In Praise of Distraction: 10 Benefits We Forget About

Stress may be killing us as a society, and some of that might very well have to do with all the pressure to FOCUS FOCUS FOCUS on the task at hand. We so often think of distractions as the ultimate evil when it comes to getting things done, but in reality they’re more misunderstood. Kind of like the X-Men. Not to mention so often utilized improperly! Also kind of like the X-Men. When practiced responsibly, they can actually enhance productivity in some predictable (and maybe even unpredictable) ways. Which, yeah, I guess applies to the X-Men, too.

  1. Improving Memory Retention:

    A 2007 UCLA study done in Los Angeles, California challenged many common notions about the nature of distraction when it revealed that small ones actually improve, rather than preclude, memory retention. The most effective disruptions occurred when the subjects in question paralleled the main attention-drawing source — for example, the tested students better remembered the word “lily” after seeing a slideshow with roses. Try a smaller-scale version when slogging through longer, memorization-oriented projects for school or work and see if it helps sharpen the mind.

  2. Inspiration:

    Sam Anderson’s popular New York magazine article certainly highlighted the drawbacks of both overstimulation and distraction, but he brings up one key anecdote showcasing how unexpected moments away from an undertaking can resonate in some major ways. Marcel Proust famously coalesced his literary cornerstone A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) after nibbling on a madeleine drenched in tea. And he fully attributed its groundbreaking existence to a brief reverie of childhood delights the now-famous noshing launched.

  3. Pain Relief:

    While distractions will (or, at least, ought) not be confused as a definitive cure-all for injuries and illnesses, there still exists a nugget of truth and joy in the old adage about laughter being the best medicine. A 1999 study published in Nursing Research expanded previous inquiries to include a broader swath of subjects, all children, and peered into whether or not distraction helped them better navigate the pain of various medical procedures. Turns out, it can, and self-reported instances of hurt declined the more patients received encouragement to play or engage in other sidetracking activities.

  4. Comforting the Mourning:

    Similarly — and perhaps unsurprisingly — what diversions accomplish for physical pain also just happens to apply to mental and emotional anxiety and trauma as well. Radbound University research peered into how joking might serve as a useful supplement to formal or informal therapy sessions with professionals or friends. Laughter induces what they refer to as a “cognitive distraction” from the negativity and actually enhances moods far more effectively than positive support not utilizing humor.

  5. Nurturing Creativity:

    Along with innovation, the more narrow component we all know and love known as “creativity” also needs a bit of cutting into to keep pushing forward. Many working or studying in the liberal arts, visual arts, and other fields requiring abstract thought often tout the virtues of letting go of a task, and science backs up these oft-dismissed claims. Studies printed in the 2011 Thinking & Reasoning show that the best times of day for these folks to get things done are “off-peak” and more prone to distractions that challenge them to take their work in new and exciting directions.

  6. Alleviating Depression Symptoms:

    Distraction in the form of exercise keeps more than just the heart happy and healthy; it can also quell some of the emotional and mental turmoil associated with clinical depression and anxiety diagnoses. Aerobic activities especially offer up supplementary assistance to a treatment regimen, as they nurture the immune system and release endorphins necessary to maintaining a steady mood. While it won’t necessarily cure the illness, allowing the body to wander from one task to the treadmill can never hurt … assuming said device is used properly, of course.

  7. Reducing Stress:

    Along with lowering the potency of depression symptoms, distractions (not just exercise!) work wonders as stressbusters. Naps especially, which should come as no surprise to anyone at all and disappoint even fewer, provide a cognitive reset necessary for productivity. So if the urge to curl up and snooze strikes, give in if possible; you might very well wake up with some bold new ideas after!

  8. Balance:

    In a CNN article by Ann Fisher, Fierce Inc. founder Susan Scott points out the many reasons why companies these days might want to lay off on social media bans. While older, more established workers might see Facebooks and Twitters and other websites the kids are into these days, the up-and-comers are wired (pun totally intended) to consider it a daily necessity. Meaning, as she points out, that it comes bundled as part of a balanced lifestyle needed to keep them healthy and sane during the business day.

  9. Reminders:

    Luddites and English teachers are quick to denounce text messaging as the harbinger of humanity’s ultimate doom, but they hold the potential to do more than just usher in the apocalypse. Sometimes, the distractions texting provides facilitates far more harm than good, especially when it comes to reminding the recipient of things working or stressing too hard might overlook. Doctors have used them to assist new mothers and mentally struggling patients requiring guidance throughout the day.

  10. Refreshment:

    Huffington Post’s Linda Stone attributes her professional success to “receptive distraction,” a concept that isn’t exactly new, but well worth promoting all the same. Quite simply, it just means remaining open to small opportunities for rejuvenation throughout the day, like a cup of tea or a walk. It may not necessarily lead to grandiose revelations about art or science, but simple relaxation can resonate in some pretty major, maybe even unexpected ways.

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