Non-Distracting Distractions

I have been working on a presentation of sorts regarding distractions as an essential part of a daily workflow, and it occurred to me that I might as well just share it with everyone, so please enjoy my ramblings.

I’m not what people would call a “show off” in my job as a Happiness Engineer (customer service) for Automattic (primarily, but this is kind of important for the overall discussion, so let’s just say that I do a comparatively large amount of work. Some of my colleagues jokingly call me a machine, but I am far from that. I have tried plenty of times to sit down for 8 hours a day and do absolutely nothing but my work with no distractions, but I always accomplish much less than my average, and I’m often incredibly frustrated by the time I’m done. I’m not a machine, I’m a human, and I need distractions.

In my non-scientific opinion, there are two types of distractions. Those which provide a short and meaningful escape from the rigorous routine of the day and may last a few minutes or seconds, but never demand continued attention, and those which I refer to as “traps,” which provide a captivating escape that draws you into a seemingly never-ending web. Two perfect example of traps are YouTube and Wikipedia. Sure, you meant to only watch one five-minute video on YouTube, but with so much more content at your fingertips, how could you not spend just a few more minutes there? And, don’t get me started on Wikipedia’s famous in-article links. I just wanted to learn a bit about the early history of the violin, but now I know everything about the history of Baroque music, and I still can’t sleep.

When utilized properly, distractions are an important part of concentration. Think of the bells of a monastery, the brief respite of tea time, and the music of a string quartet. Distractions have been with us throughout the centuries, yet we don’t regard these with the same disdain that we regard distractions today. Distractions simply provide a way for you to re-focus your mind and to avoid traps when your mind wanders.

So, what are my distractions? When I’m feeling unfocused in an average work day, I don’t fight a losing battle. I give in, but I avoid traps. If I need just a brief break from what I’m doing to collect my thoughts and break through the “frustration fluff,” I’ll go to The Verge or Quartz, not to read, but to collect articles of interest for later reading via Instapaper. If I need more, I’ll put on some music from iTunes or Spotify while I work. Yes, music is a distraction, think about it. If I still need more and just can’t keep my head from succumbing to the frustration of the day’s routine, I’ll grab my iPad and bring up a show from my childhood via Netflix.

Yes, sometimes I need to watch TV while I work to keep my productivity up. When I’m that far into the frustration of the routine, I could either just stare at the screen and get nothing done (see comments regarding “machine” above), or have something playing in the background that can stimulate my brain while waiting for pages to load. As a reminder to the nay-sayers, “I do a comparatively large amount of work.” If you’re curious, this year’s viewing has so far been Transformers.

With all of that said, what I do may not work for you. I have certainly had my fair share of disapproving looks when I mention my reliance on TV for productivity, but it works for me. Maybe it’s because I was raised in a musical family and did most of my homework while watching reruns of Knight Rider, The Incredible Hulk, and Highlander, but music and TV are my distraction bread and butter. Without them, I’m just another machine.

We aren’t machines, we’re humans, and we need distractions. I strongly encourage you to experiment with distractions in your workflow, but please avoid traps. You may find that all you need for a huge productivity boost is a distraction or two to rejuvenate your mind and get you back on track.

7 responses

  1. When I need a distraction, I open the Reader and check the blogs I follow. I sometimes find interesting articles like this one, and I try not to fall into the 7 Wikipedia traps it contains. 🙂

    I actually find music to be the contrary of a distraction: it helps me get back to work, and I find it difficult to concentrate without it. I mostly listen to instrumental music and original soundtracks though. Lyrics can be distracting.

    If I need a distraction, I usually put the headphones off for a minute. I will then hear the noise in the street, my dog snoring or playing around, and I can just walk around in the apartment for a minute or two. It’s a perfect break, and it’s also good for my eyes, as it forces me to focus to objects placed a bit further from me.

    All this to say that I completely agree with you. Distraction is the key! 🙂

    1. Walking is a great distraction, I love it! I’m very thankful that the kitchen is downstairs from my office, it makes the journey to get coffee and lunch far more meaningful than just rolling a chair over to the coffee machine.

      1. I think it’s important to step away from the screen. Working from home is awesome that way. I’ll take the dog for a 10 minute walk. When I have to be by the screen/phone, I juggle or do some Yoga/stretching. Or, I do some other work activity not computer related. I don’t think we rest, truly rest (or change gears) when we don’t disconnect from the screens. (I feel like a voice in the wilderness when I say that, though!)

  2. Yeeeesssss.

    I work in the same general style. But whether I can cope with distractions depends exactly on what type of work I do. If I need to really brainsoak and think, I have total quiet in my office. Not even music. Sometimes I put on my headphones with nothing on.

    When I hammer CSS out based on a mockup, though, I can watch pretty much anything on my second monitor. I burned through Twin Peaks recently, and have in the past Buck Rogers (season 1 is amazing), Knight Rider, The Man From Atlantis, Space 1999, Star Gate SG1, Star Trek, and even a couple of old b-movies like superkitsch Star Crash (which has a surprisingly great soundtrack by Bond composer John Barry!)

    When it’s just on a second screen while you’re working anyway, it’s remarkable what cheesy pop culture you can burn through.

    1. Very true. I can read, comprehend, and respond to support requests while watching TV, but I just can’t write blog posts or documentation with that type of distraction for some reason.

      Also, I miss Stargate SG-1.

      1. You know MacGyver is the perfect “while you’re working” show to watch…

        1. It’s inspiring stuff for whenever I have to MacGyver a document together.