Do Distractions Make You More Creative?

Computer keyboard with thought-bubble symbol on one key

Regular Lateral Action readers will know I’m a big believer in the power of focus.

When it’s time to produce, it’s time to eliminate distractions – switch off the phone, e-mail, internet etc – and concentrate on the task in hand. Because focused attention is essential for achieving creative flow, the state in which you do your best creative work.

Over the years I’ve advocated various tools and techniques for minimising distractions and heightening your powers of concentration, including meditation, time management, rituals and software applications.

So what do you think I made of a recent article by Jonah Lehrer in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that people who are easily distracted are more creative and productive than those who find it easy to maintain a laserlike focus?

In support of his argument, Lehrer cites the findings of several research projects:

  • People who daydream more are better at generating new ideas.
  • Employees are more productive when allowed to engage in ‘internet leisure browsing’.
  • A sample of people who were unable to concentrate due to severe brain damage scored above average on problem-solving tasks.
  • In a sample of 60 arts and science students, the highest achievers were those who had been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • In another group of students, those who found it hardest to ignore distracting stimuli were seven times more likely to be rated as ‘eminent creative achievers’ based on their track record.

What’s going on here? Should we forget about firewalling our attention and instead embrace each and every distraction as a creative bonus?

My first thought on seeing Lehrer’s article was that it makes complete sense – but it’s only half the story. Just as my advice about tuning out distractions is only half the story.

It’s too simplistic to talk about ‘creativity’ as if it were a single, easily identifiable thing. Creativity is a multi-faceted process, involving ideas, feedback and execution. Distractions are great for finding new ideas; focus is necessary for execution. Much of the art of creative work is knowing when to concentrate and when to let your mind wander.

Ultimately, this comes down to knowing yourself – your likes and dislikes, your ultradian rhythms, your personality, and your strengths and weaknesses. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

Personally, I know I’m better at focusing in the morning. So I welcome distractions in the afternoon (especially as that’s my time for writing e-mails, never my favourite task of the day!). That’s when I enjoy hanging out on Twitter, flicking through my RSS reader and surfing the web in search of serendipitous creative discoveries.

In fact, I came across Lehrer’s article on Twitter, courtesy of @openculture and @cibas_news. If I hadn’t been goofing around that afternoon, I’d never have come across the article, and I’d never have had the idea for this post.

Here are a few questions to help you decide when to focus and when to allow your mind to wander:

  • Which tasks require 100% of your attention if you are to perform at your best?
  • What time(s) of day do you naturally find it easiest to focus?
  • When are distractions most likely to provide you with creative stimulation?
  • When are distractions most likely to be a form of Resistance – i.e. an excuse for avoiding a difficult creative challenge?
  • When does focusing feel like a creative release?
  • When does focusing feel like it’s stifling your creativity?

Thinking about Lehrer’s piece over the weekend, another thought occurred to me: focus is important for creative people, precisely because we are so easily distracted.

I first started investigating productivity systems as an antidote to the daily chaos of my working life. I was struggling, because I had lots of different creative projects on the go at once – and I still kept coming up with new ideas every day.

Most creative people I know have a similar problem: we naturally have plenty of interests and plenty of creative ideas as a result. We’re good at letting our minds wander, and making new connections. So creative thinking techniques based on lateral thinking are pretty redundant for many of us. Where we need a little help is in finding some order in the chaos, and making ideas happen, as Scott Belsky would say.

Another challenge we face as 21st-century creatives comes from the evidence that the internet is changing our brains and making it harder for us to concentrate. Just as sitting at a desk all day makes it important to exercise more, so having endless digital distractions at our fingertips makes it important to practise focusing.

So focus makes you more creative. AND distractions make you more creative. You need to do both – just not both at once!

Over to You

Are you easily distracted? If so, what creative benefits has this brought you?

When is it most important for you to tune out distractions and focus?

Any tips for switching from distractions to focus (and vice versa)?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For more tips on creativity and productivity, sign up for free updates from Lateral Action. And for bite-sized inspiration, follow Mark on Twitter here.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Hi Mark, I agree with you that there may be a confusion of correlation and causation happening; it is quite likely that creative people tend to daydream more, rather than daydreaming more being your ticket to more creativity.

    That being said, there is also something to the idea that opening yourself up to distractions (new ideas are distractions, after all) can make you more creative.

    Do I think that means we should abandon time management and focus? No, of course not… there’s a time and place for everything. When you need to get things done, focus on what you’re doing. When there’s a little more slack, then let your mind wander if the mood strikes, because you might be pleasantly surprised with where you end up.

    Does that make sense?

  2. I’ve always found these kinds of projects frustrating for the very reason you state: we need to understand and respect our own ways of working and thinking.

    For me, too much structure feels suffocating–but I also need some kind of framework to keep me on track. It was easy when I was in a workplace with other people, but as a self-employed person, the flexibility of my workday can be my undoing.

    I’ve been working with my strengths–and quirks–for a long time, long before I discovered there’s science to support the method. Switching tasks actually helps me–until I get so deep into one thing I lose track of time.

    I guess we could call that system Going with the Flow (with a nod to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

    The frustration of applying someone else’s systems can drain your creative energy as fast as the most boring 9-5 job. As you say, we’re all individuals, and I heartily agree. As long as the work gets done and promises kept (and without staying up all night three nights running), how that happens can–and should–be as individual as we are.

    • as a self-employed person, the flexibility of my workday can be my undoing

      Yep, it can be the productivity equivalent of the blank page or canvas – a nice idea in theory, but not so easy when it’s your job to fill it!

      Strengths and Quirks sounds like it could be a new productivity system for creatives. ;-)

  3. I think it’s important to separate correlation and causation. People who are easily distracted are more creative. That makes sense – your brain is bouncing around and so things that don’t belong enter easily. I met an entrepreneur who I won’t name (because he’s well known) and is very creative, but he was so scattered, he couldn’t even finish a sentence before moving on to another topic.

    But none of this means that being distracted MAKES you more creative.

    We shouldn’t mimic the habits of successful people without understanding causation versus correlation. What looks like a good thing to mimic might just be a byproduct.

    • We shouldn’t mimic the habits of successful people without understanding causation versus correlation. What looks like a good thing to mimic might just be a byproduct.

      Exactly. A rock’n’roll lifestyle does not a rock star make. ;-)

  4. I love this Mark. Thanks so much.

    As probably know, I’ve been working with my own creative process for the past year trying to get to a place where I can maximize my productivity without stifling my creativity. I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting closer.

    This article distinguishes the various parts of the creative process really well, and where I often struggle most is the actual production or output phase.

    As your tagline says, Success = Creativity + Productivity.

  5. Hey Mark,

    A very interesting article. Thank you.

    Like you, I focus best in the morning, so before I do anything else, I write poetry for about 90 minutes. I sit in the porch looking out at the hills, and the door to the office is firmly shut. When I finish, I’m allowed to have breakfast.

    I also focus well in the late evenings, in the music room. I usually enjoy distracted learning and consumption is from 5pm to 7pm. Consumption as a reward for creation. :)

    Distractions, however, are not always bad things. I tend to question distractions if they are persistent while writing a particular piece. Sometimes I feel my mind is letting me know I have peaked and I should leave it and come back after a while.

    Procrastination takes many forms. Distractions are clearly one. They are, I believe, worth a second thought if they continue to prod you.

    Cheers Mark!

    Conor

    • When I finish, I’m allowed to have breakfast.

      Wow you’re hardcore! :-) I generally find ‘coffee first, words second’ works best for me.

      I tend to question distractions if they are persistent while writing a particular piece.

      Yes, that sounds like Resistance sniffing about.

      • Cheers Mark.

        I get swept away by words at other times, often leading to more creation. It happens, but I don’t depend on it.

        In the space between creative assaults, I put the hours in. :)

  6. Interesting post, focus-building is definitely something I’ve been working on the last few years.

    I think the most important part of the post is the line about recognizing when you are being distracted because of Resistance. In general I don’t chastise myself for a bit of aimless drifting, but if I’m not careful that quick feed-reader check can turn into an hour!

    My focusing tips:
    – When you’re trying to concentrate and get something done, set up a count-up timer. When you feel the urge to check twitter or something, glance at the timer. Sometimes it’s only been on for less than 10 minutes!! :P

    – If you aren’t flowing creatively, sitting and banging your head against the project isn’t necessarily going to fix the problem. I like to take walks or do some cleaning to recharge.

    – I use ‘internet browsing time’ as a reward for finishing things. It’s a nice carrot :)

    My “distraction” tips:
    – Distraction is fine, but I try to keep to quality sites. I’ve identified a few sites that I visit that you can spend a loooooooong time on getting little of value out of it. Using an RSS reader that I’m always pruning has helped. Instead of browsing sites that have a LOT of updates that maybe aren’t relevant, find ‘curator’ blogs that will pick up the links you care about the most.

    In essence… better to distract yourself with a meaty blog article than captioned pictures of cats…

    In the same way: PVR > Channel Surfing.

    • Great tips. I’m experimenting with a Pomodoro timer this week, it’s pretty good for grinding out the stuff I don’t really want to do. And I know what you mean about ‘less than 10 minutes!’ :-)

      Distraction is fine, but I try to keep to quality sites.

      I hope that includes Lateral Action. ;-)

  7. I am newly self-employed (as of today!) and this couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m best at getting ‘busy work’ done in the morning – bills, paperwork, matters that need immediate attention. I get inspired around 10:30am, then tend to want to take a brain siesta and read creative content and material from about 2-4.

    I just couldn’t do this at my staff job, and the times when I managed to, I was highly more productive and creative.

    I’ve found focusing on creative work is a joy. Focusing on details like what’s going on with our kitchen sink or menial admin work I pick up is distracting. I like this idea that it’s both, but separate. Focus and distractions, just knowing how to allocate each one.

    • Welcome to the club!

      I hear from plenty of my employed clients that their most productive times are outside of office hours, because the workplace isn’t conducive to work!

      Organising your own time has it’s challenges too, but to me it beats the alternative hands down.

  8. Erik Brown says:

    I write music, and I find that when I’m actually writing music I block everything else out. Then again when I do anything that I need to focus on I do so completely and people often end up shouting my name at top volume multiple times before I “snap out of it.” I often live in my own world and have only tentatively been able to learn to socialize. I was not always good at music, though ever since I can remember I have been good at writing, possibly because I read so much at a young age. I was reading 1000-2000 page epic scifi/fantasy novels when I was 10 because once I was focused I would refuse to put the book down until I was done, and because I didn’t have work like I do nowadays and because I was home-schooled I could get away with doing that.

    But when I’m not doing anything, when I’m socializing or killing time often my mind will wander. Oftentimes it wanders to music and I find myself making up melodies in my head and just imagining the sounds all the instruments. My wife says my gaze wanders all over the place and I get absolutely silent, and don’t acknowledge her at all no matter what she says to me and no matter how loud she calls my name. When I do this I think I can still see but I don’t really notice or recognize anything I’m looking at. I am imagining the music.

    The music, as I imagine it, is kind of like a music visualizer, but each instrument affects a different shape that is overlaid over it. Each note is a primary or secondary color. Harmonies have primary color but mix with the second note and where the two meet there is a secondary or tertiary color.

    My mind wanders to other subjects at least half the time, though no other subject takes up 50% like music does.

    • Wow sounds like you have a powerful imagination!

      Great description of visualizing music – I do something similar with words. You might like to check out my piece on Creative Synaesthesia.

    • I’m no musician, but I see not only ‘hues’ but also feel different ‘texture’ ‘weight’ and ‘temperature’ in sounds. For instance, the contrabass sounds wonderfully woody, warm and heavy (impact-ful) whereas the triangle sparkles with a touch of ice and the cymbal shimmers and simmers.
      So a great tune gives me not only aural visual but tactile sensation; music is invisible yet has such 3D presence, which is really exciting! Music is as powerful as poetry to me.

      Isn’t it amazing, just a wave on the air, can give us so much thrill and pleasure!
      Good luck with your great music creation and perhaps give us info on where we can find it?

  9. I whole-heartedly welcome any positive concept to logically and scientifically validate my day-dreaming and surfing the web. Yes! They are all integral part of the creative process!

    However, I wonder, could somebody one day invent a new term for ‘distraction’ in this usage, because for some reason the word ‘distraction’ makes me feel uneasy. Until a new term is invented, I might use ‘free-association’ instead.

    So I’m going to do a bit of ‘free-association’ surfing the internet now. Distracted? Moi?

    • I agree with you – it is important to be really careful about the language we use, because it frames the issue. I think “free association” is a much better term than “distraction”, and of course we all know that free association is both important, and not appropriate at all times (unlike distraction, which is never appropriate, and always a guilty indulgence). Great observation!

    • Agreed, ‘free-association’ has better (ahem) associations than ‘distraction’. ;-)

  10. One of my favorite ideas in the Cluetrain Manifesto is that hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

    They also subvert your well-intentioned ideas about “focus” or “accomplishment”. :)

    Staying overly focused and rigid and self-demanding is one quick way to kill off serendipity (even synchronicity) from your life. IT IS 10 AM I MUST BE CREATIVE NOW. That’s not me. Different strokes for different folks. I know for myself being easily distracted and daydreaming has always been the engine of my creativity. I can’t schedule that. I still have to focus for much of the time, because inspiration without execution is wasting fire by not cooking anything on it.

    • Heh. I guess it’s a sign of how far we’ve come since Cluetrain that hyperlinks are now considered hierarchy.

      Your comments on being distracted remind me of the poet Paul Farley, I interviewed him once and he said he could only write a poem when it ‘mugged’ him in the middle of doing something else…

  11. On a small note, the author’s name is Jonah Lehrer, not Jonathan. Sorry to be picky, but he is a fantastic writer, and the author of one of my favorite books: Proust Was a Neuroscientist.

    It’s a book about the psychological truths that artists (poets, painters, a chef even) grasped intuitively and expressed in their medium, and how modern neuroscience is just now beginning to validate them scientifically. Fascinating.

    Worth checking out ;)

    • D’oh! Thanks for picking that up. I’ve actually got his book, looks really good from the bits I’ve dipped into, looking forward to reading it properly.

  12. I’m a big fan of turning off the email and phone, and turning on classical music and the timer. Great post, thanks!

  13. Rachelle Anderson says:

    Another great article, Mark! :)

    I can say that I am generally a very focused and task-oriented person, but there are times when slacking off just really feels good! Like you, I’m usually distracted (and sleepy) during the afternoon so my productivity rate really drops at this time of day. But the good thing about being distracted is that it helps me recharge and refocus my attention on the task at hand. I find myself much more productive afterwards and even equipped with more creative ideas for work. The challenge though lies in how long it takes to shake off the distraction! When it lasts for hours, then that’s not a good thing anymore.

    For me, the best way to switch from distrations to focus is to know one’s limits and responsibilities. When there’s a deadline, you must prioritize that more than anything else. It’s really all about discipline. Remind yourself why you have to finish your task and then think of “distractions” as a huge reward. Tell yourself you can only slack off once the job is done. This way, you’ll always be motivated to do your work so you can finally log in to Twitter and Facebook afterwards. Haha :p

  14. Focus and distraction are 2 stages of the same process. Its shifting of attention from one thing to another in an objective and disciplined manner. Its about disciplined wandering. Creativity is about wandering in the right and desired direction. If one is wandering in the wrong direction, its distraction, if its in the right direction its creativity.

  15. Any distraction that takes us towards our creatice objectives is actually focussing. And any focus that prevents us from reaching our creative goal is actually a distraction.

  16. I believe I need distractions that provoke me to wander in the direction desired by the creative solution process. how to do just this is the key to creativity or insanity…