When Distraction is Good

Posted by: Linda Stone on July 08

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?

Reader Comments

Ron

July 16, 2008 08:20 PM

I think it may often depend on the type of task vs. the type of "distraction". If the task your maxed out on is a writing project on a word processor, answering emails clearly isn't much of a break. However, after nineteen phone calls in a row, it may be! Conversely, after nineteen phone calls may not be the time to call your mom. Walking, or something to drink? Probably always good.

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Julie Morgenstern, Linda Stone, and David Allen Productivity guru Julie Morgenstern teaches us how to get organized, save time, and reclaim our sanity. Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive and frequent speaker and consultant, helps us learn to manage our attention. And David Allen, the widely followed author of the popular book Getting Things Done, helps us accomplish things more efficiently.

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