Distractions, distractions, distractions – What’s a trainer to do?

Any trainer worth their salt knows that a person’s attention span – the amount of time a learner can concentrate on a task without getting distracted – is vital to consider when we are designing learning events. The ‘old’ rule of thumb was to:

  • Keep inputs to twenty minutes, then
  • Get the learner doing something for twenty minutes,
  • Followed by debrief and review for ten minutes.

But the modern delegate turns up with a mobile office…laptop, iPad, phone. All of these create distractions for not only one learner, but everyone in the room!

I had a delegate turn up with 3 mobile phones, and an iPad recently!

What are the advantages of learners having their mobile office with them?

  • Laptops are great for the learner who likes to make their own notes, and keep them on their drive for recall later
  • Phones save Reception staff taking messages, like in the ‘oldern’ days and having to pass urgent messages to the room
  • Learners can tweet, and share learning in real time, with the outside world
  • Learners can use Slack, or Yammer to share learning, with their colleagues

What are the disadvantages of learners having a mobile office with them?

  • They distract themselves – most people don’t turn off notifications, and so the constant alerts that come in draw attention away from the room
  • They distract others – we’re so used to sharing information immediately, they can show a colleague an email response from a client = two people distracted
  • Sitting by someone who isn’t in the here and now, and fully engaged, can be distracting in itself – I recently attended a seminar, and the person next to me switched from phone to phone to check message alerts across numerous platforms. Their nervous twitching was distracting.
  • They don’t come into the moment
  • They only hear parts of messages, discussions, and updates
  • They are more likely to ‘mind wander’, as they are stopping ourselves from engaging in a topic
  • They can slow down the learning process, as they only hear part of what is going on
  • They are more likely to be closed minded to new ideas
  • They remain in work ‘mode’

I think distractions have the potential to wreak havoc on our ability to learn. Learning mode is about having a break from the normal self, the person whose identity is tied up in what they do for a living. Our life is about forming habits – habits of thoughts, and habits of action, that we repeat over and over again, even if it’s not working well for us. If we want to learn how to be a better leader, we can only truly transform our thinking, our style, and approach, if we have an open mind, committed and ready for change. If we want to improve our time management, we can only do that effectively if we are not engaging and re-enforcing existing habits.

What can we do as learning practitioners?

These are four of our ideas, however we’d love to have your inputs.

  • Train our clients so they understand their role in learning transfer. If our learners can have a day off, and be encouraged to fully engage with the learning event, this will help. I recently had two delegates on an in-company course who’d both had non-negotiable meetings scheduled for 2pm on the a day of a course!! The distraction ripple was enormous – everyone in the room was affected by them leaving, and then returning to the event. We need to educate our clients on their role in making the learning stick.
  • Give our learners the time to get into the room, and ready for the learning. I recently trained a group of Sales people. They arrived from around the UK, stressed and worried about the status of orders/proposals. I started with a focused 30 minutes of Xero inbox work – I went through a model of prioritising, and then we worked individually to clear our emails. It worked beautifully on all three course days. One of them said “Ah, all ready to learn now.”.
  • Collect iPhones/gadgets. One of my clients collects all gadgets into a box – like school teachers do – and learners get them back at lunchtime (NOT break times) only. It trains people to go for 2-3 hours with no distractions.
  • Role model being in the moment. I always keep my mobile off – it role models that I am available to everyone, that I value this time to focus on my biggest priority – their learning, and that I can live one day without distracting myself. As a learning practitioner, my goal is to enable people to be the best they can be – and so I owe it to them to role model a day without distractions.

What are your thoughts on distractions, and the role of the modern trainer in helping distractions?


  • I had a group of learners on a residential management course who were convinced they were there because they were being made redundant. Their fears brought the whole course to a grinding halt. I had to get a company director to come out to the training centre to reassure them before the course could continue.

  • I try to set the ‘ground Rules’ really clearly and get the agreement to start with…and set expectations around when tech IS ok…tough one though…definitely agree that it needs strong message from the top to value the time spent learning…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.