Library Leaders Need Productive Distraction | Leading From the Library

Learning from leadership stories is one great way to gain inspiration for personal leadership philosophy. But if leaders are overwhelmed with day-to-day details, they never get time to reflect on those stories or think about big picture issues. Getting distracted may help.
Steven BellLearning from leadership stories is one great way to gain inspiration for personal leadership philosophy. But if leaders are overwhelmed with day-to-day details, they never get time to reflect on those stories or think about big picture issues. Getting distracted may help. While I’m eager to learn about new technologies, I’m hardly the type to crack open a computer or electronic device and start fiddling with its innards. An understanding of microprocessors and electronic circuitry falls outside the skill set for most of us librarians. When I signed up for our Digital Scholarship Center’s workshop on Arduinos and Electronics, I knew I’d be getting into lots of unknown territory and some potentially intimidating tasks (using soldering irons—yikes!). While it’s important for leaders to regularly get outside their comfort zone to discover something new about themselves, I found an unexpected benefit of spending 90 minutes every other week plugging wires and resistors into an Arduino and Breadboard just to light up an LED or make a gee-whiz sound. Finding the time for a workshop or weekly class sounds hard—and it can be—but here’s why leaders should make the effort.

Get Your Mind Off the Job

It’s no surprise that some of us come up with our best ideas in the least likely places. Whether it’s the shower or yoga practice, anywhere but the office, when our minds are completely open, amazing things can happen. Even when epiphanies elude us, there’s still great value in distractions. There is no end to the type of distractions that interrupt our ability to commit to deep thought or sustained writing. Email, social media, or videos are typical, but they are best described as disruptive distractions. I’m thinking about a different kind of distraction. To achieve a truly open state of mind, the distraction itself needs the quality of deep engagement and sustainment. Five-minute email checks or firing off a tweet won’t get the job done. A 90-minute Arduino session, on the other hand, with its combination of hands-on building and computing coding, requires significant attention to detail. It’s achieving that high level of focus that makes for a truly productive distraction experience. Productive distractions take the mind completely away from our routine work and provide the necessary refresh and reset that leads to better thinking and reflection.

How Blank States Help Leaders

What leaders really have time for productive distractions? The smart ones understand the value of making time for them. When I registered for the Arduino workshop my calendar was wide open for those seven 90-minute sessions. I should have known that would change. Yet I found myself doing everything possible to schedule around the workshops so I could attend every one. In their article “How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection,” Martin Reeves, Roselinde Torres, and Fabien Hassan promote the importance of leaders needing “to recultivate the art of reflection. In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information.” They share ideas for ways to disconnect from work. Some are simple, like reading a novel; others are more complex, such as a scheduled discussion and question hour with a mentor or coach. The goal is to disconnect and disengage from work routines and complex problems in order to regain the ability to focus attention and think through challenges. For me, passive activities fail to adequately facilitate detachment. The Arduino workshop requires the level of focus that enables me to totally forget about whatever work tasks, meetings, and problems are waiting for me. I return to them feeling refreshed and often in a mental state to tackle them from a different perspective.

Not Just for CEOs

Time for reflection is important, and not just for CEOs. All library staff can benefit from time for an occasional productive distraction, whether it’s mindful meditation, yoga, tending to office plants, or taking a walk through the stacks in search of a book. The benefits are at least twofold: A more immediate and surface reason is to capture moments for a mental refresh that can lead to better productivity. Done more deeply, productive distractions could lead to the birth of new ideas. While science has yet to provide an optimal timeframe for how long a productive distraction should last or how frequently they should happen for maximum benefit, I lean toward a longer, more intense distraction to really disengage myself from work. Your mileage may differ, but consider experimenting with distractions of different lengths and at different intervals during the day. You may only need one or two five-minute breaks, while others require something more intensive but with minimal frequency. Whatever you do, put your cellphone out of sight and reach. New research suggests that even when phones aren’t buzzing or blinking, their mere presence lowers cognitive capacity for learning, creativity, and critical thinking. Library leadership means taking on new and more complex responsibilities for leading teams, making decisions, and valued innovation. Doing it well requires energy, focus, and clarity of thought. Why put yourself at a disadvantage? Put the phone away and get busy with your favorite productive distraction.
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