From the Comments: Can Distraction Be a Good Thing?

Earlier this week I wrote a post called Distraction is the Enemy1.

The article argued that unfelt distraction robs us of precious time:

My point in all of this is to highlight the context in which we experience distraction. There isn’t a clear dichotomy for many of us—we don’t simply quit what we are doing and go outside and play. For me, at least, distraction is much more subtle and the vehicles it uses are many times intertwined with—or the same as—the tools I use to get stuff done.

At the end of the day the question I need to ask myself is: “Am I using these tools with purpose—using my limited hours intentionally—or am I using them in reaction and allowing them to distract me (even when it doesn’t feel like it)?

My friend Ryan asked a very interesting question in the comments:

Do you think there’s any point in which distractions can be useful or inspiring?

Before starting to research the answer, I took time to think about distraction in my own life and times where it is helpful. More often than not, really good ideas or solutions to problems come when my mind is free to wander as opposed to being 100% focused on a single task. Running, for some reason, is a really fertile ground for my mind. I think it’s because I don’t reign my thinking in at all—I just let my thoughts wander at will, following any thread it pleases.

Many people experience that phenomenon: your best ideas or problem solving for work happens when you’re not at work.

That experience happens because of the type of problem solving happening. There are two types: analytical and insight problems. As you might expect, analytical problems require intense focus, while insight problems require some level of creativity.

There is a good bit of reading available on this subject. One study suggests that you should reserve creative thinking for non-optimal times of the day (in terms of raw productivity of the mind)2. Other researchers believe that “when we focus on a problem, we may be biased toward certain brain signals and suppressing things that we see as unrelated” and that interruptions can force a healthy “incubation period”3.

To answer your question specifically, Ryan: yes, I do think “distraction” can be a good thing when wielded with care (and research would suggest the same).

That answer aligns with the thesis in my last post, though: you have to be intentional about how you use your time, whether it’s focusing on a task or letting your mind wander in order to make progress on a problem. I know that I can be just as easily distracted by time-wasting things in either context.


1. You can read the first post about distraction here.2. You can read the full study about optimal thinking times on the Taylor Francis site.3. Read the full article about incubating ideas on the Boston Globe site.

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