Let’s start by saying distractions get a bad rap. Unless you have extreme distraction tendencies, as with ADD/ADHD, distractions provide an important feature to good brain function – a short break to regain focus. Without distractions, the brain gets overstimulated and stops working properly. Scientists call this “vigilance decrement.” (source)
This diminishing capability to focus is not a brain mistake it’s a brain survival feature. We are programmed to give careful attention to new stimulus, for the simple reason that danger often comes up suddenly – like a tiger pouncing from the bush. The poor early human who became mesmerized by a pretty flower was at higher risk of getting eaten by the tiger, whereas the friend who took mental breaks to look around avoided the tiger and headed back to the cave to pass on better developed “distraction” skills to the kids.
Here’s an experiment. Stand as still as possible and stare at a single point for a full minute. You’ll start to experience your eyes turning off the image – colors will fade and shift, and you might get a glowing image creeping up behind the object you’re staring at. Meet “vigilance decrement.” Shift your eyes away and then back (a little distraction), and the image is clear again. That’s your brain telling you to look away and see if there are any tigers.
For real world application, consider what a study reported in Scientific American says about insight problems that require thinking outside the box. Their report says, “This is where susceptibility to distraction can be of benefit . . . the wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.” (source)
The trick is to pick good distractions that you can stop quickly. Taking a break to get lost in a photo of your favorite hiking place will be a better “re-set” than picking up a credit card statement. Choose wisely, and take this seriously. And maybe cut your kids or workers some slack for taking a little Social Media break during work.