Delighted and distracted

As the University slowly returns to the ‘new normal’, like many others I’ve started coming back to work in my office in the Physics department for the first time in 18 months. I was ecstatic to see my office plant survived relatively unscathed. Sure it was a succulent, but it means one of the University building maintenance staff cared enough to water it for me this past year, and that thought warmed my heart to the point of tears.

My overly emotional post-lockdown state aside, one thing I’ve realised on my return is how much I missed the small distractions that come with working in an office. At home, people’s distractions may come from pets and children; for me, with neither of those responsibilities, it’s the temptation of food in the fridge. While some were dealing with home distractions manifesting as whirlwinds of counter-productive chaos, I was dealing with the eerie numbing silence of being totally alone.

Completely left to my own devices I would find myself lost in a problem for hours at a time. ‘Those numbers can’t be right’ or ‘There’s an error in my code’ would distract me for half of my day. Some days it felt like I’d forgotten to blink, and on others it would feel like I’d blink and a month had gone by with no progress. I needed something to pull me out of the academic hole I’d found myself in, to gain some much-needed perspective.

Finally returning to work in the department has made me realise the peaceful joy of hearing hubbub again. People walking past my door humming a tune, people chatting while they make coffee, a student meeting their supervisor in the office next door. The noises of humanity, of academia itself, are a sound for sore ears after the unnatural quiet of the desk in the spare bedroom. 

But the distractions I’ve delighted in the most on returning to the office are the knocks on my office door by a curious colleague who wants to know if I have 5 minutes for something. On these occasions I can’t say yes fast enough, or even enthusiastically enough! Please, by all means, distract me from my research with your interesting new plot, or to check if I’m going to college lunch one day this week, or even just to chat about this weather we’re having. 

Prior to lockdown I never quite realised how those 5-minute distractions are some of the highlights of my day. I return to my screen afterwards with a smile on my face and an overall feeling of ‘where was I?’ that allows me to step back from a problem. For example, I’ve been mulling over one rather frustrating plot for the past 6 months, and yet 3 days after my return to the office I had a 5-minute ‘have you got a sec?’ chat with a colleague and I now have a (tentative) hypothesis to explain it. 

To me, distractions are no longer a nuisance. They’re a delight. One I’ll never take for granted again and cherish for the rest of my career. I can’t help but wonder what other research breakthroughs will be made by my colleagues across the University this term thanks to such delightful distractions. 


Dr Rebecca Smethurst

Junior Research Fellow, Christ Church
Astrophysicist, Department of Physics