Understanding the psychology of distraction can help you stay on task

Could your urge to check emails — instead of finishing that major project — be a response to an uncomfortable emotional state?

NIR EYAL: When we try and understand distraction we have to understand what distraction is not. The opposite of distraction is not focus. The opposite of distraction is traction. Both words come from the same Latin root, "trahere," which means to pull. And both end in the same six letter word – "action," it spells action. So traction is any action that pulls you towards what you want. Things that you are doing with intent. Now the opposite of traction is distraction. Anything you do that pulls you away from what you plan to do with intent. So this is incredibly important to understand this distinction because of two reasons. Number one, it frees us from this ridiculous moral hierarchy that somehow your pastime is morally inferior to my pastime.

You playing Candy Crush, that's not okay. But me watching football for three hours, yes, that's perfectly fine. That's ridiculous. Anything you plan to do with intent is traction. As long as it's in line with your values it's perfectly OK. Now what we don't want to do is to stumble into distraction. And this happens oftentimes when we think we are doing something that benefits us. For example, we sit down at our desk and we say we're definitely going to work on that big project right after we check that email or right after we look at that Slack channel or Google something real quick. It might feel work-y, it might feel productive but if it's not what you planned to do with your time it is just as much of a pernicious distraction.

So when we think about why we get distracted we need to go a layer deeper, to really start with the fundamentals of why we do everything that we do. And it turns out that all human motivation, if you ask most people why do we do what we do they will tell you some form of carrots and sticks. Now this is known as Freud's pleasure principle which says that everything we do is about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. However, neurologically speaking that is not true. And, in fact, from a neurological perspective it's pain all the way down. This is called the homeostatic response. That when the body senses some kind of discomfort it prompts us to action to fix that uncomfortable state. If we're cold we put on a jacket. If we walk back inside and now it's warm we take it off. So these are physiological responses and the same is true for our psychological responses.

When we are lonely we check Facebook. When we're uncertain we Google something. And when we're bored we watch the news, we check stock prices, sports scores. All sorts of things cater to this uncomfortable sensation of boredom. And so what we need to understand is that distraction, like every behavior, starts from within. It's triggered by what's called an internal trigger, some kind of uncomfortable emotional state that we seek to escape. So when we are looking at our devices or checking email or looking at any kind of distraction or action that takes us off track. Fundamentally what we need to understand is this core truth that distraction starts from within and that time management is pain management.

  • It's easy to stumble down a rabbit hole when we consider the action beneficial like checking emails, stock prices, or sports scores.
  • However, if these seemingly beneficial actions take the place of something else we intended to do, they're just distractions. And we've been moved to these distraction as a psychological response to discomfort.
  • The truth is that distraction comes from within, and time management is just another form of pain management.

Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

Ultracold gas exhibits bizarre quantum behavior

New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Experiments on an ultracold gas show strange quantum behavior.
  • The observations point to applications in quantum computing.
  • The find may also advance chaos theory and explain the butterfly effect.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

    Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.

    Big Think LIVE

    Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.

    Keep reading Show less

    3 cognitive biases perpetuating racism at work — and how to overcome them

    Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."

    Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
    Personal Growth

    Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.

    Keep reading Show less

    Should you grow a beard? Here's how women perceive bearded men

    Whether or not women think beards are sexy has to do with "moral disgust"

    Photo Credit: Frank Marino / Unsplash
    Sex & Relationships
    • A new study found that women perceive men with facial hair to be more attractive as well as physically and socially dominant.
    • Women tend to associate more masculine faces with physical strength, social assertiveness, and formidability.
    • Women who display higher levels of "moral disgust," or feelings of repugnance toward taboo behaviors, are more likely to prefer hairy faces.
    Keep reading Show less

    Only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

    Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.

    Photo: Lightspring / Shutterstock
    Mind & Brain
    • A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
    • Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
    • An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast