Building Focus with Constructive Distraction

January 27, 2021

Mastering creative constructive distraction is a skill that we always had as kids, and it’s just about getting it back as adults too.

Imagine this: you’ve been studying or working for four hours nonstop. You’re really tired, shoulders are stiff and your brain is literally shutting down from focusing on what you’re doing. What do you do? Most of us would probably check social media, turn on the television, or listen to music for 15 – 20 minutes before we get back to what we were doing. By doing this, you realise that you’re actually able to focus better.

Contrary to popular belief that distractions are always seen as a bad thing, but that’s not always the case. Researchers call this ‘constructive distraction.’ Constructive distraction has its roots in studies on self-control and the famous Marshmallow test by Walter Mischel. The secret of the Marshmallow test is distracting oneself constructively so that there is less need of immediate gratification. Even Dr. Jane McGonigal in her book, SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, alludes to how distractions can even reduce pain in a hospital setting.

To take a leaf out of my own life – a decade ago, I had taken to running. And when I started, it was insanely tough and painful. Running a mile non-stop was a seemingly impossible task. But gradually, after a couple of runs over a few weeks, something incredible happened. I distinctly remember being distracted by the music on my iPod and realising only much later that I had run 3 miles without much complaints. My body didn’t feel the pain of that run that day. The distraction of the music in the background numbed my senses into enjoying that and many other runs. Many of us experience something similar in our daily tasks where we somehow seem to escape for a brief period of time and achieve something we couldn’t do before.

Differentiating the good and bad / The good vs bad

While a lot is written about the focused approach and deep work, not a lot of thought or research is applied to the positive impact of ‘constructive distraction’. We are all distracted and overwhelmed with notifications from emails, breaking news and social media. Well, these distractions are not constructive in nature. Constructive distraction is about utilising our senses to regulate our emotions and impulses, like an engine malfunctions when overheated, our brain’s efficiency, creativity, and decision-making ability considerably declines when we focus hard on an objective for too long. Few years back, I came across a fascinating article about a primary school in China that allows children to nap for 20 minutes to learn better. This is an excellent illustration of constructive distraction.

Recalibration for productivity

Many a time, we hear young employees complaining about hitting a roadblock or monotony in their lives. This could be overexertion of the brain, which curbs the flow of creativity and productivity. That’s precisely where constructive distraction comes in where we utilise the time to recalibrate and ensure the outcome is fitting for the time invested. It’s all about getting into a state of flow to outperform by following a routine which could be something as basic as listening to music, grabbing a healthy snack or sharing ideas with a colleague, helps release dopamine, which is vital for learning and focusing better. Constructive distraction brings in positivity while helping to deal with varied situations like managing the task that you do not like, preparing for public speaking, studying integral calculus, or just about giving up being the critic as a team lead.

It is even more critical during current times for companies and HR departments to ensure the overall well-being of the employees is taken care of when there is brewing anxiety and insecurity among people. Several companies have already undertaken initiatives like reduced meeting hours, virtual employee engagements for more face-time with colleagues, destress and counselling partners offering innovative break ideas, fun quizzes to build a positive environment, which would only mean more productivity at work in return.

Bettering impulsive reactions

We are emotional beings, and at times, we tend to react too fast to newer conditions – like a tough boss or a colleague who has said something hurtful. Or, when we receive a stinker or complaint e-mail, we get overwhelmed and send a befitting response on-spot. We often regret such actions done in the spur of the moment. Constructive distraction helps in getting out the stimulus and reduces its signal when we are emotionally charged. The best practice in such instances is to distract ourselves by taking a walk, counting to a hundred or involving ourselves in a conversation with colleagues or family on an entirely different topic. This helps to overcome our feelings, give our brain enough time to process the situation at hand, and come up with a solution/response without jeopardising our relationship with the opposite person.

In a nutshell, constructive distraction enables us to take control over our lives to a great extent and could be a great skill to acquire and bring back the work-life balance which has gone for a toss during the pandemic. Mastering creative constructive distraction is a skill that we always had as kids, and it’s just about getting it back as adults too.