The value of distraction

Many, many years ago when I briefly worked as a tennis coach, I was very fond of a book called The Inner Game of Tennis, by Tim Gallwey. (I believe he’s now parlayed the success of the book into The Inner Game of Golf, The Inner Game of Skiing and The Inner Game of pretty much anything wealthy people want to be good at.)

As I recall, the central theme of the book is that generally we’re pretty good at doing things when we stop our mind getting in the way. The trick is distract your mind long enough to let your body just do what it knows how to do. When coaching I used to really enjoy telling people to concentrate on counting the number of steps they were taking to get to a ball. All this did was distract them long enough to stop them thinking about how they hit the ball, and invariably they would do a much better job of hitting it as a result.

I’m walking around the office this morning wondering, in a dreadful old man way, how it is that young people can get anything done with headphones on, inbox pulsing, tweets landing and phones ringing. But then I realise that in the last couple of years I’ve adapted to the point where I’m toggling between Facebook, Twitter, my work and personal emails, several websites and a couple of phones. And I tend to look at my changed behaviour and judge its impact against how productive I am (or aren’t). My guess is that at a basic level I put fewer ticks in boxes each day. So I’m empirically less productive.

But maybe this is entirely the wrong measure. What I should be judging it against is whether I’m generating more (and hopefully better) ideas. Which actually I think I am. I’ve got a pad on my desk on which I write at least six random ideas each day. What’s interesting is that they’re random when compared to what I was doing at the time, but they’re invariably related to something bigger I’ve been thinking about. My guess is that I generate more ideas that are actually useful each day.

I think this is different to the old saw that ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’, though I’m sure there’s also truth to that. This runs more along the lines of ‘if you need to focus on a big issue, focus on everything but’. Which is really what Tim Gallway was on about – distract yourself with the micro and leave your brain free to deal with the macro.

But actually I think the more basic issue here is the need to distinguish between productivity and thinking – a distinction that most businesses don’t make very well at all. Simplistically, this is because in most businesses getting lots of things done in the shortest amount of time has real value, and so the business tends to be organised around driving this outcome. Productivity is what defines the business, and so, to that business, thinking is something that should ideally be done in the most productive way. That’s what makes us believe that the best way to produce a good idea is to put yourself in a mindset to be productive…. and then think harder. But that assumes that productivity and good ideas are part of the same continuum, which actually they’re not.

We need to stop judging how people spend their time against its assumed impact on their productivity and look instead at what kind of environment, and what kind of stimulation, is most likely to drive thinking. We should stop bemoaning the new world of distraction and disruption and instead embrace it as a valuable contributor to the generation of a great idea.

We need to embrace Tim Gallway’s theory that for some, the more effectively we distract ourselves the clearer our thinking will be.

The value of distraction

One thought on “The value of distraction

  1. or even that whatever works for one is fine – we are in fact all individuals and our ideas are generated in individual ways – one person’s creative ideal may be another’s nightmare.

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