Why What You Know About Being Distracted Is Wrong

Research shows that distractions can increase your productivity.

Posted Aug 28, 2018

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The nature of scientific advances is that they require painstaking lab work, trial and error, and a lot of late nights. Yet famously, the breakthrough moments for many of the most world-changing innovations happened when somebody found something that they weren’t looking for.

The discovery of gravity, x-rays, radioactivity, velcro, the pacemaker, penicillin, insulin, vulcanized rubber, the microwave, Cornflakes, Teflon, super glue, Vaseline, and safety glass, to name but a few, all happened when people were working on something else and got distracted.

This has become the focus of a new world of research which shows that creative solutions typically happen when you least expect them. There’s even the suggestion that, for the cultivation of new ideas, single-minded focus could actually backfire, and it’s distraction that can boost the possibility of true innovation.

Which is better: Multi-tasking or Single-tasking?

As the world we live in becomes more driven by technological advances, it’s possible to do many things at once. Studies have often shown that multitasking can actually inhibit productivity.

The time spent switching between tasks leads to what a 2009 University of Minnesota study refers to as “attention residue”, or a delay in being able to put down one task and pick up another. This was reinforced by a 2009 study out of Stanford which highlighted that those who are frequently bombarded with information find it challenging to pay attention, recall information, or switch gears to change tasks.

Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009)

Yet it might just depend on what it is that you’re trying to do. While multi-tasking can disrupt productivity, recent studies and research have shown that these benefits may in fact only be perceived productivity benefits.

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The case against multi-tasking actually hinges on the idea that, as we spend the bulk of time focusing on the first idea we thought of (rather than generating anything particularly new or innovative), we find ourselves experiencing a phenomenon known as “cognitive fixation” (Chrysikou & Reisberg, 2005).

While you might recognize it as feeling ‘stuck in a rut’, cognitive fixation is considered by some psychologists to be a major blocker for true creativity.

In one such study by Jackson Lu and his team at Columbia Business School, participants had to think of as many uses as possible of a common object, like a kitchen bowl, within a fixed amount of time. (One valid answer might be that you wear the bowl as a hat to protect your hair from the rain, for instance.) From the sheer number of ideas they produced to the perceived novelty of the ideas (as assessed by independent judges), the multitaskers performed better.

So which is it? Is a distraction a hindrance, or is it perhaps your greatest tool?

The answer depends wholly on what it is you’re attempting to achieve.

In 2012, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that the regions of the brain that handle decision-making are still active when the conscious mind is distracted with a different task. The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience explains how it is that, just like those major scientific breakthrough, a great idea or solution might come to you while you’re in the shower, driving a car, or chatting with a coworker.

To harness the power of distractions to serve you best, there are some steps you can take.

Healthy Distraction #1: Carve out time for reflection

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It’s been claimed that Warren Buffett spends up to 80% of his time thinking, and making time to think is a priority for efficiency, problem solving, and improved working.

Carving out some time to be alone with your thoughts gives your brain a break from the information overwhelm which surrounds us most of the time. that surrounds us most of the time.

A time-tested concentrated mind-wandering tip is meditation– though, traditionally, meditation is conceived as sitting quietly alone in a small room in lotus position. Now, you can meditate in front of your computer or smartphone screen for 2, 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes at a time with Calm, a new startup whose mission is to reduce stress and increase calm. With guided calming sessions, you’ll get the short break you need to continue plowing through your to-do list.

Calm meditation builds your muscle of meta-awareness - awareness of your thoughts as they float by your conscious mind.

Healthy Distraction #2: Engage meaningfully with coworkers

According to a Workforce Mood Tracker, 89% of employees surveyed say work relationships matter to their quality of life. Yet there are many people who would argue that talking with a co-worker is a “waste of time”, with a Salary.com survey suggesting that up to 43% of time wasted at work is through conversing with a coworker. Ouch.

Taking a moment to chat with coworkers at your desk is important. It can prevent burnout, help you feel connected to your team, and get you through tough days or months. To ensure conversations enhance your productivity instead of detracting from it, follow a few simple guidelines:

  • Take note of the time. Hold yourself to a five- or 10-minute limit, and wrap up the conversation when you approach time.
  • Read the room. If everyone around you has earbuds in, or several people are on important calls, now’s not the time to share your GoT theory.

Healthy Distraction #3: Productive Procrastination

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Writers and other creatives are notorious for saying they alphabetize their book shelves or clean their kitchen as a form of distraction or procrastination. Rather than switching between tasks at random, it’s possible to engage in another task while still keeping one in mind.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that these procrastination tools  aren’t simply a way to put off doing things that we don’t want to do.

Scheduling conscious, healthy distractions is a way to engage with our distractions without letting them ruin productivity.

Healthy Distraction #4: Check In With Your Goals

While this shouldn’t be mistaken for planning to the detriment of action, the Dominican University in California found that people who wrote down their goals achieved 61% of those aims, whereas only 43% of goals which were unwritten were achieved. However, by revisiting goals each week (and also making these goals publicly accountable), that success rate rocketed to 76%.

So, simply by setting aside some time to revisit your goals and check-in with how you’re getting on, you’re already helping to improve your chance of success. It’s also giving you the opportunity to look at an overview of your career and trajectory, to ensure that you’re going where you’re meant to be going. Distract yourself with a little future consideration.

When it comes to distractions, it’s not so much what you do, but why and how you do it. When we take some time to consciously “distract” ourselves in healthy ways, we interrupt the negative, unconscious and habitual patterns of our minds, and make room for those sparks of wonder.

References

Chrysikou, E. and Weisberg, R. (2005). Following the Wrong Footsteps: Fixation Effects of Pictorial Examples in a Design Problem-Solving Task. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(5), pp.1134-1148.

Creswell, J., Bursley, J. and Satpute, A. (2013). Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(8), pp.863-869.

Lu, J., Akinola, M. and Mason, M. (2017). “Switching On” creativity: Task switching can increase creativity by reducing cognitive fixation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, pp.63-75.

Ophir, E., Nass, C. and Wagner, A. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), pp.15583-15587.