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Distraction: Evil or Art?

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Distraction. A word we associate with falling behind; clock ticking; unfocused thoughts. But what about the unexpected joys and unforeseen creativity it can bring? And the role of the people who trigger it in the first place? Paul Gentle explores.

I can get this done, if only I don’t get distracted

Along with keeping an eye on targets, research outputs and parking spaces, some of the biggest distractors in university life are other people.”

I’ve often heard this put out there as a challenge, by colleagues who seemed to be imploring me to find a wand that could make all distractions vanish.

Along with keeping an eye on targets, research outputs and parking spaces, some of the biggest distractors in university life are other people.

That colleague is the bane of my life!

There’s a sense here of distraction being associated with someone or something which deprives us of time, focus or perhaps emotional stability. It tugs at the back of our minds: a nagging voice that says we really should be doing something else. Or wish that we could.

We’ve all noticed our thoughts drifting out of the room at certain moments in university meetings. The most rapid change in behaviours I’ve ever seen in this context was when a facilitator at a development event challenged a colleague who was showing he was disengaged from a meeting by gazing at treetops:

Peter, I notice you looking out of the window with a wry smile on your face. What’s that about, then?

Thus ended that particular distraction. This little gem of feedback, loaded with understatement and impact, also helped to re-engage a course leader who had been at risk of drifting.

Changing our thinking on distraction

Making time for people is critical to our leadership being effective. It may be a distractor, but it’s also an imperative.”

Challenging behaviours can be cries for attention, opportunities for us to show genuine concern for individuals. Making time for people is critical to our leadership being effective. It may be a distractor, but it’s also an imperative.

So how else might distraction be something an engaging leader can cultivate?

Some of the very best change makers in our universities have a knack for driving us to distraction, and often in the best of ways. We learn so much from them. These are the special people whose distraction we appreciate. Their generosity in giving inspiration, sincere feedback from which we can learn, kindness, and trust – qualities that we cherish most, when we allow them time and space. When we notice these colleagues’ emails pop up on our screen while trying to write something important, there’s that instant craving to find out what they’re saying. This is the kind of distraction that offers sheer motivation. We smile when we recognise their knock on the door, or when on the way to meet them to share ideas and inspiration over coffee.

Generating ideas through deliberate distraction can be a virtue. I never forget a pearl of wisdom from a former Vice-Chancellor in the Russell Group who insisted ‘I never work on trains – I daydream’. He went on to say that he planned meetings in London at least once a week just so that he could take the journey and benefit from the throughput of his imagination.

Our unthinking preferences and routines can distract us from what we know we ought to be doing; not just from task-driven duties, but also from doing the right thing. But could more mindful exercise of our preferences show us how to discover what the right thing is?

We should take all the opportunities given to us to shift from ‘I mustn’t let myself get distracted’ to ‘Where can I find some fresh, disruptive ideas?’ Learning to do this is an art.

Well-crafted and properly interpreted, distraction is a source of refreshment ready and waiting for you to tap into.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

Paul is author of Engaging Leaders: The challenge of inspiring collective commitment in universities.

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