Seeking Distraction: Our Very Human Reaction to Losing Control

Seeking Distraction: Our Very Human Reaction to Losing Control
Photo by Benjamin Voros

Do you ever find yourself actively seeking distraction from what you’re working on?

You know what you’re supposed to be getting on with, but instead you open up a new tab, reach for your phone, or start cleaning your entire home in an attempt to remain in your comfort zone for just a few moments longer.

I recently read the transcripts of a conversation between staff writer at The Atlantic Joe Pinsker, and journalist and author Oliver Burkeman.

During the conversation, Burkeman hit upon the phrase “seeking distraction.” Despite being a chronic procrastinator, I hadn’t previously considered the idea that all along I might have been seeking the very distraction which I so frequently found. Here’s the full quote from Burkeman:

I certainly think that Silicon Valley has a lot to answer for when it comes to its role in pulling us away from what we want to focus on, but at the same time, we do sort of cooperate. If I’m working on a difficult article, it’s not like I’m really happy doing it [...] I run away to Twitter because the article is challenging me and causing me to experience uncomfortable emotions, and Twitter promises the opposite.

Burkeman continues:

I think the reason that we seek distraction is that working on stuff that we care about is often scary. It brings us into contact with all the ways in which we’re limited—our talents might not be up to what we’re trying to do, and we can’t control how things will unfold [...] meanwhile, the internet feels limitless, like you’re an all-powerful consciousness surfing the unlimited waves of the web and social media. It’s very relieving.

For all the books, articles, and talks about productivity, our cooperation when it comes to being distracted has been significantly underexplored in all of them.

Social media is a distraction, but we seek it out despite knowing this. The internet is, as Burkeman put it, a limitless distraction, and yet I fire up a new tab dozens of times a day while I am in the middle of an important task or working on a deadline.

How do we combat this innate desire to seek distraction at every turn? Ultimately, we need to become more comfortable with, as the author and poet Austin Kleon puts it, “showing our work.” When we show our work in its crudest, most unfinished form, the idea that our work must be perfect before the world (or our boss) sees it will begin to hold less sway.

Until then, download an extension to limit the number of tabs you can have open at any one time, turn your phone face down, and—for the love of god—keep your butt in your chair.

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Benjamin Spall

Benjamin Spall

Benjamin Spall is the co-author of My Morning Routine (Portfolio). He has written for outlets including the New York Times, New York Observer, Quartz, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, CNBC, and more.