Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Overcoming Distractions by Confronting Them

by Andre · 5 Comments

A pink elephant is any claim on attention that’s ignored instead of addressed. Try not thinking of pink elephants, and you’ll find that it’s virtually impossible for a simple reason: you have to think of them in order to process the instruction. The more you ignoring something, the more attention it occupies, or as the old saying goes, “What you resist, you’re stuck with.” The key to overcoming distractions is to face them, not ignore them.

Pink elephants come in all shapes and sizes. They can be animal, vegetable, mineral or existential. In daily life, they take the form of things like:

  • Chewing gingerly to avoid going to the dentist
  • “Shoulds” like, “I should look into setting up an IRA” or “I should wake up now”
  • Leaving non-current paperwork on a desk without tossing or filing it
  • Looking at an email and thinking, “Hmmm” — then moving on to the next one
  • Staying with a tolerably uninteresting career to avoid changing to a more passionate one

They can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, but the effect is the same: censorship attracts attention.

Trading one distraction for another

Ignoring pink elephants has two side effects. First, we go numb to our environment. We can’t desensitize ourselves to things selectively. Input is input, and once the habit of ignoring input gains traction, it generalizes. All “paperwork” becomes an annoyance, and the content of what’s in the paperwork becomes irrelevant. Junk mail that could tossed instantly sits around for hours or days, and begins to have as much psychic weight as the contract underneath it.

The second side effect is more insidious. We can’t unthink a thought, but we can preempt it by preoccupying ourselves with another one. Why else would it take 10 minutes to agree on where to go for lunch? A crutch activity will take exactly as long as the time we need to avoid thinking about something that matters. It’s a simple matter of trading one distraction for another.

Not all distractions are crutch activities. On the contrary, if something is on you mind, but you haven’t defined what it is and what you’re going to do about it, it’s a distraction. Estate planning that “should” be done but never seems to be urgent is a distraction. That funny sound your car makes that may or may not warrant a trip to the mechanic is a distraction.

A single throughput

It’s more efficient to think about something once than to not-think about it multiple times. Developing the habit of single-handling takes discipline, but once it’s ingrained you’ll have a reference point for executing tasks with a minimum of effort. “Handling” in this context can mean either doing the next action or defining the next action. If it takes more than two minutes (or longer if you’re not otherwise engaged), write it down.

If something is likely to claim your attention in the future, capture it now rather than hoping it will resurface if it’s important. It probably will resurface, but not at the appropriate time and place. You don’t want to keep not-thinking about picking up the birthday cake after work when you’re at work. You’ll have less focus available for work, and your attempts to ignore the unwritten reminders will be successful — when you’re driving home.

Affirming negation

There’s a subtle but critical difference between not deciding to do something and deciding not to do something. Looking at a piece of junk mail on your desk repeatedly and ignoring it constantly requires a small amount of background processing — your brain knows that sooner or later, you’re going to have to throw it out. You have not decided to read it, so the next action isn’t implicit. On the other hand, if you’ve explicitly decided not to read it, you’ll immediately throw it out.

The distraction of one open loop as trivial as junk mail is small, but as open loops multiply, the background noise increases. From a cognitive standpoint, ignoring 10 small things can be more distracting that ignoring one big thing. To keep mental static to a minimum, collect all distractions, however big or small, and process them into an external system you trust.

Another strategy for making decisions is to defer them. You proactively decide now to decide later. Maybe you need a key piece of information that won’t be available until next week, or maybe you’re just to busy putting out a fire to think about everything that needs to be taken into consideration. Instead of simply ignoring the issue, proactively narrow down the time or information necessary to make the decision.

If the decision depends on an external outcome, write down a reminder on your calendar for the date of that outcome (or use your Waiting For list). If you’re too overwhelmed at the moment to focus on a complex decision, replace the usual knee-jerk “I’ll think about it later” with the question, “When will I have time to think about this?” — and answer then question with a scheduled action like “Mind map estate planning” or “Call law firm.” By turning each problem into a physical action, you’ll always be able to follow the bouncing ball, or at least know that it’s in motion.

(Photo credit: Ioan Sameli)

Technorati Tags: , ,

Tags: Productivity


  • Vered - MomGrindNo Gravatar // Nov 17, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    I hate “great post” comments with passion, but this IS a brilliant article. I freely admit that sometimes I have trouble following your writing, but not in this case.

    Since the only time I have problem with getting things done is when it’s a complex matter, the example that I liked the most is that of estate planning. Yes, it’s complex, which is exactly why the best thing to do – instead of trying to ignore it – is to break it down and start with that first call to an attorney, or with that first call to a friend that can recommend an attorney, or whatever it is that gets you going.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. It made things clearer.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Nov 19, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    I often have trouble following my own writing. Blogging can easily slip into becoming an inner monologue for me, which is something I need to guard against.

  • RickyNo Gravatar // Mar 3, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    I also thought this article hit close to home. In fact when my family would gather for a ‘family conferance’, and I’m not sure where the idea came from, I often thought there was a giant pink elephant sitting the corner of the room. Then again, maybe that was something I should aveh told my therapist.

  • Best Tweets for Trauma Survivors (week ending 05/14/10) « Third of a Lifetime // May 14, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    [...] The Pink Elephant Effect: Magnifying Distractions by Ignoring Them (via [...]

  • Am I the Only One Who Thinks Like This? « The Anonymous Production Assistant’s Blog // Jun 24, 2010 at 8:41 am

    [...] wouldn’t have occurred to me to do so.  She might as well have told me to not think about a pink elephant. Holy shit, Disney movies used to be [...]