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The Irresistible "Side Quest": Should We Avoid Distractions?

Attending to things that arouse interest and circumvent goals is human nature.

Key points

  • So-called "side quests" may interfere with our "main quest," but maybe they happen for good reason.
  • People often criticize themselves for diverting to distractions or when their main quest and side quests become indistinguishable.
  • Emotions are responsible for turning our attention to any stimulus—a situation, an event, an image, or a thought—including side quests.

Our lives are a continuous but complicated path to an endpoint we are trying to achieve. At various times we may have a "main quest," such as completing a project. Yet the goal of the main quest may involve just a simple endeavor, like taking a shower.

In any case, a "side quest" may interfere with our main quest. For example, on the way to take a shower, we might be distracted by various things we had intended to do but haven’t done, like retrieving the mail, replacing the missing screw in a cabinet, or emailing our accountant.

Perhaps these things had not seriously garnered our attention before the moment we were headed for a shower. So why are we compelled to do them now? Whether or not the endpoint we are trying to achieve is meaningful, such side quests may be perceived as self-defeating, but maybe they happen for a good reason.

Side quests are a part of our lives, although we may consider them distractions. Within the gaming community, side quests are considered to be generated quests or activities that are programmed in addition to hard-coded ones, thereby increasing the number of quests in a game (Vanhatupa, 2011). Apparently, they make gaming life more exciting.

But in real life, people often criticize themselves for diverting to distractions. Among some people, particularly those with ADHD, there is concern that the main quest and side quests become indistinguishable; thus, no hierarchy is present. As a result, the fear is that one may become so distracted by the side quest that the main quest is put aside.

Normal Distraction vs. Emotional Regulation Failure

Are side quests a normal variant of distraction, or do they represent difficulties with inhibitory control? Let’s consider what motivates our behavior in the first place.

Emotions motivate nearly everything we do. As a powerful and efficient motivational system, emotions are responsible for turning our attention to any stimulus—a situation, an event, an image, or a thought—including side quests. One of the great assets of anxiety, for example, is that it compels us to focus our attention on a stimulus that we perceive to be its source.

As such, the emotion we experience actually amplifies the source and takes our attention away from other things. Therefore, although we may consider the side quest a distraction, our narrowed thought process at the moment results in an ability to focus on a specific problem and leads us to be less susceptible to other distractions (Luu, et al., 1998). Thus, anxiety is not simply a distraction to thinking, but rather the attention-focusing quality of anxiety may fundamentally and adaptively motivate cognition that becomes focused on another issue (Luu, et al., 1998).

Procrastination researchers often refer to distractions like side quests as an emotional regulation failure, such as when procrastinators are distracted by activities unrelated to the task to be completed. These so-called distractions may involve productive activities as well as activities that are regarded as a waste of time.

Passing the time until a deadline is in sight, many self-identified procrastinators, for example, find themselves engaged in side quests, using the energy they feel as a deadline nears to complete other tasks (Lamia, 2017). Perhaps the distraction of a side quest is not indicative of a failure to regulate or inhibit emotion but instead a side opportunity to use the energy and focus emotions provide.

Distracting oneself until a deadline is close can take many forms and may involve pleasurable activities and less-than-pleasurable tasks, like cleaning one’s living space. The internet provides a wealth of possibilities for the purpose of distraction. The computer-mediated environment, according to some researchers, enables procrastinators to engage in “time-wasting” activity, referred to by one procrastination researcher as “cyberslacking” (Lavoie & Pychyl, 2001).

However, such negative judgment muddies an understanding of the purpose distraction and side quests serve in deadline-driven people. Procrastinators who are professionally successful certainly balance any period of distraction with energetically engaging in task completion before a deadline (Lamia, 2017).

Impact on Task-Driven Individuals

The distraction of task-driven people—those who are compelled to complete tasks ahead of schedule or at the time they become aware of a duty or chore—is illustrated by all of the important and insignificant tasks that summon them. Like an alluring nuisance, uncompleted tasks themselves are distracting. Task-driven people won’t wait, so they may even complete tasks that a partner or coworker intends to do later.

A successful corporate executive illustrated the distraction and stress she experienced upon entering her home and noticing all of the side quests that she was immediately compelled to attend to, such as breadcrumbs left on the counter, kitty litter on the floor, and a plant that needed to be repotted. She wished for what seemed impossible—that she could walk into the house, sit on the couch with her partner, and simply not care about such things.

Task-driven people really do feel compelled to get it all done now. They often wonder why a deadline-driven partner doesn’t notice all those things, too. On the other hand, a procrastinating partner may be baffled that a task-driven person can’t monitor their side quests and do things later.

People vary in their capacity to hold something in mind. Cognitive scientists refer to working memory as the system by which the brain temporarily holds and processes information. Although our working memory may be sharpened by prioritizing certain information, it does not protect us from distraction biases (Zhang & Lewis-Peacock, 2022).

Thus, some people, like deadline-driven procrastinators, may use a deadline for taking a shower and getting to a meeting on time to complete other chores, just as a task-driven person may be distracted on their way to the shower as they notice certain tasks they are compelled to complete. Researchers have speculated that some people are willing to expend extra effort when they have a strong desire to get things off their minds— to complete a task as soon as possible (Rosenbaum et al., 2014).

Thus, what should we do about side quests? A to-do list can quell our urgency to complete tasks, as it can reassure us that we will not forget to do something. Lists can also focus our attention on defined tasks to complete, limiting the distraction of everything else. However, venturing on side quests is absolutely fine as long as we ultimately achieve the goal of our main quest.

References

Lamia, M. (2017). What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotion, and Success. Rowman and Littlefield.

Lavoie, J. A. A., & Pychyl, T. A. (2001). Cyberslacking and the procrastination superhighway: A web-based survey of online procrastination, attitudes, and emotion. Social Science Computer Review, 19(4), 431–444. https://doi.org/10.1177/089443930101900403

Luu, P., Tucker, D. M., & Derryberry, D. (1998). Anxiety and the motivational basis of working memory. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 22(6), 577–594. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1018742120255

Rosenbaum, D. A., Gong, L., & Potts, C. A. (2014). Pre-Crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1487–1496. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614532657

Vanhatupa, J. M. (2011). On the development of browser games - Technologies of an emerging genre. 7th International Conference on Next Generation Web Services Practices, pp. 363-368, doi: 10.1109/NWeSP.2011.6088206

Zhang, Z., & Lewis-Peacock, J. A. (2022). Prioritization sharpens working memories but does not protect them from distraction. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0001309

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