Distraction is powerful and bi-directional

A recent video I made touches on the prevalence of distraction in our lives and the importance of our awareness of it. The video might paint distraction in a negative light, just as many productivity nerds might do, but distraction is not always a negative thing.

When used with careful intent, distraction can be a useful tool.

If your attention is a train, then distraction is a likely culprit for derailment; however, distraction can also act as a sort of guide rail when used properly.


For the sake of illustration, let’s call these two types of distraction negative and positive distraction. Negative distraction is that which derails your attention; Positive distraction is that which enables you to maintain your focus.

When you sit down to do serious work and you’re bombarded with meaningless notifications, you’re experiencing negative distraction. The source of negative distraction is often external.

When you go for a run and you feel like quitting, but you find a way to shift your attention towards something other than that feeling, you’re experiencing positive distraction. It’s that feeling when the little voice inside of you says “quit—stop running” but you overpower the voice by distracting your attention away from it. Maybe you listen to your breath or look at a tree—you might even think about the sign that’s 15 yards in front of you—whatever it is, you have distracted yourself from that negative inner voice which was trying to get you to quit. The source of positive distraction is often internal.battery

One might argue that this is not distraction at all—it’s merely controlling your focus. Ideally, it is just focus, but we cannot always rely upon ourselves to command this sort of power over our focus. The ability to distract ourselves from that which hinders our focus is the next best thing. In a sense, the ability to distract yourself can end up helping you focus.

This sort of positive distraction is often valuable in scenarios requiring patience and perseverance—two things which depend upon the passage and endurance of time. Such scenarios are often characterized by a strong desire to quit and a lack of willpower when playing the waiting game.

Positive distraction can help look past the desire to quit and pass time while enduring.

This is not a justification for avoidance or systematic escapism. A physical or emotional feeling should not be neglected without acknowledging its potential importance, and we shouldn’t binge watch all six seasons of Lost just because it’s difficult for us to wait patiently. Rather, this is a suggestion that distraction is not always a negative thing.

Think of it this way: once we begin to recognize distraction and become mindful of it’s effect on us, we gain the power to use distraction to our advantage. When we approach the things that easily distract us (Netflix, social media, etc) with mindfulness, we gain to two valuable insights:

  1. We can learn how to better avoid negative distractions
  2. We learn how to better distract ourselves

The mindfulness is key here: watching Netflix mindlessly does not help, but something can be learned from noticing how it feels when we encounter distractions.

Distraction is powerful and bi-directional—it can hurt us and help us. This encompassing view of distraction prompts learning and allows us to approach trying times with a more dynamic toolbox.