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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  • Tony

    thank you so much, I’ve been looking a for good reason to justify my obsessive tendency to check my feed reader every 10-20 minutes while at work :-)

  • Mark Magnusson

    Linda, interesting subject. I’ve been putting some thoughts and research into this same idea over the years. Especially when I worked as a Design Consultant on a next generation retail initiative in Germany, The Future Store. Your observations share a similar principles to Paco Underhill’s “Decompression Zone” theory from the book “Why We Shop: the Science of Shopping” that studies behaviorial shopping patterns. He stresses the importance of not putting anything important in the first few feet of the store entrance, because shoppers quickly stroll through that zone without noticing anything in it.

    I think there is a lot of transportable knowledge from Underhill’s book into Web 2.0. To your point when our lives are dispersed more into fragmented modules of time that Social Media “distractions” become the Decompression Zones in the ubiquitous Customer Experience. I find the elements of: Right Time, Right Place, often lead to an open minded response.


  • Mark Magnusson

    Quick correction Paco Underhill’s book is titled:

    Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping

  • They key is focus.

    Something that makes you loose your focus is a distraction.

    Something that makes you regain your focus is relaxation.

  • Love your distinction between receptive and deceptive distraction. I tend to look at “receptive distraction” as breaking the pattern that’s keeping me stuck and “deceptive distraction” as whatever is keeping me from writing.

    – Mark David

    P.S. Was planning on blogging on distraction in the next days; will likely link back to this post.

  • Jim Stogdill

    Yesterday I spent five hours on an airplane and I was immensely productive. In fact I’m always productive on airplanes, and used to be productive on trains until I figured out how to tether my blackberry.

    When I’m flying, about once every hour or so I get up, stretch, and walk around a bit and then get back to work. Everywhere else, I start clicking my “get mail” button for an entirely different kind of distraction.

    Anyway, if it weren’t for that carbon footprint problem I think I would start a company and put all the desks in an airplane. Once a week we could land for an email and connectivity day. The rest of the week would be unfettered and uninterrupted productivity.

  • Perhaps workers who do some multitasking or have a few distractions are using their fullest potential at their jobs – compared to those who are isolated and doing the same tasks constantly.

    It also validates allowing task and knowledge workers to take small breaks occasionally – it refuels them.

    Some work environments are so pressured for efficiency, they don’t realize that they may be limiting the problem solving abilities of their workers.

  • Michael R. Bernstein

    Linda, thank you so much. This is a very good way for me to frame the difference.

    I’d add that the likelihood of a distraction being receptive is tied to whether it engages a different set of skills that the task being distracted from.

    For example, I find reading/writing code and reading/writing prose (particularly email, but weblogs too) to be so similar that it is almost always deceptive. Which is a problem since I am engaged in one or the other almost the entire day.