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How Deliberate Distraction Leads to Creative Breakthroughs

Imagine this: you’ve spent all day working on a difficult project. You’ve been excited about it for weeks, but you haven’t quite been able to pin down the final details. You’ve done the research, gathered the materials, bounced ideas off of your colleagues and your creative pack, and still you feel stuck in a cognitive rut. 

The goal is in sight but it seems that between you and it lies a chasm that you don’t have the tools to cross. Frustrated and bleary-eyed from staring at the computer for too long, you finally allow yourself a break and decide to take a shower (let’s say you work at home). Your chattering brain quiets as soon as the warm water hits your skin, and you let your mind drift. Trivial thoughts float like soap suds through your consciousness and you let them pass without concern. It’s only as you’re rinsing the last of the conditioner from your hair that the idea hits you. It’s like a key turning a lock that lowers the drawbridge over that cognitive chasm. It’s a eureka moment. 

We’re all familiar with those breakthrough thoughts that arise while we’re engaged in the most mundane of tasks, be it showering, commuting, or doing the dishes. But have you ever stopped to wonder why this phenomenon is so common? This question is the topic of new research suggesting that the single-minded work ethic we praise may actually inhibit innovation, and it is in fact in distracted moments like these that make room for the essential cognitive state of creative insight: wonder.

Discipline in the Age of Distraction

Let’s put the challenge of gleaning creative insight in context. We live in an age of distraction. In just the past few years, we have grown rapidly, compulsively reliant on digital devices not only for work but also for social validation. Many of us crave the dopamine rush of “likes,” “hearts,” and comments on Facebook as much as we covet that morning cup of coffee. Our minds are so ceaselessly overloaded with information that we have become naturalized to this white noise: so much so that one study found subjects would rather shock themselves than be alone with their own thoughts.

Clearly, this digitalized world has overstuffed our hungry minds and encouraged us to multitask like never before. But at what cost? A 2009 study out of Stanford concluded that heavy media multitaskers found it more challenging to pay attention, recall information, or switch gears to change tasks. We’re just not wired to juggle multiple tasks that call on different parts of the brain simultaneously, even though the manifold relationships and responsibilities of modern life seem to require just that.

Our response has been to try and discipline our brains to ignore distractions (digital or otherwise) for the sake of productivity. We set rigid schedules, put our noses to the grindstone, even block access to temptations like social media, and still we struggle with our wandering minds. Though the typical nine-to-five work day is premised on discipline and singular focus, the human brain doesn’t work that way. The adaptive unconscious (or what we might call the “Survivor Brain”) seeks immediate gratification and the digital world gives us access to that 24/7. Our Everyday Mind, on the other hand, is responsible for receiving, filtering and responding to all this input. No easy task. 

Though the Everyday Mind may hold its ground for a while, the more we try to maintain focus on a single task, the harder it becomes. We find ourselves experiencing a phenomenon known as “cognitive fixation,” or the idea that we are so narrowly focused on the problem in front of us that we cannot see other solutions. Discipline holds us hostage to that fixation, and the only way out of the rut is for deliberate distraction to create space in our crowded minds for creativity.

Deliberate Distraction

The reason that “shower thoughts” are a popular Internet trend is that our minds continue working on the problems that consume our conscious thought, even when we are not consciously focused on them. In 2012, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that the regions of the brain that handle decision-making are still active when the conscious mind is distracted with a different task. This explains why gravity, x-rays, radioactivity, velcro, the pacemaker, penicillin, insulin, vulcanized rubber, the microwave, Cornflakes, Teflon, super glue, Vaseline, safety glass, and many other inventions were created when their inventors were working on something else entirely.

Deliberate distraction, simply put, is switching tasks or diverting from your main focus, with intention. The intention part is key because it’s been proven that intentional action stimulates more portions of the brain and can lead to actual changes in our neuronal pathways. In other words, intention fosters learning. As such, putting down the pen or paint brush to do yoga is deliberate distraction. Going down a rabbithole on Facebook to avoid finishing a paper is not. 

There are three steps to deliberate distraction. First, you have to recognize the rut. Realize that you are cognitively fixated and need to step away from the task to see it more clearly. Imagine your mind has a room of mirrors that reflect and sort the thoughts going through your Everyday Mind. This Mirror Mind is not judgmental, but it can help you catch yourself when your unconscious is tempting you toward immediate gratification and escapism, which usually means you’re trying to avoid work. Second, you have to choose a single, engaged distraction. It can be reading an unrelated book, doing yoga, or washing dishes. Your should be focused on the activity, but your mind free to wander. Finally, you should set a time limit. The longer you distract yourself, even deliberately, the harder it will be to return to your work. Allot a specific amount of time to your distraction from the outset so your mind can switch back to work mode more easily. 

The next step is to incorporate deliberate distraction into your creative work, but how?

Finding a Creative Work Rhythm

We tend to feel guilty putting down a task without completing it, but deep work takes persistent time and space –  and we’re not built to work like machines. Recognizing this, Tony Schwartz, founder of the Energy Project, has argued for a shift toward a more humane way of working. As he puts it, humans are designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy, with a natural workcycle of about 90 minutes at a time. The majority of us push past our natural limits without realizing the dramatic negative effects on our productivity. Instead, Schwartz argues, we could work by our natural rhythms, recognize the value of renewal, and set clear goals to improve not only our productivity, but our creativity to boot. Run many sprints toward our objective rather than go for the marathon.

Schwartz’s work model coupled with the practice of deliberate distraction tap into the concept of shaping time, rather than disciplining it. Shaping time means cultivating awareness of your mind and body, then responding to their needs rather than trying to keep them in line. This concept conflicts with our rigid work ethic, but it allows us to stop fighting time and find inspiration so that our work can be driven by passion, not anxiety. And it produces results. 

Take the artist for example. We tend to think of artists as people somehow divinely inspired by the muses, as if every piece of work they did was the result of a eureka moment. The truth is that creativity is active: it takes practice. As a writer I commit to writing almost every day, even when I don’t feel like it, or don’t have a topic in mind because I am still honing my craft. On some days I commit to 60 to 90 minutes then move on only to find that later in the day, during a walk in the woods or while working on a presentation, an anchoring sentence or image for my writing pops into my head.  Excited by the insight, I take note of the idea so I can go back to the piece and run with it later. It’s not about waiting for your muse, but shaping time, showing up for the muse, and being aware enough to capture whatever goldfish of an idea the muse offers before it slips away. 

To do your deep work, or tackle that looming project, try finding your natural rhythm. Schedule 90 minute blocks of time to work on individual parts of your project. Build time for deliberate distraction and structured daydreaming into your work day. When you find yourself stuck, take a look into your Mirror Mind and figure out why. If thinking is the soul talking to itself, as Plato said, then listen when your soul speaks up and see where the current of creativity takes you.

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