[Repost] Why Distractions Are Actually Good (by Ilya Pozin)

Why Distractions Are Actually Good

written by  (shared on LinkedIn)

We all know distractions in the workplace are terrible…right? As it turns out, scientific research shows distraction might actually be good for decision making and creativity.

More broadly, the same distractions you worry are hurting your productivity might actually help you develop better leadership skills and form valuable connections with your coworkers.

Everyone has had a work day which started out humming along on track and ended up somehow off the rails. A chance encounter with a team member leads to an afternoon of troubleshooting a huge problem. When you get back to your desk, you might feel demoralized by the distraction — but the time you lost to a distraction might be offset by the valuable skills and mental rejuvenation you gain.

Here are just a few reasons workplace distractions are fruitful:

Distractions Can Make You a Better Leader

Meetings, emails, and problems to solve might seemingly take you away from the important work you think you should be doing. Being open and communicative with your coworkers, however, just might be the perfect way to develop the leadership skills you’ll need later in your career.

In a recent article on Harvard Business Review, author Douglas R. Conant referred to these human distractions as “touchpoints” throughout your business day. Instead of seeing these alterations to your work day as setting you back, look at them as opportunities to solve new problems, collaborate in new ways, and touch base with others on your team.

Your willingness and ability to lend a helping hand will make you stand out from the crowd and show off your leadership abilities in a collaborative environment. These human connections you make during moments of “distraction” can help you learn more about your company, your coworkers, and teach you how to lead effectively.

Distractions Can Make You More Creative

Have you ever noticed you get your best creative ideas in the weirdest places, like the shower or while taking a walk through the park? Sometimes, the harder we focus on trying to solve a problem, the more elusive the answer. When our brain is preoccupied with other stimuli, however, our minds are free to wander and make free associations.

This is the time when our brains can make the connections you were too focused to notice before. According to Harvard University Scientist Shelley H. Carson, distractions can force an “incubation period” where the brain continues to subconsciously work away on the problem.

This probably explains why our optimal productivity times are actually not our greatest moments for creative thinking. As our brains get tired and we get distracted, novel information has the ability to seep in and lead to your coveted “Aha!” moment.

In fact, a 2003 study of Carson’s found students with a weaker ability to filter out irrelevant stimuli and high IQs were more creative than their focused peers. Giving into distractions can work wonders to get your one-track mind off the rails and think up something truly outside-of-the-box.

Distractions Can Lead to Problem Solving

Conventional wisdom tells us distraction is a bad thing because the distracting influence, whether it be a phone call, email, or tweet, is taking our attention away from the work at hand. But what if our brain is still busy processing our original workload, even while distracted?

This is exactly what a research team from Carnegie Mellon University discovered when studying the effects of distraction on the brain. Using brain imaging, researchers found brain areas responsible for decision making were still lit up, even when the conscious mind was distracted with a more routine task. This means while you’re chatting with a coworker, answering an email, or helping troubleshoot a problem, your brain is still hard at work on the big project sitting on your desk.

This explains why after a distraction you can often return back to your workload with a renewed perspective, or why you just might stumble upon the solution to a big problem while working on something completely different. It also explains why research has found we’re more productive in vaguely distracting settings like a coffee shop. The ambient noise at your local Starbucks is just enough distraction to keep you on your toes and keep your brain working.

Distractions Can Help You Prioritize

Thanks to limited hours in the work day and limited brain power, you’ll need to learn to make decisions about what problems you expend your mental energy solving. This can help you focus on the most pressing issues, instead of letting the smaller concerns like your filling inbox or messy desk get in the way.

Few of us have time in the day to get everything crossed off our to-do lists, and distractions make this even more difficult to achieve. The silver lining, however, is that distractions help us hone our abilities to properly prioritize our tasks and take ownership over our own workflow.

Throughout the years, distractions have gotten a bum rap among workers trying to maximize productivity. Truthfully though, you need distractions to connect with coworkers, give your brain a reboot, and get creative. So don’t sigh sadly the next time a distraction keeps you from your pile of work, embrace the chance to make distractions work in your favor.

What do you think? How can you use distractions to be more effective on the job? Share in the comments!

Image courtesy of Rachel Titiriga; Flickr

About Ilya Pozin:

Founder of Open Me and Ciplex. Columnist for Inc, Forbes & LinkedIn. Gadget lover, investor, mentor, husband, father, and ’30 Under 30′ entrepreneur. Follow Ilya below to stay up-to-date with his articles and updates!