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Distraction: Friend or Foe?

People seem to have mixed feelings about distraction. Distraction is often what we use to feel better during times of anxiety or to cope when we feel down, flat, or depressed. Yet at the same time distractions can create stress and anxiety for procrastinators and anyone who wants to get anything done! Distraction is sometimes used in therapy to help people manage the strong cravings that come with alcohol or drug abuse, but then our distractions can become addictions themselves! It seems everyone enjoys a bit of distraction to let yourself relax (I know I do!) but at the same time Facebook, phones, games and TV can steal a lot of our time away without giving much back.

When we are talking about distraction we are really discussing the complex cognitive processes which underlie attention. Attention techniques have been found useful in reducing pain, stress, and improving overall mental health. A great example of this can be found at the Smiling Mind project (http://smilingmind.com.au/), which uses principals of mindfulness to guide our attention. This form of distraction allows us to refocus on those things which enhance life, since we are better able to cope with the stress or discomfort that may come along when we chase the things we find fulfilling.

When it comes to getting things done, though, research looking at student’s study habits showed some interesting results. Students from high school and university were observed while studying something for just 15 minutes in their normal place of study. Students were also given a questionnaire assessing study strategies, GPA, and other relevant factors. The results showed these students averaged less than 6 minutes attention on a task before switching, and these attention switches were nearly all caused by distracting technology (ie, social media and texting).

Unsurprisingly, the ability to stay on task for longer was one predictor of better grades. Interestingly, those students who checked Facebook even once during this time had lower grades than those who did not. After checking it appeared that participants would have insistent lingering thoughts about what was happening in the world of Facebook (“has anyone responded to my post?”, “is there any interesting new videos posted up yet?”).

Most of us have probably experienced mental distraction like this. It is those times our bodies may be present but our minds are still elsewhere, lost in the world of work or games, social drama or a television drama. This is when distraction becomes unhelpful, it disengages us from the important things in life. Distraction becomes a form of avoidance which robs us of the ability to perform the task in front of us, as well as the ability to sit with uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or situations.

So when it comes to your distraction how do you know if it is friend or foe? The answer may be found in the question; does it allow me to connect to the things which are most important or valuable to me? These may be the things you remember doing at those times when you felt most purposeful, or most productive, or most connected. Distractions sometimes stop us from having to think about the day to day chores, but leave little time or energy left to do things like going for a bushwalk and getting out into nature, having a good coffee and a chat with a close friend, finish building a project, write a short novel, spend some quality family time, or whatever else it is that you may love but may get left out of the busy weekly schedule!

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