When Distraction is Good


Distraction is getting a bad name.

This past month, I’ve been heads down on a few projects and noticing something I’d not been very conscious of before now. When I get “stuck” or when I reach a natural break point on a piece of work, the menu of potential distracters includes everything from email and telephone calls to getting food, socializing and more.

I did an informal audit. Sometimes I would check email. Other times, I would pace, get a glass of iced-tea, or walk outside for a few minutes. When I did the latter—any activity that was quiet, reflective and receptive, I would feel refreshed. I was open to receiving an insight and to being in the moment. When I returned to the project that had momentarily stumped me, I would enjoy new energy. I started calling this receptive distraction. Receptive distraction is any sort of distraction that creates mental space.

When I went to email, however, I would “spin out.” That is, I would completely lose track of what I had been working on and get immersed in all sorts of other issues. I started calling this deceptive distraction. I thought I could take a short break and crank out a few emails, but it took longer to do the emails than I thought, and longer to get back into my project afterwards.

I asked friends about their experiences with receptive distraction.

Don, a retired judge, related that he had always had a shower available in his chambers. On one occasion, during a 20-minute recess at a custody case, Don took a five-minute shower. “I let the water roll over me and let my mind go. Things that were subtle, that I’d heard but that had not sunk in—body language and other impressions—drifted through my mind, and surfaced. When I got out of the shower, I had a decision.”

Receptive distraction. “It’s like a palate cleanser,” commented Walt, a journalist.

Are your distracters receptive or deceptive?

This article also appears in the Huffington Post

Widely recognized as a visionary thinker and thought leader, Linda Stone is a writer, lecturer, and consultant focused on trends and their strategic and consumer implications. Previously, Stone spent close to 20 years as an executive in high technology, including work at Apple Computer and Microsoft Research. Follow @LindaStone

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2 responses to “When Distraction is Good”

  1. Simple and insightful. Thanks!

  2. Sanjeev says:

    Mostly all distractive. I always thought it was more a matter of self-discipline but maybe some tasks, by their very nature, are more distractive than others.

    The receptive ones are obvious. Exercise for 20 minutes, take a walk to the pond and get back refreshed and so on.

    The trick is in identifying the distractive ones and then doing something about it i.e. not succumbing to their temptation!(Like now, for example — when trying to read some renewable energy articles, I start leaving a comment at this article! :))

    Time to go reflect on why I do this! ;)