Why Distraction Is Not the Enemy of Focus
Taming our wandering mind
We live in an era of distraction.
Teachers, researchers, and productivity experts love to remind us of our inability to stay focused. Technology seems to be “eroding human memory,” “creating irreparable damage to brain functioning,” or “diminishing our ability to do deep work.”
Either you are focused, or you are wasting your time, they tell you.
Most reports portray distraction as a devastating epidemic. However, experts worrying about our diminishing attention span is nothing new. So did our ancestors when books, radio, or TV disrupted their respective eras.
What if we stop seeing distraction as the enemy?
The Benefits of Not Paying Attention
“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal.” — Paulo Coelho
As a father of two teenagers, I too worry about distraction as an addiction. Also, coaching teams to become more focused and productive, I tackle this issue all the time. However, seen technology as the enemy doesn’t help.
There’s another side to the “era of distraction” truism.
Distraction can increase performance and endurance — listening to music during exercise gives your workout a boost and makes physical activity less painful.
Distraction is an effective mechanism for reducing pain as a Columbia University study shows — both humorous and engaging activities can shift our focus away from pain. Also, distraction from depression can be a healthy coping skill — it provides a break for those who suffer from rumination.
Digital technology can distract us from pain in the present, but can also make us stronger for the future, Dr. Jane McGonigal explains in her book Superbetter. The author’s research shows how some personal technologies can boost our resilience and develop our ability to overcome problems in the future.
Distractions are neither negative nor positive — there’s a variety of factors that can hurt (or not) your productivity.
Various studies show that your outcome depends on complex interactions among the attentional demand, the nature of the task you are performing, and how related the distraction is to the primary task.
When stimuli are relevant to your goal, they are not a real distraction. Conversely, when the stimulation requires responses (i.e., dual-task performance), it will steal your attention. Also, people performing difficult tasks tend to resist distraction more than those performing easy duties.
Technology can have negative consequences but is not the enemy. Social Media has the “exact same negative effect on depression as dating potatoes,” as Nir Eyal wrote here. The current technology backlash could be a manifestation of our society adjustment to change. “Leaps in technological innovation are often followed by moral panics.” — he explains.
The author references a Swiss scientist worries about how hand-held innovation devices could cause harmful and confusing consequences. That was back in 1565, and he was talking about the adverse effect of… books.
Paradoxically, positioning distraction as the enemy distracts society from “finding meaning in its own accomplishments,” as this piece explains.
Mind the Exit Door
Distraction is not the problem — the reason why we become distracted can harm or help you.
When we can’t find the path towards focus and mindfulness, most people use distraction as an exit door. We cross it to escape from what we don’t want to face. Distraction becomes an easy way out from not dealing with reality.
Tzu Po said: “Normal folks turn clarity and calmness into oblivion and distraction; wise people turn oblivion and distraction into inner perception and focus.”
Do you use distractions to escape or to grow?
These are the two mindsets to engage with distracting activities:
Using distraction to regain strength and fight back pain is one thing. To live in denial is completely different. The problem is not playing video games or binge-watching Netflix to have fun, but doing so to avoid responsibilities or doing a task.
Distractions can help you prepare to deal with the future. You can turn them into a meaningful pause in between tasks — being ‘always on’ can be as harmful as continually running away. Your brain, just like your body, needs to rest from time to time. Setting your mind free can help you unleash creativity and discover new things.
However, not all activities affect people equally — what can help you grow might be someone else’s escapism.
The Four Types of Distractions
Focus and Control define our relationship with distractions.
Being in control means that you choose to be distracted or to be focused. It’s a purposeful choice.
Focus is the ability to keep paying attention to your primary task, regardless of interruptions.
There are four main distractions as you can see in the matrix below.
1. Purposefully Distracted:
Either you need a break or want to temporarily avoid pain or something that’s bothering you. You decide to get distracted; you have a clear reason why you are ‘running away’ from responsibility.
You shouldn’t feel bad for binge-watching Netflix or spending time on social media if you can keep it under control. The problem is doing so compulsively or without noticing it.
This is when you have something that you should (or want to) be focusing on, and you are in control — you direct your attention to the right thing at the right time.
So, if you are attending a meeting, you purposefully silence (or leave outside) your device. Instead of being carried away by notifications, you set all potential distractions aside. You create a space to do one thing at the time.
This is when you are focusing your attention on the wrong thing. It can happen either because your attention is pulled away without you realizing it or because you are escaping reality — you can’t (or don’t want to) focus on the here and now.
It’s like checking your Social Media notifications when one of your colleagues is presenting a new idea to the team. You don’t have control of your attention; you are focusing on the wrong thing.
4. Zone Out:
This is what most reports refer to when they talk about the era of distraction — they want us to believe technology makes everyone zone out.
Buddhists call this the “Monkey Mind” — you are jumping from one thought to another randomly. Not only you are not in control of your attention, but you can’t focus on anything for more than a second.
The Monkey Mind feeds on stimuli; it jumps around from branch to branch (or thought to thought).
It’s like shifting from one app to another without actually noticing which one you are looking at a specific moment in time. There are so many things going on in your mind that your attention is nowhere — you become a prey of anxiety and useless multi-tasking and random-thinking.
Mind Wandering: the Creative Door
You can’t silence your monkey mind by locking it up; you have to tame it first.
Zoning out means you are jumping from one thing to another because you can’t focus. Mind wandering is allowing your mind to move aimlessly without focusing on anything in particular — you are not running away, but opening the door for new things to happen.
When you embrace mind wandering on purpose, you turn the exit door into one of creativity.
Train your mind to let go of control; not to avoid reality, but to pause, reflect, reset, recharge, and inspire yourself.
Research published in the journals of the Association for Psychological Science explores how mind wandering is related to cognitive processes involved in working memory and executive control.
Neuroscientists suggest that the long-lost art of self-reflection — from mind wandering to focused thinking — is an increasingly valuable part of life. When we purposefully put our brains at rest or let our mind wander freely, great things can happen.
Let your Monkey Mind speak up free. Be patient. It will take some time to turn distraction into your best friend. Try the following tricks.
Get lost on purpose:
Instead of resisting mind wandering, create the right conditions. Try new routes, walk around your neighborhood without a clear direction, disrupt your routine, or let other take the ‘steering wheel.’ By physically getting lost, you let go of your mind too.
Defuse your thoughts:
Cognitive Behavior Therapy uses the defusion technique to become aware of our thoughts and learn to tame them. By understanding the thoughts that keep our mind busy, it’s easier to regain control. Defusion requires looking at your thoughts rather than from your thoughts, noticing thoughts rather than being caught up in them, and letting thoughts come and go rather than holding on to them. Learn more here.
To tame your inner Monkey, you have to face it first. Meditation provides some quiet time to listen, experience, and understand your wandering mind. You can meditate just for a few seconds You don’t have to block your thoughts and emotions; you need them, as Mingyur Rinpoche explains on this video.
Take a nap:
Sleep is the most effective way to let your mind wander. Leonardo da Vinci kept a bed in his studio. The master of all polymaths had six half-hour long naps regularly every day. That habit not only helps the artist rest but also allow his creatives juices to flow freely.
Go for a walk:
Charles Darwin let his mind wander during his daily walks. It helped him recover a focus so intense that his children played tricks to test his concentration. Charles Dickens was another walk enthusiast — we could rack up 30 miles-a-day. Walking meetings are also an effective way to boost productivity, as I wrote here.
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