The Psychological Reason You Need to Spend Time Distracted
Whenever I go for a run, I do best when I’m with a friend, or listening to a music or podcast. In other words, running is painful, and it’s easier to forget that and continue running when I’m distracted. It lets me run faster, run longer, and actually enjoy my outing.
But distractions have been given a bad rap. People talk about clearing your desk of distractions, or focusing and avoiding distractions. We’re encouraged to stay as true to our course as possible, with no deviations.
While it’s true that distractions can be a bad thing that detract from your everyday life, it’s also true that, harnessed correctly, distractions can be a beneficial source of inspiration, productivity, and uplift your mood.
Your brain on distractions.
People like to say that our brains are a one-track machine. We can’t multitask, we’re easily distracted, we need to focus on one thing at a time to get it done.
While it may seem that you are continuously focusing on reading this article, the reality is that you’re zooming in and out of attention up to four times per second. — Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, author on Wired
But it’s not true: our mind is built to be distracted. We perform at our best when we are distracted.
Think about how our species developed. It was much more beneficial for us to be constantly scanning the environment for danger, food, or anything else that could be useful or informative. That stone spear you were working on wouldn’t do you much good if you were so intently focused on carving it that you were eaten by a lion.
Ten thousand years later, we think that just because we can wear suits and attend the opera, our brains are much more sophisticated. They’re not. The same brains that helped us avoid danger back in the savanna are the same ones that can’t focus on one thing for too long, because we’re easily distracted.
But what people never seem to realize is that it’s a positive, not a negative. Instead of trying to spend long hours doing a single task, we’re built to switch it up and try new things.
The problem? Attention is currency these days.
Video games, social networks, television: they’re all designed with this very feature in mind. They’re built to be engaging, distracting, to have us latch on with our full attention. Every generation of these unwanted distractions is more attuned to our brains than ever before.
Meanwhile, our work is just as uninviting and boring as it has been for the last couple of decades. It is easy to be distracted from it, and Candy Crush is just a few finger taps away.
So to circumvent that, you have to proactively build distraction gaps into your day. Give yourself carefully structured times to be distracted, and watch how easy it is to stay focused the rest of your time.
When you notice that just about anything can pull you away from your desk, when you’re staring at the screen with all the attention and determination of a newborn housefly, when you’re dreaming of doing anything but what you’re currently doing — go get distracted.
The benefits of distraction.
There are two kinds of distraction: self-suppression and self-expansion. Self-suppression might be the kind we’re most familiar with, where we watch TV or play video games to numb whatever unpleasant feelings we’re feeling. People use this kind to self-medicate from the dire dullness of work, which is why it has such a bad reputation.
But its powers can be harnessed for good, too. I use this one most often when running. When I go for a run, I’m normally out of breath, sweaty, sometimes with a cramp, not to mention experiencing general fatigue. So I put on a distraction to make all that go away, at least a little bit. A funny podcast, or a boppy playlist. And it helps.
Maybe if I were trying to focus on my best performance ever, distractions would be detrimental to my workout.
But all I’m trying to do is make it as fun and simple for me to go out three or four times a week. I won’t do that if I’m not enjoying the run, or at least I am being distracted by how much I’m disliking the run.
“Listening to music you like while exercising has been shown to help release the endorphins that relieve stress and depression,” — Dr. Vijay B. Vad, sports medicine specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Especially while not at the ultimate level of sports, distractions can really help lessen our typical dislike of exercise, resulting in more exercise, which is only a good thing.
Self-expansion distraction is where the real magic is found, though. With self-expansion, you can use distractions not to tamp down unwanted emotions or feelings, but rather to express natural avenues of interest. If you get distracted by things like wanting to know what that particular species of butterfly is, or by being interested in learning a new language, or daydreaming about visiting a new country — follow those distractions, because they will lead you to where you really want to go.
These kinds of distractions reveal where your true interest lies. You’ll grow as a person for following them, developing skills and experiences that will enrich your life.
A writing example.
I was writing a story earlier on something I don’t quite remember now, when I started browsing on Twitter, because I was bored. Angry at myself, I closed the tab to try to focus on my story with no distractions.
I realized I was bored because I wasn’t actually interested in the story, I just felt like I needed to write it. I stopped writing it, left it in my drafts folder, and started writing this one instead. I’m fascinated by the topic, and this story has absolutely flown out of my fingers.
By following my own interests, by following anything that distracts me to wherever it leads me, I’ve had a much more enjoyable hour of writing, and learned a lot more about a topic that is interesting to me.
What’s the takeaway?
Honestly, if you can focus on a task for three hours at a time with no distractions, more power to you. Me, I’ll be over here with the rest of the mortals, trying to make the most of the inevitable distractions that will come my way.
Distractions are a necessary part of our lives. Any kind of stimulus might trigger a total distraction from our daily lives, and it’s important to recognize and minimize the ones we don’t want, for example by turning off our notifications.
But once you understand what’s driving them and how they work, you can start using distraction to improve your life. Build them into your workday and watch how your productivity improves. Find out what triggers a lapse in attention — it might be a new hobby or passion that you’ve been suppressing up till now. And if you absolutely must do something unpleasant, well, there’s no harm in being distracted while you do it.
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