Understanding Distraction


For most of my life, I have been asking myself the questions: why don’t I do what I know will help me get what I want? I have explored plenty of theories, from fear of success or fear of failure to imposter syndrome. There is one thing I have identified that has not only stood in the way of my success but caused me to make countless terrible decisions, and that is distraction. It turns out that what has been driving me and everyone else to distraction is also the answer to why we don’t do what we know is in our best interest. 

Freud’s pain-pleasure principle theorised that people are all motivated by one of two things: an avoidance of pain or the gaining of pleasure. Systems of reward and punishment remain with us today throughout society, and yet we see countless examples of people acting against their own best interests. People engage in activities that they know will cause pain, and they make choices they know will not lead to pleasure. I have made many such decisions in my life, but even after addressing the psychological reasons behind my erroneous beliefs and dysfunctional strategies, distractions remained part of my life. 

So why do we distract ourselves from things we want to get done? Everyone deals with some degree of procrastination, so it is not some defect that affects only a small portion of the population. We could blame this distraction on excessive external stimuli, but the latest neuroscience seems to indicate the issue is far more internal than external. The main culprit appears to be our impulse to overcome or avoid a sense of discomfort. There are many forms of discomfort, such as boredom, irritation, anxiety, worry, hunger, and stress. Even if you know you will feel better after a run, that donut will distract you from your discomfort now.  Even if you know, it will feel good to finish that project checking social media will distract you now. Even though there could be negative consequences of vandalism for a teenager, it helps overcome boredom now. 

When we procrastinate, we usually replace what we planned or wanted to do with something that distracts us now. You can think of this situation as if there were a rubber band between where you are now and the task you want to get done. The rubber band is symbolic of the tension you feel, which creates discomfort. To reduce the tension, you could move closer to your goal or disconnect yourself from the goal. The idea of giving up can bring temporary relief but so can distraction by temporarily forgetting that the goal exists. 

Discomfort seems to be a natural phenomenon meant to help us avoid stagnation and keep us growing or doing things to ensure our survival. Unfortunately, we often find ways to undermine this process with poor strategies and impulsive behaviour. As always, awareness allows change, so the first step is to identify your distractions for what they are. Once you identify the strategies you use to deal with your discomfort, you can begin replacing these behaviours. I also recommend that people learn to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. When you feel the urge to run away from how you are feeling, try sitting with the feeling for a moment. Embracing your discomfort can help you gain resilience. Understanding how your aversion to discomfort influences you can help you live a happier and more productive life.