When you have a pressing deadline, or trying to come up with new ideas or ways of doing things, you usually sit at your desk and not get up until the task is finished. We assume that if we keep our focus on the task until it is complete, what we come up with will be sufficient.
What if what you really need is to be distracted?
When we refrain from attending to an issue or problem too closely, we reach the best decisions. Conscious minds have limited capacity. We can only process so much data at one time.
The unconscious mind is superior at processing large chunks of information simultaneously. Recent studies have discovered that unconscious thinking is well equipped for creative problem solving and generating innovative ideas. I know I have had “Aha!” moments when I least expected them.
While we need time to focus to complete tasks, we tend to force ourselves to keep our heads down too much. Too much focus can hurt your performance and productivity in three main ways:
1. Focus Drains Your Energy. You will find that if you spend the whole day focused on a task or project, you feel depleted at the end of the day. We need energy to focus, therefore, we need to use our energy efficiently otherwise we are just exhausting ourselves. If you find that you are going through the day exhausted and downing one coffee after another just to stay focused and awake, you may have exhausted your brain’s capacity to focus. This will result in a reduced level of functioning.
2. Focus Means You Stop Noticing Potential Opportunities. When we are too focused on one task, it can cause us to become oblivious to other things around us. Without being able to see what is going on in your periphery, you can lose track of the bigger picture and may miss opportunities.
3. Focus Hinders Creativity. Creativity requires you to make connections by creating a pathway of ideas. Focusing solely on one idea too closely leads us to only focus on a small subset of facts. It does not leave any space for other thoughts to creep in and spark creativity.
How can we best distract ourselves that will be productive?
Leave your desk and go outdoors for a walk, cycle, jog, or swim. This approach is beneficial for two main reasons:
If you are in a position where you cannot leave the office, try doodling. Choose a project, talk (eg. a TED Talk), book, song, or even a word/phrase/idiom. Doodle what you have chosen without using any words that best conveys the message or meaning.
Scrolling through social media leads to procrastination and does not truly give your mind a break. Doodling, on the other hand, is a healthy and creative distraction. It helps you connect with your unconscious, allowing you to retain more information, improve your memory recall, and build creativity.
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