Making the most of distraction

Our last post of the year is by Nick Beare, who discusses the use of distractor activities to help with problem-solving in writing.

Most of us feel that getting distracted when we work is not a good thing. A quick search on Google throws up dozens of articles on the problem of distraction. According to these articles, we could all achieve so much more if we didn’t get distracted. Of course, there’s some truth in this: I’m sure many of us have wasted hours checking Facebook to see how many friends have liked our latest post. But is that the whole story?

First, let’s take a quick look at the sort of work we do. Most of it is problem-solving of one sort or another. Here are some examples from projects I’m working on at the moment:

  • I’m struggling with combining a set of food words with past simple verbs in an episode of a cartoon about a sports fan;
  • I’m trying to make up 16 different vocabulary games to do with blank cards; and
  • I’m trying to design 16 different types of mazes.

That’s all problem-solving, and it all needs long periods of concentration – but sometimes that doesn’t work. Is there an alternative to concentration?

It was jigsaw puzzles that first set me thinking about this. When my children were young, we used to do huge jigsaw puzzles, but the children very quickly got bored with them, and I would be left doing them by myself. I would often get stuck and spend hours trying to fit pieces in with no success at all. So I would go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, get up in the morning, walk to the puzzle on the table … and suddenly I’d be finding five, ten, fifteen pieces that fit.

I could see the same thing happening when I was struggling with a unit in a textbook. I would stare at the screen for a long time, trying to come up with a brilliant solution, but eventually I would give up and go to bed. When I got up, it would be the jigsaw effect all over again. Not immediately, but bit by bit, the insoluble problems would be solved.

Obviously, if we have to go to bed and get eight hours sleep to sort out every problem, we’ll be missing deadlines all the time. Fortunately, we don’t need to have so much time away from the problem. As psychologist David Rock says in his Psychology Today article, just a few minutes can be enough. When he got stuck on a word game on his smartphone, he tried having a few minutes’ break. When he started to play the game again after the break, he says ‘words jumped off the screen that I had never seen before.’

David Creswell at Carnegie Mellon University has done some interesting experiments on this phenomenon. In his first experiment, he used three groups of students. He gave each group information about cars; their task was to work out which car was best for a family. Group 1 looked at the information, then they made an immediate decision. Group 2 looked at the information, they discussed it for two minutes, then they made a decision. Group 3 looked at the information, they did a complicated number task for two minutes, then they made a decision. The number task was a distractor, and it had nothing to do with the problem they were solving.

The worst group was Group 1: they didn’t have time to process the information. Next came Group 2: they had time to process the information, but they didn’t make very good decisions.

The group which made the best decisions was Group 3. That’s not really the answer you’d expect. Group 3 didn’t have time to consciously process the information because they were busy doing the number task, but still they made the best decisions. It’s as if their brains were still processing all the information even though they weren’t consciously thinking about it.

This needed more investigation, so David Creswell repeated the experiment with a new group of students. This time he used brain scans to see what parts of their brains were working. He found that for all the groups, when they looked at the information, the same two areas of the brain were working – let’s call them the information processing areas. (For science buffs, these are the left intermediate visual cortex and the right dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex.) For Group 2, when they discussed the information, a new area of the brain started working. For Group 3, when they did the number task, the two information processing areas continued working on solving the car problem, even though the students weren’t thinking consciously about the information. This phenomenon has been given a name: unconscious neural reactivation, or UNR. This experiment and others like it have given rise to Incubation Theory, the idea that we are better at problem-solving when we take our mind off the task and let our brain work out the solution on its own.

So, how can we make the best use of UNR? We really don’t want to follow David Creswell’s experiment and do complicated number tasks every time we get stuck. Basically, all you need is a distractor activity which is completely unrelated to the problem you’re stuck on. So, just move out of your workspace and get busy with something else – a bit of tidying up? Getting through that huge pile of ironing? Pulling up the weeds in the vegetable garden? Taking the dog for a walk? Anything that takes your mind off your work should be fine.

What about getting our brains to work while we’re asleep? There’s a clue in one of the results of David Creswell’s experiment. Some of the students in the distractor group were told that they were going back to the problem; others were not told. The students who were told performed better than the other group. That suggests we can, in some way, tell our brains to keep working on the problem. So perhaps it’s a good idea to go through all the outstanding problems in our work before we sleep – then we can more or less consciously tell our brains to work on that, please.

One very important point: when you restart your work after your break, don’t force the solutions. They’ll come when you least expect them. Perhaps you’ll be working on one part of the project, and you’ll find yourself going to another part and everything will click into place. Or perhaps nothing like that will happen. Be patient. Almost everything has a solution, and your brain will eventually come up with it, if you give it enough time.

And just to show that I do what I say, this post was written in six blocks, with five distractor activities, which included going to an exhibition and having lunch with friends.

Creswell, J. D., Bursley, J. and Satpute, A. (2013, December 1). Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(8), 863–869. Retrieved from
Rock, D. (2012, September 18). Stop trying to solve problems. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Nick Beare has been in TEFL for nearly forty years. Starting off as a teacher in Mexico, he went on to work as a teacher trainer, administrator and IT consultant in TEFL. Since 1997 he has worked as a TEFL consultant and textbook writer, mainly for Macmillan Education.

Have you found distractor activities useful? Are there any distractor activities that work particularly well for you?

The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.

9 thoughts on “Making the most of distraction

  1. Thanks for this post Nick. It makes perfect sense to me. I also follow Haruki Murakami’s approach to writing and I’ve found it works and it makes me more productive and efficient. Do you know those times when you’re ‘on a roll’ and it’s tempting to just keep going, even if that means staying up way past your bedtime or working through lunch? Well, Murakami always stops working in the middle of the roll, He does something else completely different, other work or a hobby. Then, the next day it’s really easy to pick up where he left off. It goes against your intuition but I’ve tried it and it works for me.

    1. Gasp! I can’t imagine doing that – but perhaps that’s how he manages to write in so many wildly different genres. I’m amazed that you can do it too – could this be the secret of your success? We need to get you into the top-secret Mawsig Research Laboratory for a full brain scan …

    2. I agree, Katherine. It’s great to stop in the middle of ‘a roll’ and know that the next day I’m going to be off to a great start. As soon as I’m awake, I can’t wait to get going.

  2. I really believe in letting ideas form while you’re asleep. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a great idea come to me when I’m in the shower, first thing in the morning. There’s something about that time when you’re not asleep but not fully awake yet – the stresses of the day haven’t started, and ideas are able to surface.

    1. Yes, Tania – I’m very interested in the way that ideas seem to suddenly appear out of nowhere. Just now, for example, as I was stirring my porridge and listening to the news, I suddenly realized what I needed to do with a part of the garden that wasn’t looking good. It felt rather like those slightly annoying email notifications that suddenly appear in a corner of the screen – only more useful.

      Having said that, I can’t imagine doing anything productive when I’m still half-asleep – but if it works for you, great.

  3. Really interesting post, and relevant to all different professions, I’m sure! I know the same was true for me as a student writing coursework essays. I’ve always been a fan of looking over work with ‘fresh eyes’!
    Actually, I often find I get good ideas when I’m just dropping off to sleep. It’s like once my brain relaxes, the connections can be made and things sort of ‘come together’ in a way I couldn’t get them to while I was working. I have a notepad and pen next to my bed to make sure I don’t forget any good ideas I have. Of course deciphering the notes I scribble down in the dark is another little challenge! 🙂

  4. Thanks, Clare – it’s interesting how many variations there seem to be. I’ve heard of this idea of having a notepad and pen next to the bed – but, as with the other comments above, I can’t imagine it working for me.

    However, I do remember, a few months ago, waking up after a couple of hours of sleep and realizing that I’d been dreaming about one of the mazes I mentioned in my post. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember what the solution was – it was like those dreams when you wake up laughing but you can’t remember what was so funny.

  5. Great post, Nick. I’m a big one for thinking away from my desk. I have most of my best ideas either gliding up and down the swimming pool or wandering around Sainsburys! It’s great to get away from your desk frequently from a health point-of-view too, so a double benefit of not staring at the screen waiting for inspiration.

    1. Thanks, Julie – I’m obviously using the wrong supermarket! You’ve raised an interesting point about the health benefits of breaks (and the risks of not taking breaks) – I might see if I can dig up some legit experimental work looking at that.

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