I’ve been distracted lately.
Maybe it’s the political climate. (According to a new survey commissioned by BetterWorks, 29 percent of Americans say they’ve been less productive since the election.)
Maybe it’s technology. (In The Hartford’s Tech @ Work Survey, which polled more than 1,200 employed U.S. adults, 19 percent of respondents said social media decreases their productivity. Mobile devices came in second with 12 percent, followed by messaging apps with 9 percent, and 5 percent saying the internet.)
Or maybe I’m just not getting enough sleep. (Tel Aviv University researcher Talma Hendler says being overtired prevents our brains from properly distinguishing between innocuous and serious circumstances, turning us into “overreacting, exhausted wrecks.”)
Whatever the cause, being distracted causes all kinds of negative consequences, including workplace accidents, vehicle crashes, loss of productivity, sleeplessness, relationship problems, and poor grades. For writers like me, distraction threatens to derail projects and keeps us from the thoughtfulness and attentiveness we need to draft beautiful prose and simply meet deadlines.
As I sat down to write this essay, for instance, I opened my laptop browser for some additional research. After skimming two or three articles, I was distracted by a game created to analyze one’s level of “distractibility.” Not surprisingly, I scored below average at tuning out distractions.
Imagine my delight, then, when I recently read in Melissa Dahl’s and Sarah Ruddy’s NYMag.com’s Science of Us column “How Easily Distracted Are You?” that distractibility might actually be a sign of creative genius. “In a shift from the all-distractions-are-bad narrative, some research in cognitive psychology is revealing an unexpected bright side to having an easily distractible mind: People who are terrible at tuning out the nonsense around them also happen to be more highly creative than their more focused peers,” they write.
In her research on creativity and attention, Harvard psychologist Shelley H. Carson has found that “high-achieving, highly intelligent creative individuals are seven times more likely to have a faulty latent inhibition filter.” That means that while most people are able to tune out noises or other distractions that aren’t relevant to them, these creative types pay attention to the distraction every time.
Of course when we talk about distractions, we’re talking about more than one thing. Being distracted “by” something is not the same thing as being distracted “from” something. Do a quick Google search about how to avoid writing distractions, and you’ll get all kinds of hits like “10 Tips on How to Write Without Distractions” or “5 Tips For Avoiding Distractions and Getting More Writing Done.” These lists are helpful if, like me, you are as easily distracted as the dog in the movie Up, who could be lured away from almost any other activity by simply hearing the word squirrel! Things like closing all internet browsers, powering off your cellphone, turning off the television, and working in a low-stimulus environment can help keep you from being distracted by sounds, pictures, people, or devices.
But often, our distraction goes beyond those things that capture our attention and instead emerges from the inside out. We feel bored or overwhelmed or stuck, and we go seeking after a distraction to take us away from our discomfort.
In his New Yorker essay “A New Theory of Distraction,” Joshua Rothman talks about this type of distraction as a way to exert autonomy. Drawing from Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Rothman says that claiming we are “distracted by” something “makes us seem like the victims of our own decisions,” which is a self-serving mischaracterization. “It’s not just that we choose our own distractions; it’s that the pleasure we get from being distracted is the pleasure of taking action and being free. There’s a glee that comes from making choices, a contentment that settles after we’ve asserted our autonomy.”
This has become a problem, however, as our culture places greater and greater value on paying attention. “The modern world valorizes few things more than attention,” Rothman writes. “It demands that we pay attention at school and at work; it punishes parents for being inattentive; it urges us to be mindful about money, food, and fitness; it celebrates people who command others’ attention. Life often seems to be ‘about’ paying attention—and the general trend seems to be toward an ever more attentive way of life.” With so much value placed on paying attention, even the smallest distractions threaten what we say is most important.
But what if the problem is not how distracted we’ve become, but, as Rothman suggests, “we actually don’t value distraction enough? It may be that, with our mobile games and Twitter feeds and YouTube playlists, we’ve allowed distraction to become predictable and repetitive, manageable and organized, dull and boring—too much, in short, like work.”
So instead of worrying about how distracted we’ve become, what if instead we focus on becoming distracted by better things? What if there’s actually some good that comes from allowing our attention to jump to the train whistle or the birdsong instead of our work? Or from occasionally getting up from the desk to take a walk or from continuing to read when really we meant to finish just a chapter? “In the best of scenarios, the inability to filter out environmental distractions can lead to creative breakthroughs, something known as opportunistic assimilation,” Dahl and Ruddy write. “Instead of ignoring whatever has popped up that doesn’t immediately seem to be relevant to your work, what if you could use it instead?”
1. Use distraction to generate new ideas
For writers, particularly, distraction can serve as an invaluable tool. For instance, distraction fueled by curiosity can be a great idea generator. Many times I have been researching one idea only to be distracted by another factoid that leads me in a different direction. I think of bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand, who famously stumbled on the subject of her book Unbroken while she was researching information for Seabiscuit.
2. Let distraction unloose your writer’s block
Distraction also can be a useful antidote for writers’ block. Many of us think distraction keeps us from being productive, and it can. But when I’m stuck drafting a particularly difficult paragraph, often I find my way through by allowing myself to be distracted for a few minutes. I get up for a cup of tea, step outside for some fresh air, or browse Instagram for a few minutes.
3. Use distractions for inspiration
The best distractions also can refresh and inspire us. When I work at home, my dog Tilly often lays her head in my lap for a quick scratch behind the years. At my office, I’ll notice the way the sun is beaming through the window. And then there’s the sweet relief of that cup of tea I mentioned. Not only does it give me a break from a problem paragraph, it also bolsters my spirit and calms me down. The distraction actually feeds my creative spirit.
Of course, we do need to get our work done, which requires a least a modicum of focus. And there are some distractions that deaden our creativity and leave us dull and senseless. (I’m looking at you, Bubble Explode smartphone game.) In the end, finding a balance between focused attention and rabbit trail exploration may actually make us better writers…and better humans. Did someone say squirrel?
Featured image by Brandy Hollins, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Quilt photos and post by byCharity Singleton Craig, co-author of On Being a Writer: 12 Simple Habits for a Writing Life that Lasts