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.
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