Why You’ll Do Better Work if You’re Distracted

Staying focused all the time limits your outcomes

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
Daydreaming frees our minds to create new solutions.
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
Daydreaming frees our minds to create new solutions.

There is a word which is almost synonymous with productivity:


Think about it. How many times have you removed every distraction you could so you could buckle down, focus, and get something done? Our parents and teachers told us to focus. We tell our kids to focus.

It’s almost like our inability to focus is the only thing holding us back, and if we could forever banish the spectre of distraction from our lives, we would instantly be able to accomplish every task, project, goal, and dream we set our minds to.

Unfortunately for that book we haven’t gotten around to writing yet, it’s not that simple.

Distraction is actually a powerful tool for certain types of work. Here’s why.

There are two kinds of thinking that we need to do in order to accomplish tasks. Psychologists call them convergent and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking goes from the general to the specific. It brings thoughts and ideas together to arrive at a generally accepted “correct” answer. It’s what we’re used to because it’s how most of us were taught in school.

Divergent thinking goes in the opposite direction—from specific thoughts (“Where do we want to go on vacation next summer?”, “How can we get out of debt?”, or “How do we reduce employee turnover?”) to ideas. It’s brainstorming. There isn’t one correct answer you’re looking for. This type of thinking is about generating ideas. Qualifying, editing, and implementing will come later (when you switch to convergent thinking).

Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, researchers at Stanford University, concluded that walking around causes our brains to change gears. Our capacity for divergent thinking increases sharply, and our capacity for convergent thinking decreases just as sharply. This is another reason stepping away from your desk is good for you—you have an elevated ability to come up with fresh, novel ideas even after you get back to your desk.

The very process of dreaming—coming up with goals, roles, and the things you want to accomplish in your life—is divergent thinking. Anyone can follow a script if you hand it to them.

You need divergent thinking to define your future and describe the destination. From there, you can switch to convergent thinking to execute the details of charting your course and setting your sails.

Distraction is a necessary tool. Like any tool, it has its uses and abuses. Changing your focus mindlessly can and will increase stress. So will allowing yourself to be interrupted when you’re trying to get something done. If you’re going to be distracted, be distracted. Do something completely different.

Once you’ve defined the work, focus and get to work. Schedule time for deep work, where you won’t be interrupted. Turn on Do Not Disturb or go offline completely. The more you can focus, the more you’ll accomplish, and you’ll achieve better results faster.

But when it’s time to come up with new ideas, let yourself be distracted. You’ll solve some of your biggest problems when you aren’t thinking about them.

Question: How have you used distraction to solve a problem? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.