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When Distraction is Good

Distraction is not all bad—but it’s getting a bad name.

This last month, I’ve been heads down on a few projects. I noticed something I hadn’t been very conscious of before now. When I would get “stuck”—or when I reached a natural break point on a piece of work—sometimes I would open up email and check it. Other times, I would pace, get a glass of iced tea, or walk outside for a few minutes.

The times I went to email, I would “spin out.” That is, I would completely engage in email, losing track of what I had been working on. I would return to the project exhausted. I started thinking of it as “deceptive distraction.” I thought I could take a short break and crank out a few emails. It always took longer to do the emails than I thought it would and longer to get back into my project afterwards.

Meanwhile, pacing, getting something to drink, and walking outside was refreshing. I began to refer to this as “receptive distraction.” I was open, in the moment, reflective, and noticing my surroundings. This kind of distraction creates mental space.

I mentioned this to my friends, Walt and Edie, at lunch today. Walt is journalist, and when I mentioned receptive distraction, he said, “I do it all the time. It’s like a palate cleanser.” Edie, an educator, also got it, contrasting it with continuous partial attention, a phrase I coined. “It’s not like multi-tasking or continuous partial attention. It provides an opportunity to come at something in a fresh way.”

Are your distracters receptive or deceptive?

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