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Background: This is about a small-ish company of about 10 people. Our CEO/Founder/Boss is holding a biweekly meeting to update the whole company on what is going on in each department/area. During the meeting 5 people each report what has happened in the last two weeks in their area of expertise. While I'm generally interested to hear about the overall direction of the company and the bigger successes and hurdles most of these meetings are about stuff that really just bores me and has no impact whatsoever on the work that I am doing. Attendance is strictly mandatory.

Problem: After the last meeting the CEO/Founder/Boss pulled me aside and mentioned to me that I have been visibly distracted/bored during these meetings and that out of respect for the others I should change that. I mentioned that I just don't have any interest in most of the topics and he is open to changes but does insist that I be present and "look interested".

Edit: The response my boss gave when I explained this was that attendance is mandatory because he believes it is important that everyone knows what is going on in the rest of the company. He believes everyone needs to be aware of all the others' work as context for their own work.

How to react to this? Overall this is a great work environment, all the colleagues are friendly and the boss is open to feedback. I just don't see how I can appear interested in something that bores me to death?

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    – Kilisi
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 0:22
  • How long does the meeting run? Do you ever have to present ?
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 2:21
  • Bi weekly is an ambiguous term. Do you mean twice a week or every 2nd week?
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 12:20

11 Answers 11

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"The most important thing in business is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you've got it made."

Yes, the boss is asking you to apply some acting skill. Or to dig deep and look for something about this topic which interests youl Looking for useful questions to ask also helps show that you're paying attention.

I agree with him that this would be polite, if you can manage it. Try not to be obviously bored. Try to find something to keep yourself alert in case something goes by that you can/should react to. Playing with the phone, for example, strongly suggests you aren't paying attention while doodling on a scrap of paper can be excused as not conflicting with listening, and indeed for some people counts as stimming.

And remember that in a 10-person company, you can either contribute to or be affected by almost anything that's discussed, whether it's within your nominal job description or not. The company has to succeed in order to continue paying you...

(A friend used to spend meetings folding dozens of miniscule paper boats out of scrap paper, which actually improved ability to focus by giving the body something to do that didn't conflict with listening. Since she did actively participate in the discussions at the same time, folks got used to it. I will draw random shapes and shadings on the paper I'm taking notes on -- but I do try to listen for things worth taking notes on.)

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    I used to do this kind of thing too, in a past company, on our weekly meeting, I used to draw random stuff on the planning copy we were handed. Once everyone understood I was actually listening and aware, it was no problem, people gathered at the end of the meeting to look at the drawings :P one or two relevant questions/remarks is enough for people to know you are aware of the meeting, either show your interest or act like it is enough, no need to overdo
    – Kaddath
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 16:37
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    "The most important thing in business is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you've got it made." is a paraphrase of George Burns, who said it about acting. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 21:57
  • @Kaddath A colleague of mine knits during meetings. Depends on your organisation (and how much obvious value you bring to the org) how much eccentricity people are willing to tolerate ;) as a general recommendation to a junior, it's hard to recommend anything besides "learn to not show if you are bored".
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 13:42
  • Thanks @,josephDoggie. With this kind of quote there are usually multiple sources. It's possible to find the earliest printed/recorded usage, but that doesn't tell us how long it has been circulating before that, and it undoubtedly gets reinvented frequently. Paraphrasing Walt Kelly: "As the man said..." "Hold it. Which man?" "Me, a moment ago... "
    – keshlam
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 16:17
  • @xLeitix my own mother can also not sit still for 30 seconds without developing the pathological need to knit.
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Nov 11, 2023 at 12:24
166

I am not going to teach you how to pretend to be interested or to look interested. Instead, I'm going to set you a challenge that I think will benefit you both immediately and later.

Take a paper notebook to these meetings. For each one, make a heading with the date. Then for each person who reports, write down these things:

  • the person's name (it's ok to just put Steve if you know them, these notes are for you)

  • the first sentence they say. (If they're good at this, this will be a summary of their presentation. If they are not, this will be funny, and help you learn how to do a good presentation when it's your turn.)

  • how the stuff they are reporting will affect you. You cannot scrimp here. You must find something in every report that is relevant to you. It doesn't have to be professionally relevant - that your usual afternoon walk companion may be too busy to take a break, or so stressed that the walks are more important than ever is a perfectly good thing to record. So is "X and Y will be away next week" or "lineups at my fave lunch spot". But you may also note that a colleague who supports multiple groups may have a longer processing time than usual, or that some people are going to be very happy and proud, or whatever. Find something for each and every report.

  • (For people with a terrible first sentence, or whose report turns out to be more relevant to you than you expected, you can add a summary when the presentation is done - just a sentence or two.)

Because this is a personal goal for yourself, you don't show these notes to others. You may or may not look at them again later. By looking for the "you" angle in each report, you will improve your own situation. You won't make a stupid joke to someone who is stressed out of their mind. You will remember to congratulate someone. You will plan for those times when 1 day tasks you rely on others for suddenly become 3 day tasks, and your projects won't be delayed because you were "in the loop" and took that into account. You will notice how to do an inspiring and useful presentation and how to do a boring and painful one. All of this is going to improve your own career.

As a side effect, your boss will be happy you are paying attention. So will the presenters, who may think more kindly of you (or at least stop thinking negatively of you.) These things will also have positive career benefits for you, though they will be smaller than actually getting better at your job, which is the main reason for doing this.

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    Actually, I have sometimes volunteered to take minutes/write up a summary of a meeting precisely to make myself focus on the material... Think of it as a college lecture; the fact that you find it full won't keep it from being on next week's test.
    – keshlam
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 13:56
  • 11
    In some of my previous companies I would definitely have struggled to find how I was affected by Sales Person X has hit their target this month or Accounts have moved from SuperSpreadsheets to SuperSpreadsheets v2. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 14:38
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    Sure, some people make reports that have no business relevance. There may still be personal relevance, or it may be "our paycheques will continue to clear" or "apparently you don't need a huge accomplishment to mention something at this meeting". These are valid observations. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 14:46
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    I think @keshlams comment deserves to be its own answer. If there is little of relevance to yourself, you are the perfect transcriptor: Everyone else will be more distracted from recording by having to think about the implications of what is said, whereas you get to be detached and can just keep on typing. Pretty much every time I found large holes in a protocol, it was because someone deeply involved with the discussion at hand was also tasked with writing it all down and eventually just stopped doing the latter in favour of the former. Why keep your notes to yourself, if they can help all!
    – Zsar
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 18:06
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    @ToddWilcox the key word here is pretend. By actively trying to figure out the "what's useful for me", you're no longer pretending. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 7:43
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I always appear interested in meetings, because to me, I'm being paid to be there so it does involve me. This is just a change of mindset from your situation.

The topics might not impact on my work or have any bearing on my career prospects, but being paid does. Whether it's being paid to listen or clean some dishes or resolve complex engineering problems are all the same to me.

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    Besides, one might just learn something! :-) +1
    – Peter K.
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 12:21
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    Play interested in something you are not and stimulating this to continue more in the future? How about providing honest feedback that your time is wasted there so it would be better for the company to not pay you sit through useless meetings? Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 17:16
  • 6
    @akostadinov play your part in public, challenge it in private. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 17:18
  • 5
    @akostadinov making the CEO look bad in front of the entire company definitely counts as "public". And our perspective doesn't matter, it's actually whether the CEO thinks you've made them look bad. You're right though, OP can decide to follow or find another job. It's not something that I'd quit over, especially since not being able to recognize when to withhold criticism is a big problem for anyone's career. But you're right, OP can burst the boss's purple world in front of the entire company and just quit or get fired, if he doesn't feel like waiting a couple of hours to do it 1 on 1. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 17:24
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    (-1) I fail to see how this addresses the question. You can not just be interested in something because you're paid for it. That's not how interests work. Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 7:42
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Coffee.

(I'm not being sarcastic; caffeine will help but is an ameliorating shortcut. The best response is, as others rightly point out, to be interested, by getting the context you need, and if necessary by politely calling out truly unimportant topics that are not worth the whole company's time.)

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    Actually a beverage is a good idea. Doesn’t have contain caffeine. But a big mug of (herbal) tea or a (decaffeinated) cappuccino can keep you busy for the first 15 minutes of a meeting without appearing bored.
    – Michael
    Commented Nov 8, 2023 at 7:28
  • On the flip side, smoking/vaping is a generally a very bad idea in this situation.
    – Criggie
    Commented Nov 10, 2023 at 2:18
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How to react to this?

While immediate response can be tempting to just learn how to look interesting (and that is an useful skill to have not just in your work life), I think that's looking at the matter from the donkey's end.

The reason you are in this meeting is because this meeting provides value, at least as far as the business is concerned this is information everyone involved will benefit from ingesting and understanding, even if the information may not be directly related or actionable by you.

This is where the real issue is - you don't see the value of the information, and response from your boss around (thanks for providing the clarification!) threw me off a bit, and I expect it was down to some external factors: question not posed right, being in rush or just something else that lead to a rather unhelpful response. What I would expect instead is to provide you with the missing context so you can engage better.

So I think the best action is to schedule a 1:1, to not be in a hurry, and explain that you would like to actually understand all the context behind the information presented, as right now you are missing it and that makes it hard to ingest the information which leads to lack of engagement on your part during the meeting. Mind that also requires a change on your part - if you are in the meeting and don't understand the information presented (whether it's the information itself or how does it fit into the context) you have to speak up and ask for explanation, and keep doing so until you understand it.

By doing so, over and over, you will not only look more interested in the meeting, you WILL be more interested in the meeting, you will learn how to draw maximum value from it, and be able to offer feebdack whether presenting XYZ information there is actually of value, or just a waste of time.

And as you like the company, the people, the culture, that's a big win for everyone.

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"Fake it until you make it"…?

Well, not exactly like @keshlam's saying that you have it made when you can fake sincerity.

BRIEF:

Take notes for yourself.

  • makes you look interested

  • might actually lead to you becoming interested or learning something

  • Perhaps provide evidence of the amount of time wasted. Although whether you want to share that with your boss is a different issue. Perhaps useful to you when you become a boss, or if you get a better boss.

Overall: group meetings are sometimes more efficient for the company, even if many or most of the participants are bored for most of the meeting. an accidental connection between two people who did not know they should be talking to each other might save the company many weeks of work and millions of dollars.

But of course it's a question of trade-off. Your notes might provide quantifiable evidence.

Finally: looking or acting visibly bored is insulting. That in itself can be career limiting for you.

---+ DETAIL (TL;DR)

---++ take notes

Something I do when I am less interested in a topic is take notes. Imagine that I was writing the minutes for such a meeting. More importantly, don't imagine but actually do take notes for yourself. Over time you might find yourself becoming interested, or possibly just learn something that might help you if you are in the position of your boss.

IIRC this technique is recommended by several "personal productivity" guru types. IIRC has also been recommend that people like your boss, managers or team leaders, or just informal leaders, use "please take minutes" or less onerous "I would appreciate it if you could send me some notes after the meeting" (which doesn't mean that they have to be quite complete as minutes) as a way of getting people like you who are not so actively involved, well, involved.

Why minutes or notes? If the meeting itself is a waste of time, isn't taking minutes or notes even more of a waste of time, especially if you have to spend five or 10 minutes after the meeting to organize them? Well, yes: but I believe it was Andy Grove, famous for managing Intel during its period of growth, who said something like "if it is not worth taking minutes, then it's not worth having the meeting". Plus, the ability to efficiently take minutes or notes in meetings will definitely in itself be useful at other points in your career. "Efficiently" meaning taking the minutes or notes, but not spending too much time on them.

If it is the case that you are having too many meetings, wasting time not just for yourself but also for other people, then your notes are evidence. Especially if you have time spent on them, e.g. half an hour talking about code indentation rules - people know how to use indentation programs or editors? Perhaps your boss would not be interested in such feedback, but some are, especially if documented well as opposed to inchoate whining it's such a waste of time".

Also, in such team wide communications meetings, you might be lucky to get only 10 or 15 minutes worth of discussion relevant to you out of an hour long meeting. Heck, you might only get one really important action item more piece of information over months of such meetings. But if that important piece of information saves you or somebody else many hours or days of work, then the meetings will be worthwhile. Your notes may show you that sort of thing is happening. Or not.

---++ meetings versus technology

Why big group meetings and not 1:1 meetings email or Slack or… ?

Partly it is the efficiency trade-off for broadcast or multitask versus point to point communication: while 8 of 10 people might be wasting an hour once a week, one benefiting, the person providing the useful information might have to spend, say, 10 hours if they were going to have 1:1 meetings or emails to everybody who might possibly be involved.

Why not group emails? Well, evidence is that group emails are often less efficient than meetings, because they take small amounts of time for each email assuming you are not getting involved in writing long replies) over a long time period, and interrupt people who are bored equally by in person group meetings or group emails.

Yes, filtering… Most people don't know how to write email filters. Most email programs don't make writing good email filters efficient or maintainable. (I put both Gmail and Outlook in those classes.) perhaps one day we will all have ChatGPT like personal assistants that will do a better job of determining what you need to look at in your email then gmail begin "important" classifications. Heck, perhaps someday AI personal assistants will help provide some of the synergistic interconnections that group meetings do, with less overhead. But I don't think we're there yet. (I would love to hear from people who may be paying for subscriptions to systems like ChatGPT, and are using it not just for queries, but for such background monitoring of communications like email. But if that's going to replace group meetings, then we're going to need a lot more group broadcast email, which are proven inefficient when you don't have good filters.)

Why not Slack, or forums such as stack exchange where people can go looking for the stuff they're interested in? Well, sometimes the stuff you need to know is not what you naturally go looking for.

Overall groups of people who are working or living together need some communication that is broadcast or "forced" upon all members. Opportunity for synergy, opportunity for connecting group members who do not know about each other's interest.

It's a question of time efficiency: we need a certain amount of such "forced" "group" "multi" communication, to get a certain amount of communication and cooperation between people who don't know they should be talking to each other. But not so much that too much time is wasted.

An hour a week, probably OK.

A four hour meeting a month, may be OK.

A four hour meeting every day, definitely not.

Note: "agile" development methodologies often have a "stand up meeting" 10 minutes or so every day. Depending on the agile guru, perhaps as long as as half an hour although that seems a bit long to me. "Stand up", literally standing up, so people do not get comfortable sitting in chairs.


More about technological alternatives to group meetings, like email or Slack or forums like stack exchange…

I'm a big advocate of such. But management study results show that none of them are home runs in and off themselves. Sometimes for particular communities (e.g. my first employer was an pioneer, and we used UIUC notes files and later news groups very well). But even in that community we had people reluctant to participate, or unfamiliar. Yes, they might've been Old fogeys or tech writers, but they were still important. Some companies have the luxury of being able to say "we should not hire anybody who cannot use Slack". But that can dramatically reduce your hiring pool. (Plus, don't get me going about how slack lead to wasted time.)

Meetings are lowest common denominator. Almost everybody can handle meetings. (not quite everybody, e.g. I have some deaf friends who have difficulty participating in meetings.)

If you can invent or develop a technological alternative that accomplishes as much as in person meetings do, well you might have a good product. If you don't want to code it up, or if you think that it is already been created, well, you might try persuading the old fogies. Your meeting notes might provide evidence.

---++ don't piss off other people

Also remember: being visibly bored can be disrespectful and insulting to other members of the meeting. That can be decidedly career limiting. It's just not nice.

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I second the advice you have already received.

I have a TERRIBLE time being at all interested about anything in meetings that does not concern my own work. Taking notes is the best mindhack to fix this, but works vastly better if I'm making the notes for other people to read. I can make notes about stuff I care about almost on autopilot, but taking notes for others forces me to think "what would other people want to know, about this tedious nothingburger of a meeting that should have been an email? What would that email contain?"

But there's a couple more tricks and mindhacks that make the note-taking extra powerful, and they sound like, since you have a good team, they might work for you too.

  1. Get your team involved and on board. Let 'em know you've noticed (or been told, but agree!) that you're finding it hard to stay focused in meetings. Say you're not sure if it's ADHD or what, but you're gonna try to figure out ways to improve on that, you plan on taking notes, and you'd like to hear any suggestions they have that you could try, especially from anyone else who's had trouble with that. Ask 'em if they wouldn't mind poking you, or asking you questions, or whatever, if it looks like you're glazing over. Let them know you don't mind being called out on it, and that you will actually appreciate it.

  2. The stuff that's not your area that you give no craps about because it's nothing to do with you - ask whether people would be OK if you spent an hour or so each week, mobbing with team members in those other areas, so you can learn more about them. Reduce the bus factor, reduce siloing, improve inter-disciplinary synergy... but most importantly, it becomes something you know about, you understand the challenges with, and so perhaps you care about more.

  3. Warn the team that as part of trying to be more interested and involved, you expect (hope!) to be asking a lot of dumb questions, even about stuff that's not your problem and nothing you're involved in. Then, ASK those dumb questions. That term you've heard 5,000 times since you've been here, but never cared to find out about what it is: ASK, when it comes up in your notes. Ask dumb questions often. Weird thing about asking dumb questions: far as I can tell, nobody takes it as someone being stupid, quite the opposite. I even prefix it with "dumb question"! And people take it, if anything, as someone taking an interest, and an opportunity to show their own knowledge. No matter how many times I say "Dumb question, but why don't we...", nobody ever rolls their eyes. Try not to derail meetings with the questions, but try to ask at least one question per meeting.

I often cringe when I ask these questions, feeling "this is something I should already know, I'm exposing my laziness and ignorance!"... but I'd say it's the most valuable habit after note-taking. And you can just about guarantee that if you don't know the answer, there will be others on the team who don't, either, but lacked the courage to be the dumb-asker. This is a huge service for them.

  1. Ask the team to consider what can be done to reduce the number and length of meetings. Nobody loves meetings. We've moved from five standup-meetings a week to three; the other two days are now "Slack-standups": if you have a concern or blocker, you bring it up in Slack, and people can resolve it there. Fewer meetings means more time to be productive: everyone gains.

Something an astute reader might notice: these aren't really "mind-hacks". Though thinking of them as mind-hacks is a useful mind-hack in itself.

These are actually "coping mechanisms".

I suspect that it is VERY likely that I have ADHD. The above (apart from #4 which is just a good thing for every team to aim for), is a list of coping mechanisms for my probable ADHD's inability to handle meetings like a "normal" person.

Other coping strategies I employ include: making sure that my desk and computer screen are visible to others so I do not feel able to be distracted. Always having a good, prioritized to-do list to work on. Drinking a lot of coffee. Also, NOT drinking caffeine for months, and suffering the caffeine withdrawal headaches, so that when you hit crunch-mode and have to get work done, it is a magic potion your body is unused to and you become a coding GOD, an avatar of focus! A strict daily schedule. Doing things immediately they are asked so they don't pile up or get added to the ever-growing to-do list. Culling the to-do list to keep it short, and accepting that some stuff will never get done. Putting things where you'll see them when you will need them so you don't forget. Putting your car keys on the thing you want to remember to take with you in the car next time. Using phone alarms and other automate reminders to remind you of stuff. Getting people to pester you about deadlines. And so ad infinitum. It's all coping strategies.

If you find yourself literally unable to remain focused for a half-hour meeting, to listen to or understand what is being said by your colleagues just because your brain is strongly telling you "blah blah blah this doesn't relate to you, so think about literally anything else while feeling really bored!"... then you may have ADHD too.

I suggest you get a referral from your doc to have that checked. I did this myself, finally, last year after 48 years of living like this... but then never followed up the referral. Yeah, ADHD sucks.

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    There are no "normal" people, but many are neurotypical. Consider this another mind-hack or coping assistance 😉 Commented Nov 9, 2023 at 7:01
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While many people are answering as to why you should care, i'm going to answer the question as it was asked, and to me this is pretty simple. If your boss has asked you to look "less bored" then you need to look less bored. If your boss asks you to do anything more in a certain way you should probably be doing it that way unless you want to really die on that hill.

The most common things that project boredom include but are not limited to: not even looking at the presenter (openly working on anything else, staring out the window, looking at your phone, zoned out at the wall, etc), yawning, slumped posture, fidgeting, or making any frustrated noises when somebody asks a question that increases the length of the meeting. You need to not do any of these things, even if you ARE bored to death. You're not a child, you can sit there and stare at the person's face while thinking of something else or without thinking if you want, but you can't just start doing whatever it is that makes it obvious that you're not having fun. Now you probably should be paying attention but if you're not going to you just don't ask questions and give non-committal replies, if they ask "are you okay with those" reply "I don't see anything at the moment", or something similar. Although this can bite you if it ever does end up being important and you might learn that you have to keep asking people for gaps of information.

Now with that being said, i'm going to tell you why you should care. It improves your relationships and quite honestly is extremely rude to openly convey that you are not a fan of something. If hypothetically you have an important customer for your company and they are friendly and start talking about their weekend, and you might not care one bit about what they have to say. Even so it would be a horrible idea for you to groan and openly let them know you don't care. It is the same rudeness that you are giving to presenters in this meeting, and for the people who have told you they want you in the meeting (by obviously showing disdain for the meeting you are openly saying they're dumb for having you there, and they made a stupid meeting). You can politely convey that maybe you don't think any of your coworkers ideas are not the best, but being blatant and not tactful about it is rude, and likely to make you enemies, and likely to limit career opportunities because they won't trust you interacting with anyone of importance (other team leads, important customers, or to be professional around even subordinates).

As a thought experiment, imagine you had to give a presentation about your work and maybe it wasn't relevant to others but some people were in the meeting. Imagine if they openly and obviously were doing similar things... imagine if you look over and your worker is just slumped over and sighing heavily at anything you say (we haven't seen what you've done so I can't give an accurate equivalent). I don't think you'd be super thrilled, and even if you thought it probably wasn't relevant to them, I think you would probably not appreciate them doing it.

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Most likely, all the boss wants you to do is:

Pay attention to the person speaking!

TBH we weren't at the meeting so we can't tell exactly how bored you looked - but in a normal meeting, this is all that's required.

Quite probably, all you need to do is look at them while they speak, even if you happen to let your mind wander.

It's a bit rude and off-putting to appear overtly disinterested in someone while they're speaking to a small group such as this, even if it doesn't concern your specific area of work.

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It is a reality of office life that you will occasionally be called into meetings that are irrelevant to you and are boring as hell. However you can't let people, or at least the speaker, know that you are bored.

What I tend to do is bring in a notepad and pen and pretend I'm taking notes. In reality, I'm either doodling, playing sudoku, or doing a crossword. This will be a noteable enough change for your boss that he will get off your back about it. Or heck, actually do take notes if that spidey sense is tingling and you think this could actually be useful.

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What is important to your boss is what should be important to you.

He does pay your salary. This should entitle him to a certain amount of artistic license in the way the company operates and how he manages it.

If it is indeed a small company then the interaction between employees probably becomes hyper-important. This in turn may in turn lead to a more active man-management than what the average company has.

This may be in your eyes not strictly necessary, but because there are so few of you, your contributions may very well all be crucial.

Even if your boss is wasting your time it is his time to waste. To be honest meetings is not such an unreasonable request of your time.

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