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Five Reasons We Can't Stop Distracting Ourselves

And 5 ways to resist those electronic temptations

Even when we face a deadline, the Internet beckons

You’ve got an imminent deadline for that creative project, paper, or report. You know you must give it your full focus—and you know that interruptions will slow you down and reduce the capacity of your brain to do its best work. (1) And yet . . . you can’t stop checking your email or Facebook, playing your favorite Zynga game, or seeing what’s happening in sports, entertainment, or the news online.

What’s that all about? Why are these temptations so irresistible even when you’re up against the clock? Why can’t they just wait ‘til you’re done? And how can you arrange to resist these time-wasting demons?

Before the Internet, we of course had distractions, but they weren’t just a click away. But it’s not just the convenience of our diversions that makes them irresistible; our new distractions are so powerful because they easily meet some deep-seated psychological needs.

Reason 1: Intense, creative work is usually lonely, and many of these diversions provide connection to other people. Checking email allows us to see if anybody we care about is thinking of us, even though we have to wade through lots of spam to find out. In fact, all that spam may make the allure even greater, because it sets up a partial reinforcement schedule. Research shows that partial reinforcement is much more resistant to extinction than a schedule that always yields rewards. (2)

Reason 2: Creative work can be difficult and frustrating, and these distractions can provide a respite. When you come up against a barrier to making progress, it’s so much easier to check out the latest events than to persevere on that difficult task. It can be rewarding to learn something new that’s acquired easily—even if what you learn isn’t important or useful (3).

Reason 3: The change to a new topic can re-stimulate our flagging attention. Our brains find it hard to focus on one thing for a long time. So-called controlled attention (e.g., working on our project) is much more difficult to maintain than stimulus-driven attention, (e.g., responding to alerts), and the brain needs regular breaks from difficult tasks; otherwise attention will wander naturally (4, 5).

Reason 4: Making slow progress or being stumped can make us feel inadequate, and these distractions can make us feel better. For example, a recent study of college students reported that going on Facebook can boost your self-esteem and increase positive affect (6).

Our smartphone games can be so hard to ignore.

Reason 5: Some of these distractions are addictive. OK, let’s not get into a theoretical argument about the definition of addiction. But have you noticed how people talk about their relationship to some popular smartphone games? Check out the customer ratings of Scramble with Friends, for example. So many people who love the game allude to its addictive qualities. And how addictively designed it is! Each trial takes exactly two minutes, and while you play, someone with an impressively deep voice yells out “excellent,” “amazing,” or “impressive” whenever you make a big word! Worse still, once your 3-round game is over, you have to start a new game if you want to continue to chat with your friend...

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So now that we know what we’re up against, does that help us resist temptation and maintain our focus when we need to? Not necessarily. It may just make us feel more helpless. If we want to overcome these overwhelming temptations, we have to create strategies for success.

Here are five strategies, for resisting these diversions, each pegged to a reason these temptations are so powerful.

1) Combat loneliness before it starts: Get a good dose of interpersonal reward before you start your task, and schedule something similar, maybe even involving face-to-face communication, for when you’re done.

2) Cut down on frustration: Divide your work into manageable chunks that allow you to feel success in small doses. Then take a break to reward yourself if you need to.

3) Restore your fading attention without leaving your task: When you come up against a wall in generating big ideas, do something else that’s related but less taxing, like organizing the references, working on formatting issues, or searching for images for your project.

Nature can refresh our brain with less distraction.

4) To boost your mood, build in some less distracting stimulation for mini-breaks, like walking around or looking at nature, which will refresh you without necessarily taking your mind entirely off your problem.

5) For your daily dose of your favorite games, create a schedule that doesn’t interfere with your progress. Make playing the game a reward for getting things done.

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In short, don’t beat yourself up about how vulnerable you are; assemble strategies that will make perseverance easier and temptations more manageable.

What about you? What are the temptations that interfere with your progress the most?

If you try any of these strategies, let me know how they work for you.

(1) See my previous posts:

Mining Your Inner Moron: Why Multitasking Is Such a Waste

Mindus Interruptus: Distractions Are Costlier Than You Think

(2) Pittenger, D. J., & Pavlik, W. B. (1988). Analysis of the partial reinforcement extinction effect in humans using absolute and relative comparisons of schedules. American Journal of Psychology, 101 (1), 1-14

(3) Kusurkar, R. A., Croiset, G., & Ten Cate, O. T. J. (2011). Twelve tips to stimulate intrinsic motivation in students through autonomy-supportive classroom teaching derived from Self-Determination Theory. Medical Teacher, 33 (12), 978-982.

(4) Klingberg, T. (2009). The overflowing brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

(5) Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle: Pear Press.

(6) Toma, C. L. (2011). Affirming the self online: Motives, benefits and costs of Facebook use. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol 71(12-A), p. 4230.