Distractions are good ways to boost efficiency

We can't pay attention to everything around us all at once so we must choose what to focus on

By Nir Eyal

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Published: Fri 9 Jun 2017, 10:23 PM

Last updated: Sat 10 Jun 2017, 12:24 AM

Not giving full attention to what we should be doing makes us miss deadlines, fail classes, and crash into other drivers. Distraction certainly has a price. Nonetheless, we love our distractions! Social media, spectator sports, movies, books, TV shows, the news, video games - what would we do without them?

Clearly, there are benefits to distractions as evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone on earth seeks them out. But why? Although they seem to pull us away from more important things, what purpose do they serve? And, when at times we seem to give in to distractions, how do we ensure they serve us well?

Our brains have a limited ability to focus. We can't pay attention to everything around us all at once so we must choose what to focus on. For example, we may choose to focus on work while struggling to resist more interesting distractions.

However, in some situations, we can leverage this biological limitation to our advantage. In her book, SuperBetter: The Power of Living Gamefully, Dr Jane McGonigal, describes how distractions can be a powerful tool for reducing the impact of painful or negative experiences.

The ability to shift our attention away from negative experiences is also helpful outside of a hospital setting. Distractions can help us cope with the pains of everyday life. Research on how distractions can be used to control our urges and impulses show that certain games, like Tetris, can help reduce cravings for fatty foods and even addictive drugs. Researchers suspect the cognitive demands of these games redirect our attention away from craving triggers, reducing the painful urge to indulge. Playing matching puzzle games like Candy Crush, Puzzle Blocks, or Interlocked might actually help us distract ourselves away from digging into that pint of ice cream in the fridge.

Distractions can also help us stay fit. Research suggests taking our minds off the pain of physical exercise, with music or television, can improve performance and endurance. Digital distractions and personal technology can help us be stronger in the moment, but McGonigal thinks they can also help us develop our ability to take on challenges in the future. Certain personal technologies can help us build up our courage, McGonigal says, and games are a particularly good way to boost our self-efficacy-our confidence in our ability to overcome problems.

Evidence to back McGonigal's claim comes from a notable experiment about how a video game helped adolescent cancer patients fight their disease, literally. The study tested whether playing a cancer-themed video game called "Re-mission" would help patients stick to their treatment plan and take their medication regularly. In this example, the game didn't fight pain directly, but built up patients' capabilities. Patients who played the game were more likely to take their medications, increase their sense of self-efficacy, and show more knowledge regarding how to fight their cancer.

In the study, one group of children was given anti-anxiety medication before surgery, another group played handheld video games, while a third control group was given no medication and no video games before surgery. The kids in the video game group were the only ones to show a decrease in anxiety before surgery. They also required less anesthesia and suffered from fewer medication side effects after surgery than children in the other two groups.

The video games proved effective, researchers believe, because they distracted the children from the pain and uncertainty of the surgery. The engaging nature of the video game helped children direct their attention away from their fear and towards the challenge of the game. Clearly, distractions can help us deal with pain and build our courage to tackle future challenges. However, don't distractions pull us away from our priorities? What about the many products and services, like video games and social media sites, designed to be so good we want to use them all the time? Sometimes we have trouble limiting their use and find ourselves sucked into distractions.

Whether personal technology distractions are a force for good, McGonigal explains, depends on why and how we use them. "Do you play to escape your real life, or do you play to make your real life better?"

Identifying why and how you engage with personal technology may be the difference between healthy and destructive behaviour. Take a look at your favourite digital distractions-social media, video games, puzzles, television shows, podcasts, news, and spectator sports-and ask yourself whether you are using them as tools to build strength, skills, knowledge, and self-efficacy for the future or for temporary escape from an uncomfortable reality. If it's the latter, you may want to reconsider the role these distractions play in your life. If the pain you're escaping is permanent, no distraction will ever heal it. You must either learn new coping strategies or fundamentally fix what is broken.-Psychology Today

Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

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