When Distraction is Good

Distraction is getting a bad name.

This past month, I’ve been heads down on a few projects and noticing something I’d not been very conscious of before now. When I get “stuck” or when I reach a natural break point on a piece of work, the menu of potential distractions includes everything from email and telephone calls to getting food, socializing and more.

I did an informal audit. Sometimes I would check email. Other times, I would pace, get a glass of iced-tea, or walk outside for a few minutes. When I did the latter — any activity that was quiet, reflective and receptive, I would feel refreshed. I was open to receiving an insight and to being in the moment. When I returned to the project that had momentarily stumped me, I would enjoy new energy. I started calling this receptive distraction. Receptive distraction is any sort of distraction that creates mental space.

When I went to email, however, I would “spin out.” That is, I would completely lose track of what I had been working on and get immersed in all sorts of other issues. I started calling this deceptive distraction. I thought I could take a short break and crank out a few emails, but it took longer to do the emails than I thought, and longer to get back into my project afterward.

I asked friends about their experiences with receptive distraction.

Don, a retired judge, related that he had always had a shower available in his chambers. On one occasion, during a twenty-minute recess at a custody case, Don took a five-minute shower. “I let the water roll over me and let my mind go. Things that were subtle, that I’d heard but that had not sunk in — body language and other impressions — drifted through my mind, and surfaced. When I got out of the shower, I had a decision.”

Receptive distraction. “It’s like a palate cleanser,” commented Walt, a journalist.

Are your distractions receptive or deceptive?

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