided that she’d just found out she was pregnant and wasn’t sure how to tell her husband even though it was happy news (they were like 3 months out from the wedding at that point, they wanted kids but weren’t expecting them so soon). I happened to have a gorgeous yellow baby yarn in my bag and 8 hours seminar time in front me. At the end of the day I was able to catch her at her car and give her the blanket and some encouragement before she headed home. 8 months later I got an e-mail of a newborn wrapped in a yellow crocheted blanket and I cried.

    2. Teacher*

      I find this comment, especially the third sentence, problematic. Saying you only got one useable idea every 8 hours is the opposite of “doodling helps me focus on the very interesting meeting” – it is a way to passive-aggressively convey to the teacher that the meeting is a waste of time. I’ve been a teacher to people who made it very clear they didn’t want to be there, and people like that poison the mood for everyone.

      1. Lifelong student*

        Well yes- they were not very interesting for the most part- nor very useful in the way I practiced my profession- but they were required. The problem with required number of hours is that the attendees are captives. I felt what I was doing was less offensive than those who read the newspaper or surfed the web. BTW- instructors at these things are well aware that the majority of people are there because of a mandate- and not because they are fascinated by 8 hours of power points on accounting standards!

      2. Troubador*

        Lots of meeting and seminars are wastes of time that we are required to sit through to maintain employment. Not all content is useful information to all people, regardless of the teacher. At least the crocheter has something to show for their time at the end of it. A more charitable interpretation is that the attendee is making the best use of their time at a required time sink, and not a ‘passive aggressive’ stab at the organizer.

    3. Clumsy Ninja*

      Ha! I just mentioned above that I do the same thing! I have been known to introduce myself to the speaker and explain that yarn and a crochet hook are my fidget spinners, and that otherwise I will be asleep in the back row. This is how I can focus on the speaker/topic.

  24. Matilda Jefferies*

    You might want to try the DoodlePlan Journal from BlueLine. It’s a lined notebook with little flowers already printed in the margins (and on the occasional full page.) Honestly, this thing has saved my life in so many meetings, because it allows me to colour and take notes in the same book.

    And I don’t know, but I feel like colouring might land differently than doodling, with the anti-fidget crowd? Colouring is becoming more common these days, and it might look like it takes less focus away from the Very Important Meeting that you’re supposed to be listening to. Good luck!

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      I think coloring would look worse honestly. With doodling you should just need the one pen and from most angles it can look indistinguishable from taking notes.

  25. Forrest*

    I am like this! Working from home is great because I can knit during meetings, which helps no end. If that doesn’t work, the best concentration I have found in meetings and seminars is to draw a mindmap of the conversation. I need a fine sharp pencil and ideally squared paper, and the ones I did during my MA seminars were truly beautiful. I did fancy lettering and fonts for keywords and ideas, illustrated key ideas with little cartoons, selected themes for the shapes and patterns I used to link ideas and so on. It worked brilliantly to entertain the part of my brain that needs to be entertained and allowed the parts of my brain that can think and process to work.

  26. yala*

    I draw a lot. It’s kind of my side hustle. I do try not to DRAW during meetings though–that is, to make actual sketches of things.

    But I do focus better when my hands are occupied, so I bring a notebook and pencil, and in between jotting things down, I just…make dots and connect them. It’s aimless, not really making anything. So I don’t get caught up accidentally focusing on what I’m drawing instead of who’s talking.

    That might be a thing you could try? I know it feels like loosing some prime Draw Time, especially when the meetings are dull, but it probably looks less like you’re zoning out in math class.

  27. Fourth and Inches*

    +1000 to Alison’s suggestion of remaining actively engaged with the meeting. I worked with a scientist who loathed meetings and would doodle throughout. When I started at that job I was amazed that someone at his level could get away with that, but I learned he was actually doing it to stay engaged. He would always ask very helpful questions and would participate in discussions. Sometimes he would keep doodling as he talked, other times he would put his pen down.

  28. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    OP, I have ADHD and even with well managed medication I find it difficult to concentrate in meetings, without doodling, and yes, it can look unprofessional to some people.

    My suggestions.

    Most important, make sure you are engaging with your colleagues and know what’s going on in the meeting.

    Hold your notebook so that your doodles aren’t visible to the other participants. Not in a surreptitious way, but sit up straight and hold your notebook at an angle, instead of laying it flat on the conference table. Having a hard cover book or one of those zippered folders that you can slide a notebook into will make it easier.

    Try making your doodles relevant to the meeting. Either take notes and doodle in the margins, or try the sketch noting suggested by some of the other commenters.

  29. Hazel*

    I bought a tiny Slinky that I play with when I’m not typing detailed notes about the conversation. I use it any time I’m on the phone and a lot during video meetings. I try to keep it below the camera range, but one time when I was playing with it during a social Zoom get-together, several people said they wished they had one, so… I didn’t feel so self-conscious about it. It does make a little bit of noise, and in person it’s very noticeable, so I don’t bring it to in person meetings.

    I think if you want to be less obtrusive about doing what you need to do in order to concentrate, it might be a good idea to take notes AND sketch. And perhaps use a smaller notebook that you don’t have to place flat on the table. You could hold it on the forearm of your non-writing hand, and I think people would assume you’re taking notes.

    It’s too bad that those (millions!) of us who need help concentrating (or just not losing our minds while needing to sit still) have to worry about how our coping strategies appear to other people. It helps me to know that a lot of people deal with this (or other similar issues), and I’m not the weirdest weirdo. I hope this helps you, OP.

  30. Rachel*

    I used to do this and I will tell you that for me personally, it became very clear that even if it was tolerated, it wouldn’t help me get ahead.

    What I mean is, there are plenty of behaviors that will be tolerated from a new worker in the position they are currently occupying, but limit opportunity for advancement. For example, your work may be reluctant to allow you into more visible or high level meetings, say ones with clients, mediate among multiple stakeholders, dealing with negotiations, etc., if they believe you will not be able to appear professional and focused (doodling almost definitely inappropriate in these situations.)

    Relatedly, you’re likely to lose opportunities to lead even lower-stakes meetings (generally a prerequisite for advancement in any leadership role) if you seem like you are not able to follow along effectively.

    So I would suggest thinking not just “is this OK in my current position” but also “am I giving an impression that I won’t be able to effectively perform higher level or more visible job duties and cutting myself off from promotion opportunities?” It depends on your industry, but in most industries I know of that aren’t marketing/creative this will end up being a hindrance.

    The good news is, there’s a really easy albeit less fun workaround. Just start writing down what people are saying in the meeting if you find yourself struggling. It’ll occupy your hands and people will think you are really invested/diligent, and the notes can come in handy.

    Good luck!

  31. Admin of Sys*

    Can you adjust your doodles to be more related to the notes? I’ve found I can supplement the urge if I’m drawing connecting lines between thoughts or diagramming the concepts into visual ideas – the equivalent of drawing powerpoint slides for the topic of the meeting. Emphasis makers can help too – stars and circles and spirals and such. They don’t even have to make sense, exactly – something tht visually looks like a flowchart will not be considered doodling, vs something that looks like flower vines.

    1. casual librarian*

      I’d like to expand on this to say that if you can bring something with blank pages rather than lined, this may help your doodle-notes look more like a flowchart. I use a sketchpad to make flowchart notes and then do cursive and fancy script and swooshy arrows and whatnot and it makes my notes look better than when I just did patterns in the margins.

  32. Mel_05*

    I almost always doodle in meetings. I don’t if it’s super serious like a death announcement, a ceremony, or client meeting.

    Sometimes I’m doodling a leafy pattern or something abstract, but most of the time I’m drawing people. Faces are my go-to mindless drawing activity. They’re quite detailed.

    I really have not had push back on this at all. In 15 years.

    I am a graphic designer, I do tend to work at places to want to consider themselves creative, so there’s that aspect of it. But even at my stuffier employers, I think there was a little bit of, “Oh, she’s so creative, she just can’t shut it off!”

    I think the other thing that helps is that even though I’ve got a page half full of doodles, they’re usually around my obsessively detailed notes. Sometimes not. Sometimes there’s not much to note, but if there is, I’ve written it down. Probably with a cute little header.

    The few times that I have had people push back on this have been at church and I say, “Yeah, doodling just helps keep me in the moment so I can focus on what’s being said.”

    I see a lot of people telling you that you have to stop this and… I have just never had an issue with it.

    1. Rachel*

      I do think that graphic designer is one of the very few careers where this probably isn’t a problem, because it’s so aligned with your work/expected skill set. But if your job doesn’t involve drawing, designing, illustrating, or creating visual content in any way, it comes off very differently in my experience.

    2. cheeky*

      If you’re a graphic designer (or any kind of designer, architect, etc.) this probably is not considered weird, but it is in other industries.

  33. Snarkaeologist*

    I’ve found writing notes with fancy near-calligraphy can work for me. But if I can get away with it I’ll add illustrations on whatever topic we’re taking about.
    For example, I just found my notes from a safety talk on insect-born diseases, where I’d helpfully added diagrams of the tick life cycle. Was this actually the most important takeaway from that talk? No. But it was covered, and at worst anyone who looks at my notebook will think I’m paying too much attention to minutiae, not that I’m totally checked out.

  34. Mouse*

    My boss is the other kind of doodler–he doodles and does not pay attention, to the point where he asks questions that have just been answered or worse, restates someone’s answer incorrectly. I hate to say it, but it annoys me so much that it’s probably given me a bias against doodlers. I think I would have a hard time speaking with someone who is doodling unless it was very very clear to me that they were absorbing and paying attention.

  35. Cleopatra, Queen of Denial*

    I could absolutely have written this when I was in my 20s. Unmedicated, drew in every meeting, believed my mind was focused on hearing the meeting while…I don’t know, my hands were drawing by themselves? :) My old coworkers all have pretty nice portraits of themselves that I drew in team meetings.

    But, hear me out — are you really getting as much from the meetings as you think you are?

    I took a meeting facilitation class, and the realizations I had there completely changed my meeting attendance habits. I realized that I was actually missing out on things by not watching, even if I thought I wasn’t missing out. I substituted better note-taking as a way of keeping myself engaged, and my comprehension/engagement/EVERYTHING improved.

    I seriously get it, but…try taking lots of notes, try being engaged with your co-workers, give them encouraging comments, try to be present, and see if that also works for you. Especially since you already know your grandboss doesn’t like it. I’m 25 years into my career, and if I could go back in time, I would absolutely stop drawing in meetings. You don’t have to, but it’s something to think about.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      This is a really good comment and perspective and if there was a way to tag it as “READ ME, OP” I would.

      You can learn a lot by watching people during a meeting that can be useful.

  36. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I would work on having multiple methods to help you concentrate. This way you’re not known as the one who always doodles in meetings. It’s easy to use our techniques so much that they are just ingrained with us but then we are known for those “quirks” and it can be easier to look beyond them once you’re firmly established or have the ear of the right person.

    Right now I’d focus on wanting to impress the ED and try to find another method for meetings that involve this person. Even though they are understanding, it often comes down to “Well they have an issue they’re coping with and I don’t want to make a deal out of it because HR says to leave accommodation alone…” but they’re still thinking about it in the back of their mind.

    It can take time at your level but it’s possible to have the ED warm up to you over time. I have had to build relationships with absolute curmudgeons over the years. My most beloved boss who gave me my true start was like this. He would notice something and hate it, I could absolutely defend myself and he’d do that “Oh. Okay then.” and leave it be but I knew he’d be stewing a bit about it. I knew it because he did it with others and I heard him mutter about other’s enough to pick up on his habit of begrudgingly letting something go. It took me two years of doing in depth stuff for his business and he decided he trusted me more than just about anyone who had come before me. His wife will confirm this for anyone who wants to think it’s all in my head, lol.

    So I gradually overtime just seriously stopped doing stuff he’d complain about and found another method that wasn’t in his face. It got me respect and it got me launched into a stupidly successful career.

    This may not be doable for you if it’s the only thing that truly works for you but if you can, it can be so beneficial in the long run to deal with those people who will never quite understand other people’s differences. If you could find a fidget spinner works decently enough, even if you use those in shorter meetings or what have you, it can make a difference. You don’t have to stop completely, just try to flex a bit to remove the “Jane is always doodling, why is Jane ALWAYS doodling!?!” that’s racing through someone’s mind when they only know you as someone they see in a meeting setting especially!

  37. Fezziwig*

    The director of my graduate program used to draw like this during presentations. I won’t lie, there was a little bit of scuttlebutt when students first noticed it. But eventually that died down once we realized he was still engaged–he continued to participate, never lost the subject of the conversation and had strong relationships with colleagues and students.

    I think if you continue to show your engagement, it will reinforce that you are paying attention and your supervisors/coworkers will understand.

  38. Aaron Reynolds*

    I was facilitating a training where one of the attendees spent the whole day drawing a gigantic tree.

    The company I worked for was well-tuned to different learning styles — not only were there all kinds of odds and ends on the table for people’s fidgeting requirements, there were specifically the kinds of markers that have pleasant smells, called out by their brand name in the training material as an absolute necessity — and during the participatory parts, the doodler was active and really got the concepts that were being discussed, so I had no concerns about her engagement.

    But I DID want to know about the tree, which I had caught sight of a few times during the day. So during a break I said I had noticed it and asked if I could have a peek at it because it seemed really elaborate. It turns out that the shape and structure of the tree was all based on things we had been talking about in the training! It really blew my mind, so much so that I think about the tree all the time and this training was a decade ago.

    Last I heard she was working on engines as a mechanic, which struck me as a profoundly good fit for the way she processed information and structures.

  39. Junior Dev*

    Can you spend at least some of the time drawing diagrams or pictures related to what the meeting topic is about? Maybe the first 10 minutes, and then the rest of the time you can do abstract stuff like drawing arrows and squiggles between and around the diagrams? I think that’ll look close enough to “taking notes” that most people who see it won’t assume you are goofing off.

  40. Sleepless*

    I’m a bit of a doodler. I’m also old enough that taking notes by hand was normal when I was in school, so I take some notes. I don’t draw anything elaborate. I’m not artistic enough anyway, but I think that would be distracting to myself and other people. I draw geometric shapes…mostly row after row of triangles. I draw them a lot when I’m on the phone, so my coworkers find little scraps of paper covered in triangles everywhere. Interestingly, I didn’t realize my dad was also a doodler until after he died. I found a phone book at my mom’s house with quite a few doodles on it…mostly geometric shapes not unlike the ones I do.

  41. Joy B.*

    Graphic Recording (taking meeting notes in a visual, fun way) is a cool skill and an actual career for some. If you enjoy doodling while absorbing the information, consider expanding this skill and channeling it that way. You may find your notes in high demand! Do a web search on “graphic recording” or icons like Sunni Brown.

  42. Doodle King*

    I remember years ago. I was *furiously* scribbling notes in my notebook during a meeting. One of my colleagues gave me the “what are you writing?!” look during a meeting and I slid my notebook over. The lede was “how many ways to fix chicken” and I was writing out chicken recipes. From roast chicken to adobo to tagine to Buffalo. I swear by the time I was done I’d had 110 different chicken recipes scribbled out.

    He nodded approvingly.

    On another occasion in Thailand during a particularly *awful* meeting I was doodling. I actually have a tattoo from my notebook from that meeting. The meeting was awful but Thailand was fun. Think palm trees and happy sun with silhouettes of birds.

    I’m retired now and I’m sure there’s a reader or two out that that knows me. I was *very* good at what I did and meetings were pretty much awful things.

    People really take themselves too seriously sometimes…

  43. Ann O'Nemity*

    My doodling is at an all time high now that we’re working from home. I bought a pack of nice gel pens in 12 colors and I draw to my heart’s delight in virtual meetings. (Lately I’ve been getting into fall themes – pumpkins, leaves, etc.) No one can tell I’m doing it, as long as I’m looking into the camera frequently.

    In person, I tried to avoid doodling in meetings so that I would look engaged. This probably dates back to my school days, when I’d get in trouble for not paying attention. When I couldn’t resist drawing, I would do my own version of Doodle Notes or Sketch Notes, before I even knew it was a thing. I’ve always been such a fan of 4-color pens for this very reason. When we go back in person, I’ll probably go back to trying to avoid doodling so much, just because there’s too many negative associations with being distracted or not paying attention.

  44. Cas*

    Yes it looks bad and is unprofessional. Issues with attention spans appear to be common with AAM readers but I have never seen anyone draw or knit during meetings – because it’s rude!
    How about you try taking the minutes and genuinely take notes for the meetings? You’ll have something to do with your hands and it’ll be professionally useful.
    I know it’s unpopular to say this on this site but indulging type of behaviour will seriously hold you back in many professional organisations. I acknowledge I do have a corporate background which is the context here.

    1. KnitsOnZoomCalls*

      Meh, what is rude is being disruptive and not paying attention. If doodling or knitting is done in a way that doesn’t distract other attendees and helps you focus, who is being harmed? Also most of the meetings I’ve been in, no one would read the minutes. And yes, I think that is an argument for less meetings and planned agendas. But the reality is corporate life involves some amount of busywork and overhead.

      This is why I prefer remote work. Easier to keep my knitting out of the camera, I focus better, and no judgey people assuming that because they couldn’t concentrate while occupying their hands, everyone else’s brain must work the same way.

    2. cheeky*

      I have seen both drawing and knitting, from a junior colleague with ADHD. It is super unprofessional! She has had other behaviors and actions that are a result of her ADHD, but that cause disruption or are awkward in the workplace. She’s young and very open about her condition, but we have had to coach her on better outlets for her energy and better mechanisms for managing her attention/behaviors.

    3. Alice*

      What a very insensitive, arrogant, rude, and inhumane way to respond to the OP. I very much hope that this is not your usual MO, but a function of your being extremely stressed or anxious about something else, that is causing you to lash out in this unkind way. Because if this is how you always are, you must be rather sad.

      I also have a corporate background. I doodle extensively in all meetings. Always have. I have been promoted three times in the last six years, and am running my own division now. No one cares about the doodling. It’s never been an issue.

      tl;dr Your experience is not the only one that matters!

    4. Mark*

      When my sister was little, her teacher would beat the Deaf children for “not listening”. (The teacher had a microphone that broadcast to their hearing aids and she usually failed to use it properly, meaning she was either inaudible or incomprehensible.)

      It’s amazing what “rude things” able-bodied people with a bit of power will punish disabled people for.

  45. Lucette Kensack*

    Something that is rarely addressed when this question comes up is this: “paying attention” isn’t always what’s most important in a meeting. Sure, sometimes what one needs from a meeting is a bunch of information (and, as an assistant, that is especially likely to be true). Folks early in their career tend to think that they need to emphasize getting all the information (as they would in a college lecture) — hence the focus on the skill of note-taking or questions like this about improving focus. But very often the purpose of the meeting (or the purpose of your being there in particular) is something else: deepening a relationship, coming to agreement with other people, making sure colleagues are aware of a brewing problem, etc.

    In those cases, a tool that helps you pay attention may get in the way of the other goals. So you really do need to be conscious of both the stated and unstated purposes of a meeting, and orient your participation toward those goals.

    1. allathian*

      That’s a very good point. Obviously, if the alternative to doodling in a meeting is literally falling asleep in a meeting, all other goals are pretty much irrelevant…

      I find it extremely hard to focus in virtual meetings, so I just play a stupid puzzle game like Candy Crush on my phone and if there’s a presentation, I glance at the screen every ten seconds or so. In our virtual meetings, only the presenter has their camera on, everybody else has theirs off and the mic muted. Afterwards there’s a Q&A or you can use chat to comment. I don’t have this problem in 1:1 meetings/video calls. It’s just that when there’s a presentation, my brain switches off. It’s a bit embarrassing really… In the occasional in-person team meetings we had when it was possible to travel, I usually didn’t have any trouble focusing.

      Because some of my teammates are in other offices, our team meetings are virtual even if everybody is in their respective office.

  46. cheeky*

    This sort of thing is frowned upon where I work, and I don’t like seeing it when I’m running a meeting, frankly. If you need to do something, take notes. But if you are drawing and not doodling, I’m assuming you are not paying attention/not paying the right kind of attention. And it distracts me, as the person running the meeting or presenting.

    1. cheeky*

      I meant to make a distinction here between doodling, say, circles or minor marginalia and full-on drawing. To me, the former is ok, the latter is not.

    2. Bob Loblaw*

      It probably sounds counterintuitive, but taking notes distracts me, whereas doodling and other non substantive scribbling helps me pay attention. It’s something to do with the mindlessness of it that takes just enough of my attention to keep me from day dreaming but leaves enough for listening. Note taking, on the other hand, causes me to think too much about what I’m writing and miss what I’m hearing. The key, in situations where doodling is not appropriate, is to *look like* I’m taking notes. I might be writing gibberish, but no one knows.

  47. employment lawyah*

    So what should I do? Do I need to give up my doodles?
    Yes, probably. If you worked for me I wouldn’t care, but your CEO cares so you need to stop.

    look: I’m a doodler, too, and a fidgety type, but I stifle it when I am concerned that someone else will think I’m not paying attention. Get a fidget device instead. Wiggle your toes.

    But ask yourself this: Do you doodle during the finale of your favorite most tense movie? If you doodle while watching football, do you pause drawing when an interception happens? Do/can you doodle while hearing something which requires your FULL COMPLETE attention?

    Most people don’t do that, and that is why most people interpret doodling as “not paying full attention.”

    Most obviously, doodling serious stuff (not scribbles) prevents eye contact, which is one of the #1 ways of communication.

    Is it really that bad to be drawing during a meeting?
    Yes, at least for you. You wouldn’t be getting this if you were otherwise signalling you were fully engaged and attentive.

    Can I somehow look professional and attentive while drawing a skateboarding dog on my memo?
    Not at your current job.

    1. lotusblossom*

      While I’m sure this comment is coming from a good place, it’s not really aligning with the reality of ADHD. Our ability to focus is dictated by either urgency or interest, so this idea that because someone doesn’t doodle during a tense movie or a football game means they don’t need to in a meeting doesn’t apply. These are totally different situations to the ADHD brain.

      1. allathian*

        They’re totally different situations in the non-ADHD brain as well. Anyone who thinks their meeting presentation is as engaging or interesting as a key point in an exciting football game or the high point of a movie, is seriously and I mean seriously deluding themselves. This is simply not realistic. So the lesson to draw for presenters here is that don’t expect your audience to pay full attention and let them doodle or whatever it takes to enable them to give you at least half of their attention, and everyone will be happier.

  48. Possum*

    I got a doctors note for my doodling (was legitimately in therapy) and three years later I actually had a solo art show and was nominated for local awards. My workplace had a positive view of my nervous tick and helped encourage me in a whole new direction.

  49. Another Mouse*

    I suffer greatly from wandering attention and sleepiness during meetings – I can fall asleep within ten minutes if it’s boring enough, and our meetings run up to three hours!
    It was such a relief when the quiet use of phones was permitted – but I didn’t chat, text, surf. Instead, I looked up technical details and terms I didn’t understand, and it helped me stay awake.
    Ever since lockdown, our long meetings are remote – and I always have easy/low focus work ready to keep me occupied (reading mail, proofreading, simple debugging). It is like no drawing doodling – I stay awake for entire meetings now, and even follow the topics at hand! I already asked if I can continue bringing my laptop to future real life meetings as it is such a help. :-)

  50. Tiger Snake*

    If we were to reiterate Alison’s advice OP; your goal in meetings is not to remember everything, its to engage and participate.

    The reason doodling gets such a bad rap is because of how much it demotivates the leader and the rest of the meeting.
    I have no doubt you’re right that it helps you focus; but it makes the speaker feel disengaged and like you don’t care very much. It encourages other people to tune out (its very unfortunate, but that’s how people work). Big Boss does have legitimate reasons to be concerned about how it makes you appear and come across.

    Your strategy of doodling is not a bad strategy, but its scenario-specific. It was a good student strategy. When there was one expert imparting a lesson, and your entire responsibility was on absorbing that knowledge, that was a good way of doing it.

    But you’re not a student now. Your a colleague. And now you need strategies to participate, not just ingest.

    So; a lot of others here have mentioned the sorts of body language that you can use to show your listening and participating.
    In terms of focus, I recommend investigating the meeting topic beforehand so that you can prepare questions. Then you can focus on what discussed in the meeting means for the questions you had (it leads me to parallel thinking a lot of the time, yes).

    Also; try to get a bit of exercise to shake the jiggles out before meetings with your big boss. And invest in getting a small marble or something you can play with in your hands without looking.

    1. Fiona*

      I think this is an important comment. Allison often talks about how part of being a good employee are skills like getting along with your colleagues, being cordial, etc. I think that the optics of being engaged are important and useful as well. As a couple of other people have said, it will help to hone in on the purpose of the meeting. Is it to download essential information that you’ll need to pay strict attention to, and perhaps be called on to respond to? (If so, notes are probably best). Or is it to come together as a team and, for lack of a better word, the “performance” of paying attention is more important?

  51. Mary Smith*

    Could you switch to drawing things relevant to the meetings? I had a colleague that would regularly diagram and draw out concepts from meetings for his notes vs taking written notes. It was so amazing and no one ever thought he wasn’t paying attention.

  52. Cccc*

    Lots of good comments above. I feel like it could be fine in some contexts and at the same time you may want to work on diverting that impulse just to have the option to do so if it becomes a problem.
    One thing I’ve found helpful is to announce preemptively, “I’m just taking a few notes” or some such when I know I won’t be making much eye contact. You have to read the room, but In some contexts this will be help people reframe what they’re seeing.

  53. Squirrely*

    When I have had really boring meetings where I had to tech focus, I have done visual notes (mentioned above). Some of the “visual note taking” where you use different fonts for main ideas, use arrows to connect ideas… that type of engagement has a result at the end of the meeting that is super on topic.

    In math classes where I also had to single-y focus I used different colors. So I wrote theorems always with one color, made sure I indented the example and used a different color for that, etc. This usually used up my extra energy and let me stay focused on the lecture and not need to do something in addition to taking notes.

  54. phonebook*

    I’m an outlier but I don’t believe you can draw and be truly paying attention. Some goes for knitting and fidgeting spinning and all that stuff.

    Same goes for people who take copious notes. When you pause to write a note you often are not 100% listening to what is said as you write notes.

    The gold standard for listening is to look at someone and be doing nothing but listening to them and communicating with your body language that you are listening. Next to that is sparse notes. Anything beyond that you’re signalling you’re not 100% paying attention.

    The reality is meetings are often boring and pointless which is why people do other stuff. A truly important and relevant meeting with stuff you really need to know you’d properly pay attention. You also wouldn’t have as much problems staying focused or still if the meeting actually was a good one.

    This is more a problem of what do I do to solve getting through a boring meeting. In which case I suggest half listening and half thinking about other stuff. If you must move put your hands in your lap under the table and play with your hands.

    In terms of disabilities, I have a disability. I believe for your career you sometimes have to practice masking. It’s just not feasible to always ask for accommodations that will damage your reputation. There’s the way the world should be and the way it is. I work hard to appear ‘normal’ because I have bills to pay and it is possible to teach yourself normal behaviours to some extent.

    A lot of the advice on this site seems to be privileged people who must be so brilliant at their jobs they can step out of conformity with no problems and don’t have bills to pay. The rest of us get with the program where we can.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s actual science backing up that some people focus better when they do something with their hands. It’s not really up for debate — they’re just different than you (and me).

      1. phonebook*

        It depends what you’re doing. Fiddling with your pen? Fine. Drawing you’re not actually looking at people because you have to look at the paper to draw. If you’re not looking at someone you are losing part of your listening. That’s all science, part of our communication is visual. Someone with their head down in paper is not 100% getting all of the communication.

        Some goes for complex fidget spinners you have to look at to operate. You can fiddle with a pen while still looking at people.

    2. tangerineRose*

      I doodled during a lot of my college classes (and took notes, too). I graduated with honors. Doodling worked for me.

      I’m puzzled as to why phonebook thinks that everyone is the same in this way.

    3. MCMonkeyBean*

      What an odd thing to not believe. Other people’s brains are different from your own. You don’t have the knowledge on how they work or what works for them.

  55. Sled dog mama*

    My dad has always been a “doodler” according to him he trained himself early on to doodle words. Not necessarily words that have anything to do with what he is listening to but he said he’s found that people respond better to his doodling when they see words.

    1. MCMonkeyBean*

      I recently found my high school planner in my closet and it is absolutely covered in song lyrics that I wrote in class. If it’s a song I know well enough I don’t think about the words at all as I’m writing them.

      In college I used to “doodle” by writing out the name of every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer… but I confess that once I got to season 5 I would have to think more and kind of stop listening to the lecture so I can’t really recommend that method I guess haha.

  56. PuzzledPuzzler*

    This resonated with me, because I have been a doodler all my life. In grade school, it was difficult for me to pay attention because I was a precocious learner. My fifth grade teacher hated my doodles, even though I had tried to explain it was what I did to pay attention. He ripped my paper out of my hands, crumpled it into a ball and made a three pointer into the garbage with it. The next year I was attending a new school. It turned out both my parents had undergone a similar experience, my dad getting slapped in the face over it as a 9-year-old. I felt so lucky to feel supported, and I’ll never forget how vindicated I felt when my neuroscience professor in undergrad explained that drawing while listening has been shown to improve attention. I still doodle in grad school.
    Hold your ground, OP. I have noticed it helps to say a little something at the start of meetings if people are looking at me sideways. “This is how I listen best” works well for me.

  57. Rachel*

    I “doodle” by practicing my penmanship. Unless someone looks REALLY closely, it looks like notes, and technically it is, but with the occasional word written 5 times because I didn’t like how to “r” looked.

  58. Placated Squid (They/Them)*

    As a recent recipient of an attention disorder diagnosis, I’d like to offer some advice on things that always helped me in meetings in my old, toxic job where I was always ‘not listening’ – this was all pre-diagnosis, but now looking back I’m like ohhhhhh that makes sense. (For if you decide you want to move away from doodling. Or for anyone else who struggles to concentrate in meetings)
    1. Cheap ring that was a size too big for my index finger. Very satisfying to spin with my thumb. Easily disguised with the other hand. Could also put my fingertips together and slide the ring back and forwards from hand to hand, or slip onto a pen and slide back and forth along it. Does have risk of being dropped.
    2. Plastic post-it flags sticking out the butt-end of my notebook. Fun to run fingers/hand across. Got boring quickly, but low risk.
    3. Hairtie or rubber band. Can stretch out, weave through/over different fingers, or gently ping it back onto hand/wrist/finger. Easy to conceal/carry. Drop risk.
    4. Do you have to wear a lanyard at work? I would walk in wearing mine, like 5 mins or so in I’d lean forward/shuffle so it hit the table, and then quietly apologise and take it off. Then I could play with the lanyard itself, slide my ID badge in and out of its plastic sleeve, unhook and rehook the clasp. Bonus is that people won’t be surprised if they see you with it.

  59. Curmudgeon in California*

    My notes from college were a few keywords… and margin doodles. When I’d study for tests, seeing the doodles would trigger the memory of the lectures. I think it’s called either kinesthetic or visual learning. Most people don’t understand it, because they are purely auditory learners.

    Hopefully there’s a way to reinforce that the doodles help you focus and remember.

  60. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    You might want to take notes in doodle form instead? Something like mind mapping: there’s info all over the place, it looks silly but when you look closer, you realise the info is presented in a way that shows all interconnections.

  61. Glacier*

    Wanted to add that our chief legal counsel at my job doodles during every meeting. He doodles while he talks, but is literally quoting both the legal code and the text (“In CA Health & Safety Code 57901.3 subsection (b)(ii) it states that ….”) so I’ve never wondered whether his doodling is distracting him. He’s probably one of the smartest people I know. He also nods along and contributes during each meeting.

    I will say that, if he were drawing cartoons, I’d find it more distracting and wonder about his focus. He mostly draws boxes inside boxes, arrows, squiggly lines, etc.

    Good luck, OP!

  62. ADDfish*

    In high school I found taking notes in doodle form to be really helpful for both my focus and my teachers’ egos. I told them up front every year that I took notes by drawing and it helped me focus, and all that. And then if they wanted proof, I could show them my drawing of a train with each car labeled as step in a sequence or whatever. It also really helped me retain the material. Anyway, if doodling notes on the topics of the meetings is an option for you, maybe that might help people know you really are paying attention while also actually helping you pay attention.

  63. iglwif*

    Right there with you, OP! My fidget of choice is (easy) knitting–I can fully focus on what people are saying in a meeting when the wander-y part of my attention is captured by a hat or scarf or baby blanket. (I save the socks and mittens for when I’m listening to an audiobook, which needs my ears but not my eyes.) If I can’t knit, taking detailed notes or doodling helps. (I have not progressed to the point of drawing cartoons!) I *must* do something with my hands, or sooner or later my mind will wander or, worse, I’ll find myself reaching for my phone.

    This is not a problem in my current job, where I’m just one of several meeting knitters and everyone trusts that we’re paying attention anyway. In Ex!Job, I had a situation similar to yours (boss was fine with the knitting, grandboss strongly objected), except that my boss talking to her boss produced nothing but a repeated directive not to knit during meetings because it was disrespectful, set a bad example, and indicated I was not paying attention. What happened next was that I started spending every meeting taking COPIOUS notes … which he also didn’t like, because I wasn’t making enough eye contact. I am, you will notice, not working for that dude anymore ;)

    The worst part–in my mind, anyway!–was that in some of these meetings, almost everyone else had their laptops open in front of them, and except for whoever was designated to take minutes that time, they were all answering emails! So I strongly second Alison’s advice to, if you can, mix in some eye contact with your doodling and note-taking, because some people will understand that you’re paying attention from your engaged participation in the discussion, but some will only believe in it if you are actually looking at them when they talk.

    1. Jenny D*

      At my previous job, I used to crochet at meetings (where I didn’t need to take notes, that is). My manager was a bit wary at first, but he soon realized that I was one of the most active participants.

      I would always talk to whoever held the meeting first, though, and obviously in some meetings it wouldn’t work well at all. I prefer crochet to knitting because it’s easier to stop wherever you are instead of wanting to finish a round, and dropping a stitch isn’t an immediate issue.

  64. Tuna Casserole*

    Mindmapping helped me so much. Instead of straight notes you draw a diagram where you can add info and pictures in bubbles.

  65. Rachel*

    I have this issue in meetings, too. I have changed the format of my notes to a more free-flow, creative style that allows room for diagrams and drawings to keep my brain engaged. It also helps me process the content. I’m fortunate to work in a museum, where creativity is encouraged, but maybe this approach would work for the OP.

  66. Shawn*

    LW can user your cartoon doodles to process and illustrate the key messages of the discussion (e.g, similar to RSA animates) maybe you can share them with the minute taker to supplement the minutes. I’ll bet the perspectives about your attention and contributions would change dramatically.

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