Right from when I was a kid, I was told to stop daydreaming and focus my attention on the task at hand. Distraction, I was told, is a bad thing, a troublesome habit that must be broken if we are to succeed at anything.
And for the most part, I can just about believe this. Distractions lure us away from essential tasks. They are the reason we leave our VAT returns to the last minute and why our website SEO isn’t as finely tuned as it should be and that business plan is only half-written.
Distractions can take us off mission and make everything take longer to complete. And it’s not just shiny, new or exciting things that lead us astray. Our minds are experts at creating to-do lists of ‘urgent’ tasks to keep us busy when something dull or difficult is pressing – none of which will have anything to do with what we should be doing.
But are distractions always bad?
Well, I’d like to put forward the case that we should (once in a while) indulge in a bit of distraction. I know this sounds counterintuitive, especially after what I’ve already said, but hear me out. I think sometimes distractions are good, maybe even vital, if we are to innovate and break from the mainstream and find new paths.
How is this possible?
Our brains have an incredible capacity to sort, process and recall information so we can formulate new ideas and solve problems. Much of this occurs discreetly in the background (aka ‘ambient neural processing’), and we only know what’s been going on when something clicks together and we have a sudden eureka moment! In fact we can have some of our best ideas or think-up solutions in the most unlikely places – the shower, walking the dog, going for a run, anywhere where we’re not consciously focusing on the issue.
So besides reminding us of the importance of taking a breather once in a while to give all this processing space to work, this emerging picture of cognition has some significant implications when it comes to your own entrepreneurial creativity.
Harnessed well, distractions can become a part of both your mental wellbeing regime, and your strategic toolkit.
And how do we spot the helpful from the unhelpful distractions? Well, there are clues…
Signs a distraction can be helpful:
- It is mission-related: The best distractions move you forward in some way to achieve a goal rather than simply keep you busy.
- It improves on something: The distraction could be a shortcut or offer a different slant on the current task.
- It starts with ‘what if…’: The distraction pushes you to innovate, to explore beyond typical thinking to consider fresh, new ideas or solutions.
- It is diverse: The distraction could offer an alternative approach or allow a second idea to be developed and tested simultaneously to see which is better.
Signs a distraction may not be helpful:
- It is off-topic, off-mission: There is a line between distraction and avoidance or procrastination, something usually marked by a form of excess – perhaps that 10th ‘going out for fresh air’ of the day.
- It is nothing new: The distraction doesn’t expand on what you already know or do; it just repackages or re-imagines it slightly differently.
- It’s a get-out: The distraction is easier or more fun than the problem or issue at hand (which, by the way, will still be there once the distraction has passed, and you’ll be no nearer resolving it).
One more thing…
While there are situations where distractions could be beneficial, there’s always the question of balance.
As with all things, too many distractions and too often will almost certainly have a negative effect on any business. At some point we all have to get on with the actual task of progress and implementation. With that in mind, pursue your distractions with mindful caution, and don’t stray too far from your primary goals or purpose.
What’s your experience of distraction-induced epiphany?