Of course, good manners requires that one try to look interested -- not yawn, not squirm, not glance at watch or check text messages. But I am of the opinion that it is acceptable to think about something else if you look like you're paying attention (please, don't tell my students I said that). I think it is much better to have an active, but distracted mind, then to nod off.
And then there is what I think of as passive listening. This is when you don't think of something else but instead allow what is going on to flow over and around you. In this state, you are hearing if not processing. Recently, I did this while attending an event. A few days later, I reaped the rewards of relaxing into boredom. My subconscious used what I had heard to provide the solution to a plot problem.
Right now, I'm attending Bouchercon 2015 in Raleigh. I'm not at all bored. I'm happily running into people I see only once or twice a year. Tomorrow, I intend to attend some panels. But I suspect that even though I am not bored my mind will drift. I will engage in active listening, and something someone says will have me reaching for a pad and pen because I have an idea. And I may miss some of what is said after that. But I will try to jot down just enough so that I can come back to it later.
It seems to me that whether I'm bored or invigorated, what works best is to let my subconscious do its thing. I'm depending on that for a problem I'm trying to solve. I'm working on a plot outline for a book and in spite of using my usual multiple pronged approach -- name generators, baby name websites, sites with surnames by nationality -- I am having a more difficult time than usual finding the right names for my characters.
I've named my protagonist but several characters have only a first name, and others are identified only by occupation. I am one of those writers who needs names for my characters before I can move forward. But I'm assuming that whatever the block I'm experiencing is, it must be a part of the process. There must be something important I need to consider about these characters' names. And if I wait for it, my subconscious will make the connections.
How do you tap into your subconscious? Does boredom work for you?