Leaders live in highly distracting times. The macros distractions - humanitarian, societal, economic, political and digital - make focusing on the task of leading our organisations and people very challenging.
Distraction, and the fear of it, however, is nothing new. A respected Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, was one of the first to voice concern that in the modern world people were overwhelmed with data and that its overabundance was harmful to the mind. Sadly he died in 1565, unable to stem the flood of information overload unleashed by the printing press. And, further back still, Socrates famously warned against writing because it would "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories."
What does distraction look like for leaders nowadays? Let’s hone in on one particular brand of distraction: digital. There have been plenty of welcome digital distractions over the last few decades and as a result, inside and outside of work we feel more connected, productive and informed.
Or do we?
In her book “Reclaiming Conversation. The Power Of Talk in a Digital Age” Sherry Turkle writes:
“Studies show that the mere presence of a phone on a table changes what people talk about. If we think we might be interrupted, we keep conversations light, conversations that block empathic connections. Even a silent phone disconnects us. In the past 20 years we’ve seen a 40% decline in empathy among college students. Human relationships are rich, messy and demanding. When we clean them up with technology we move from conversation to the efficiencies of mere connection. And I fear we forget the difference.“
The deficiencies of a connected world is a big problem in work. Staff hide behind email, pass the time surfing the Web (otherwise known as ‘daydreaming 2.0’), feel anxious when disconnected from their phones, demand instant gratification, develop shorter attention spans and struggle to focus on the outputs that the business requires.
How do we, as leaders, help them? And how do we find and maintain our own focus, away from all of the distraction?
Distraction, it would seem, comes naturally; focus, however, requires work. Alain De Boton, modern philosopher and founder of The School Of Life, wrote, in 2010: “One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate".
De Boton went on to suggest that “The need to diet, which we know so well in relation to food, and which runs so contrary to our natural impulses, should be brought to bear on what we now have to relearn in relation to knowledge, people, and ideas. Our minds, no less than our bodies, require periods of fasting.”
Leaders must exercise our attention muscle and practice ‘cognitive control’ in order to stay focused. American author, essayist, and literary critic William Deresiewicz brilliantly diagnosed the challenge of modern-day leadership when he said: "Leadership means gathering yourself together in a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere in a cloud of electronic and social output.”
‘Gathering ourselves’ can be achieved via regular mindfulness practice, digital detoxing, going on retreats, exercising, sleeping or taking longer periods of ‘tuning out’ - traditionally known as annual leave! Everyone has his or her own algorithm for peace, quiet and relaxation.
And what is increasingly apparent, in this crazy world in which we live, is that solitude increasingly evades us. Time is our biggest enemy. Or perhaps not. Perhaps we are. We can all make time for things that matter. Do we matter to ourselves enough?
We avoid making time for ourselves at our peril. Lots of busy, stressed out, unhappy and unproductive people evade solitude. As Picasso said: “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible.” We must work harder at finding solitude, at building it into our hectic schedules. Perhaps we must schedule time to let our minds wander?
We all live in highly distracting times. Unsettling times, upsetting times. Times when we’re stopped in our tracks just by watching the news. Times when we ask ourselves why, when work seems so trivial. When we count our blessings. When the challenge isn’t distraction at all but continuation. Keeping calm and carrying on. Times when that which distracts us is given perspective and deemed trivial. Times for leaders to step up.
To uplift and leave you on a less somber note I give you one more fitting quote on this important subject:
“Happiness is distraction from the human tragedy.” – J.M.Reinoso