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  • Writer's pictureCoach Elizabeth Brink

Is Distractibility Really a Problem?

There are many ways to view distractions depending on the person and context. Distractions for one person may be a great strategy for another.

  • Distractibility is normal and often not a negative thing.

  • The pathologizing of getting off task is harmful and rooted in capitalism.

  • The word distraction is being used as an umbrella term for complex, nuanced challenges of modern life.

  • We need a better understanding of ourselves and the expectations we're absorbing to decide if our behaviors are actually a problem.

DISTRACTION: Middle English, from Latin distractus, past participle of distrahere, literally, to draw apart, from dis- + trahere to draw - Merriam-Webster

Simply put, a distraction is anything that catches your attention and begs to be attended to.

"An attentional conflict occurs between multiple stimuli when the subject is interested in paying attention to each stimulus. The task that is unrelated to the subject's primary goal is referred to as 'the distraction'. This conflict only occurs when the pressure to attend to each input is equal and the individual's cognitive capacities to do so are inadequate."+

There are endless examples of when distractions are useful, even necessary, and yet we generally use the word in negative ways.

Ways my distractibility has helped me:

  • At the dentist, I watch TV and focus on keeping my hands relaxed.

  • During labor with my first kid, I baked several dozen cookies, and with my second kid, I hosted a cookout.

  • While preparing this topic, I welcomed my kids' coming home from school, they interrupted me, and we took many breaks to look out the window.

  • Recently our main water line needed to urgently be replaced while I was out of town. I watched shows and went to bed early to avoid packing up and racing home.

Getting distracted is not inherently bad. It's also not something we need to place moral judgment on. Much of the time we are simply responding to an unmet need and calling it a distraction.

In an effort to motivate people to avoid distraction, we've shut out boredom and imagination.

If a distraction keeps us from productivity it is bad. If it leads to innovation, it is good. This is an underpinning of capitalism.

I think we can all agree that when using heavy equipment we should limit distractions for the sake of safety. Nobody wants to burn down their home or cut off a finger because they were not paying attention.

And yet! Our neurobiology is said to make it much harder for us to direct our attention, even in the presence of real danger. At the same time, society makes it seem like all distractions are a threat to safety, which is untrue and traumatizing.

The Pain of Distractibility

We can't downplay the negative experiences and impacts of having a brain that is interest and input-driven. These are some of the ones we identified in a recent discussion in The Enclave:

  • Others take it personally if you're bored or need sensory input.

  • It's primarily a problem in relation to other people's expectations and understanding of behavior.

  • Being accused of being avoidant, careless, or having commitment issues when we run late or drop the ball on something. "If you really cared..." "Actions speak louder than words."

  • We often find ourselves tending to something without realizing any decision was made to switch to it. It can feel like something that happens TO us when we get sucked into a tangent.

  • We can distract ourselves from things we genuinely want to do/accomplish by getting bored and seeking stimulation that results in being overextended and over-committed.

Attention Deficits are Not Okay

One of the DSM-IV diagnostic markers for ADHD is distractability.

In the early development of ADHD as a diagnosed condition, it was believed that a brain that is easily and frequently distracted cannot possibly learn, obey, and produce to the same standards as one with reliable focus. Furthermore, these distractible people are likely to distract others and cause them to rebel.

This is part of why they believed one would outgrow ADHD and/or learn to control it, as was the case in my childhood diagnosis.

"ADHD was first identified in 1902 by British pediatrician Sir George Still. He described the condition as “an abnormal defect of moral control in children.” He found that some affected children could not control their behavior in the same way a typical child would. He did note, however, that these children were still intelligent." - The Edge Foundation

The body of work on the topic of attention dates back many generations with people and institutions across disciplines examining it. Many of those who are most curious about attention are motivated by the monetary gain associated with capturing the human attention span.

What's the difference?

I often hear people beat themselves up and regret getting sidetracked. It has me wondering what the difference is between distraction and avoidance? Time management? Memory issues? Something else?

Are we actually getting distracted every time we apply that label?

Choosing to do something else is less of a problem when effort estimation is more accurate. Could it be that the estimation of effort/time for the primary task was too significantly off to make up for the time spent on the less important thing?

In this case, the estimate of task effort is actually more important than the decision to divert attention for a time. If the effort was estimated more accurately, as more often happens in smaller or familiar tasks, there would be less self-loathing and shame about how the time was spent.

When we get curious without judgment about our attention and distraction tendencies, we begin to accept ourselves and restore our agency.

Important Note: The privilege to set our own intentions is not afforded to everyone. We may struggle with self-judgment and tough decisions about how we spend our time, but those with stigmatized and marginalized identities are being unfairly treated in response to their "uncontrolled attention." Until everyone has the respect and liberty to show up in life as a full human being with limits and challenges, nobody truly has it.

Let's find opportunities to extend compassion to ourselves and those around us when we find ourselves distracted. Let's normalize focusing on one thing for hours or bouncing around and doing half of several tasks.

Theories on Distraction

There is no shortage of people online talking about attention. The following theories were particularly interesting in how they seem to fit well into our understanding of our brains.

The distraction-conflict theory says that sometimes the presence of a distraction is actually helpful in focusing.

The thought is distractions arouse attention and when that activation can be redirected to the primary task it can be useful. The little research I found emphasized this is more successful when the tasks are simple.

For example, I am better able to read if I simultaneously listen to spa music. I can listen in a lecture if I am doodling or taking notes. In my body, it feels like part of my brain needs to be occupied and distracted in order for me to focus on something else.

Mirror Neurons or Distraction-Conflict Theory?

Researchers also found elements of working alongside others can create a type of distraction-conflict that results in focus. That made me wonder if this is part of why body-doubling works. Seeing other people work is stimulating and helps us leverage our natural inclination toward competition.

In some cases, they found it did not matter if the other person was working on the same thing or something different.

Distraction as Rebellion

Philosopher Matthew Crawford has written a lot about attention and distraction. In his book, The World Beyond Your Head, he points out,

"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… Distraction is appealing precisely because it’s active and rebellious."

For those of us with "busy brains," this may strike a chord. The act of shifting our focus is not just a delay tactic or activation strategy, perhaps it's also a push back against the oppressive systems we're operating in.

The journalist who interviewed Crawford, Joshua Rothman, concluded,

"Life often seems to be “about” paying attention—and the general trend seems to be toward an ever more attentive way of life. Behind the crisis of distraction, in short, there is what amounts to a crisis of attention: the more valuable and in-demand attention becomes, the more problematic even innocuous distractions seem to be."

When is getting distracted a problem for you?

A New Theory of Din-demandistraction, Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker, 2015
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