Distractions: Friend or Foe?

Every day in the United States, distracted driving is responsible for more than 1,000 accidents, with an average of 8 of them resulting in death. https://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/distracted_driving/index.html

This kind of distraction is clearly dangerous. But are distractions always a bad thing?

Distractions have always been around. They are an important function of the brain circuitry that interrupts or stops movement in our bodies due to an unexpected or unwanted event. In previous times, this served a beneficial purpose when we were faced with actual danger and our fight or flight response kicked in. Facing an actual bear was an obvious distraction to the caveman’s search for food.

Today, the majority of the literature suggests we need to overcome distractions The argument is that loss of concentration or focus decreases our effectiveness at work or in our personal lives and even our safety, as in texting while driving. We are also living in a time when complexities of technology, stresses of increased competition, and the fast pace of our world is a constant invitation to distraction. And clearly, this is valid in many situations, if not most.

So, is there anything positive to say about distraction? I think there is. I’m referring to purposeful and constructive distraction, which turns the current concept of distraction on its side. In the Cambridge dictionary, a synonym for distraction is confusion, something that prevents someone from giving their attention to something else. How can you make this trigger in your brain work for you instead of against you?

First, you need to become an observer of when you “get” distracted. What are the situations or people that trigger your escape mechanism? Here are some examples:

• A conflict is brewing, and you’d like to avoid it
• You have a project at work or at home that seems daunting due to:
–insufficient information on how to begin or complete it
–time and/or energy demands that seem to be more than you can handle
–one or more other people you don’t want to work with
• Demands of others you find unreasonable or excessive
• Your work assignments are inconsistent with your own goals
• A relationship in your life requires more time and attention than you want to give.
• An activity you feel obligated to participate in but just aren’t interested

One way to identify your “triggers” is to notice the distraction activity and when it occurs. Some of these might be:

• Your mind wandering, unable to concentrate
• Picking up your cell phone or other electronic device in a given situation, or just
way too often, (not because you need the most recent tweet or e-mail in order to
• Boredom—an indication you have no motivation or interest in the activity
• Feelings coming up you’d rather not deal with such as anger, frustration, hurt,
sadness, vulnerability, inadequacy
• Stress symptoms of fight, flight, freeze or faint
• Physiological sources such as lack of sleep or illness,

Next, engage your logical brain. The above examples of situations and triggers are mainly being driven by your emotional brain. Even lack of sleep and illness trigger off stress/emotional responses.

Ask yourself—or better yet, write down the following:

1. What is the event that is creating my desire to distract?
2. What is the story I’m telling myself about this situation and how it will turn out?
3. What’s another story I can write?
4. What are some other ways I can deal with this situation?
5. If I still feel the need to distract myself—for now, what is the most positive way I can distract myself? (Examples: eating a cookie vs taking a walk, turning on the TV vs. reading a book or article where you can learn something, surfing the net vs. calling a friend.)

There are times when purposeful distraction is particularly helpful. One example is when you are waiting for test results, either for a health issue or an important exam for school or work. The worry that often accompanies these situations is unproductive because it serves no purpose other than to increase the stress. This can apply to any situation where you are invested in a certain outcome because it is central to your existence or major life goals, and you don’t have clear ways to affect the outcome.

When this happens the best thing you can do is engage in Purposeful Positive Distraction—an activity that will help ease the distress. It might be doing responsible research on the subject, engaging in an activity that gives you concrete pleasure, where you can feel a sense of accomplishment, including exercise, massage, a walk in nature, reading a good book, play, a craft or hobby, talking to a caring and supportive friend, or writing down your negative thoughts to get them out of your head. Mindfulness Meditation has also proven to be helpful (more about this in my next blog).

Another time to use Purposeful Positive Distraction is when you are seeking solutions to challenges. The pressure is on, either from others or from yourself. Often when this happens, the tendency is to double down and try harder. The added burden only shuts down or inhibits your brain circuitry. To ease the pressure, use a constructive diversion to relax your mind and give you the opportunity to access your creative processes. Allow your mind to wander, to fantasize, to get outside the mental box you are in. Engage in a creative activity such as drawing, going out in nature, or brainstorming.

The key indication of Productive Distraction is Sense of Accomplishment. Does going on social media, watching TV, eating something unhealthy, or picking on someone accomplish this? Creative, wholesome, or playful activities are your best avenue to restore your focus, well-being, and sense of control.

Developing productive distractions may well be an important step in helping you to focus better when you need to. You might even find you will become more creative and seek fewer distractions that interfere with your productivity.

Anne Lamont: Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes –including you.

I’d be interested in your comments.

Feel free to share this with anyone you think might be interested.