The Art of Distraction or the Art of Focus?

Last week, I wrote about conquering the bugs of distraction.

But here’s one of the wondrous paradoxes and mysteries of the creative mind:

The creative mind flourishes with focus, and it flourishes with wandering.

I’ve been tracking and testing out this paradox on myself and groups for a few years and have been tracking what I call “Mind-wanderfulness,” a playful cousin to mindfulness. Here’s a review of other recent thinkers on the subject:

Author Jonah Lehrer discusses the benefits of daydreaming at The New Yorker Conference.

Cognitive psychologist Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman reviews The Origins of Positive-Constructive Daydreaming. He discusses especially the work of Dr. Jerome L. Singer, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, who coined and has studied “positive-constructive daydreaming” for most of his career.

Among Kaufman’s many interesting observations is that several researchers have been biased against their subjects’ distractibility, calling daydreaming “executive control failure.”

Life coach Tara Mohr recently raised this very question of what I’ll call The Bias Toward Focus.

What about The Bias Toward Distraction?

That’s what Hanif Kureishi – a playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, novelist and short-story writer – argued for this weekend in a Times op-ed, The Art of Distraction. He addresses especially the natural emotional uses of distraction, especially during adolescence (something Kaufman and Singer touch on) and trauma. And he takes aim at the tyranny of our Ritalin culture:

From this point of view — that of drift and dream; of looking out for interest; of following this or that because it seems alive — Ritalin and other forms of enforcement and psychological policing are the contemporary equivalent of the old practice of tying up children’s hands in bed, so they won’t touch their genitals.

Kureishi acknowledges the argument of how technology dogs the best of writers, but he concludes

“In the end, a person requires a method. He must be able to distinguish between creative and destructive distractions by the sort of taste they leave, whether they feel depleting or fulfilling. And this can work only if he is, as much as possible, in good communication with himself — if he is, as it were, on his own side, caring for himself imaginatively, an artist of his own life.”

In short, you could say all wander and no focus can make for a frustrated creative or enterpriser with half-written books, half-cooked ideas, and half-hearted efforts.

All focus and no wander can make for a get-things-done, slick, and dull automaton.

It doesn’t have to be an either-or. But it takes a lot of work, practice, and creative mindfulness to finesse such a method for the middle way. That’s the challenge. Not growing smug in one’s own unproductive chaos and not growing smug in one’s productive order.

That’s one thing we’ll address in the Creative Momentum in Good Times & Bad Webinar series, starting today.


What about you? Where do you fall on the focus-wandering, order-chaos continuum? Is one force “winning out” and over-riding the other? If you have a method for taking “the middle way,” please share.

See you in the woods (lost or not!),


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  1. My best middle way is to be gentle with myself. Today, I have no goals beyond create what I will on my novel rewrite, and maybe writing a grocery list. If I have focus – soft focus – and work on the rewrite to the exclusion of all else around me, then so be it (I’ve spent hours without noting the passage of time, but this is not focus that feels mandated. It just happens). If I get distracted, it’s not a bad thing. I just let myself drift away. I have two different books I’m reading: one is essentially research for this rewrite (so it still feels like I’m being productive) and one is fiction with pacing and action I’d love to learn from. If neither of those suit me, I tend to do housework, because then my mind can wander happily until I’m ready to return to the page.

  2. Alica~”Soft focus” – I like the sound of that. It evokes a palpable feeling in my temples. With “hard focus” or “laser-beam focus” my eyebrows furrow and my jaw tightens and my breath constricts. “Soft focus” lets my eyes ease, my mind be alert but flexible, and my breathing glide. Nice.

    I also like your insight on the two kinds of books you’re reading while re-visioning and rewriting.

    I think people like you and me, though, are fortunate in that we have sculpted time to allow for such delicious days of soft focus.

    I’m wondering, too, about those of us who finesse focus and distraction/daydream even when the scheduler is full.

    Thanks for dropping in the hut – and keep us posted on your book (I’m curious!).