Sundered Peak

through the mind of kyle tolle

The Purpose of Distraction

The smartphone: a gadget with horsepower and potential. It’s useful as an immediately-accessible notebook, a navigation aide, or instantaneous-communication enabler. Yet, I typically use its endless-distraction feature - I read articles, or skim social sites.

It’s easy to say I’m piddling away my time with meaningless distractions, especially when I flit between multiple things. But this phrase “meaningless distraction” has a weight and connotation. Is the distraction useless, meaningless, and time-wasting? Or does it serve some purpose?

Playing a game, reading an article, scrolling past photos from friends - they aren’t in and of themselves meaningless. But they aren’t something I imagine myself liking to, or needing to, do. They don’t help fulfill my goals, or make me feel productive. Yet, I do them anyway.

There are often times when I’m not sure what I want to do. I have many options, but none seem immediately appealing. This is when a distraction bridges that uncertainty gap. It’ll do until I finally make up my mind.

Playing around on the phone is an easy out. And there’s also the variable reward part of it. Occasionally, I’ll see an article that’s worthwhile and thought-provoking. If I gave that up completely, I’d miss those. In that light, it seems about balance.

Even without the variable reward, it’s nice to take a mental break. Ahh, the mental break… So is distraction a way to mentally check out for a short time? A way to recoup some mental energy, so, in a little while, I can continue on with the day?

I can think of other tasks I use to clear my mind. Like doing the dishes because it doesn’t require much thought. Or hoping in the shower because my mind is free to wander. Like lying in bed because I woke up early and don’t want to get up yet. Or watching an episode of a show on Netflix because it doesn’t require the mental focus that reading a chapter in a book would.

In some sense, if I can’t decide what to do, then it’s decided for me. I’ll opt for distraction. And that distraction must be the thing I really want to do, at that moment. Otherwise, why the hell am I doing it?

If I later do some “productive” task, what’s the harm? Perhaps the distraction helps me get a second wind. Clears my mind and helps decide what to do next.

It’s appealing to count the “productive” hours in a day, but we aren’t machines. One cannot ramp up a thousand RPMs and crank out more productive hours. Not on a continual basis, at least. Downtime and distraction can serve to recharge and refocus.

Further, I wonder if it’s better to entertain a distraction than to do some task because I feel compelled to. The distraction has the potential to give me energy to hop into something I want to do, whereas the guilt-inspired task will just drain me.

There’ll always be more I want to accomplish than I’m be able to. But I can’t let that weigh heavily on me. So long as my life isn’t constant distraction, I won’t worry much about taking small breaks.