The Science Of Distraction

Niccolo Pantucci · · 1 comment

In the current world of Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, e-mail, Whatsapp and other applications for staying in touch with absolutely everything and everyone, the difficulty of focusing on what YOU'RE actually doing is becoming ever greater. Or is it?

Studies are beginning to shed light on what interrupts your tasks and are offering a variety if helpful solutions.


Breaking Your Train Of Thought

It has been proven (article) that the simple action of checking your phone in the middle of completing a task will likely destroy your train of thought and double the number of mistakes you make. Multi-tasking, as good as it sounds, is far worse. The mental energy required to switch between tasks is the same energy that is used to avoid errors. So when you're working, and you flit between tasks, you're likely doing a worse job, less efficiently, than doing them one after another.

Phone + Car

Many of the studies deal with the effect of using a mobile phone on the road. If you live in the Bay Area, and a bike just doesn't cut it, then you've driven up and down the 101 or 280, and you've therefore been insanely bored. Have you reached for your cell phone? Almost certainly, yes (well done if you haven't). Although you are banned from using your phone driving in the beautiful state of California, mainly as texting is by far and away the worst activity to do when driving from a distraction point of view, even talking on a head set can cause severe and dangerous distraction.


The reality is humans don't focus on two tasks at once, we 'toggle' between different tasks according to Professor Paul Atchley that is. The "distracted state" that is created by using your cell phone while driving leads to 4 times as many accidents. Moreover with only 2.5% of the population described as 'supertaskers' by David Stayer University of Utah, we assume that most of us are not really capable of answering emails while we drive. So why don't we let Google take care of the driving, and we do the emailing!? One day soon hopefully...

Task Focus

The problem doesn't end there - if we are entirely focused on a task, then we can suffer from what is called "inattentional blindness" in the words of Daniel J Simons from Harvard. Tests showed that when given a very specific task, for example 'watch this video and count the number of times a ball is thrown and caught by a group of six people' we can get so immersed we don't even see the man in a gorilla suit on the screen where our catchers are working away.

James Reason, a British academic, created what is known as the "Swiss Cheese Model" to describe how humans deal with risk and complexity. If you are focused on the task at hand, and nothing else, there is very little chance of you getting distracted or making mistakes. However, if you start to give in to distractions, or do two things at once, the chances of error and mistakes grows; like swiss cheese, the more layers of distraction, the greater the likelihood the holes aligning/mistakes occurring.

Always Distracted?

So does that mean we are always distracted? Or have we become more distracted in contemporary society? Dr. Robert Desimone at the MIT McGovern Institute for Brain Research argues distractions have always existed even if they have changed. Our ancestors worried about being killed by leopards, and what to kill for their own dinners; we worry about Miley Ray Cyrus twerking and Kanye's sexting.


Michael Merzenich at UCSF has studied how to combat this distractedness to help people learn to focus. Building our attention spans will allow us to focus in a cluttered environment-try participating in two conversations at once and you'll understand what he's talking about.

In fact, studies show we spend one third of our entire lives daydreaming. Our mind likes to flip-flop about spinning fantasies. One of the remedies to this has proven to be stories and powerful narratives. When focused on a story we no longer daydream. In fact, what distracts us most often is not our cell phone, or our email, but our own mind.

So perhaps the effort of focus is essentially one of training our mind to see everything as a story?

No Excuse: Focus!

Well, that could be one technique-try to think of each task or project as part of a narrative, but it may prove difficult to sustain over a long period of time. Mike Mrazek and other researchers at UCSB found that we can train ourselves to focus. It's not true that you can't help it, no matter how many times you say it is. By cultivating mindfulness you will be able to work without distraction for longer.

If that wasn't enough of a reason to try and home your ability to focus, is happiness? According to Matt Killingsworth a researcher at Harvard, we should live in the moment, and not allow our mind to wander, otherwise we miss the moments that we actually enjoy.

1 comment

all those links are like little distractions

? Caden Ortmeier

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