The Benefits of a Distracted Mind

Focusing is healthy — and good for your psyche. It gives your mind a rest from constant chatter. It’s also good for your body since it supports slow, deep breathing and relaxation. Your brain can concentrate its energy on the object of your attention. Whether it’s a game of bridge, writing in a diary, or sketching a flower, focus gives you a momentary time out from the busy world of multi-tasking.

It turns out that suspending your focus also has benefits. It can help you to become a more creative problem solver. Recent research on distractibility suggests just that. A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, found that “there are things that people learn faster and remember better when they are not exercising careful control over what they’re doing.” Ironically this is characteristic of both older adults and children—and it’s called play.

Children are masters of play. They focus where their attention takes them and only for brief periods. What if we took a lesson from them? What if you took a playful approach to things while traveling? Suppose you decided to take the whole experience less seriously? Maybe flitter from thing to thing without much thought or conscious planning? Wander about to see what attracts you rather than follow an itinerary?

Can you enjoy the mindset of a two-year-old who has a two-minute attention span? It would mean letting go of your observing ego, that part of your mind that monitors and critiques your behavior. You might try to suspend the rules, other than good judgment, and go where your instinct and physical senses take you — like following the smells your nose takes in, or a curious sound, or the texture of fuzzy leafed plant. Maybe track something that you spotted out of the corner of your eye — a color, a movement, a spoken word or an interesting object.

Not comfortable in throwing all plans and cautions to the wind? It might feel more comfortable to set aside an hour or two to experiment with this idea instead. Be distracted but not rude — inform any travel partners about this exercise in advance. Choose to do it alone or with a playmate.

At the University of Pennsylvania, according to the Wall Street Journal, psychological research by Dr. Sharon Thompson-Schill showed that “when people exert less cognitive control, they become better at generating ideas.” That’s the benefit of letting your mind wander — it stimulates your creative juices.

How might you apply this idea on your journey? Take same time and enliven it with a toddler’s curiosity. Come back to this blog when you’ve given it a shot. What did you learn? How did it improve or interfere with your day? Did you notice any new connections between distracted behavior and novel thoughts, ideas, or problem solving strategies?

On a recent trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico I took an early morning walk on the beach leaving my companions to their sleep. Strolling along the water’s edge and feeling the waves wash over my feet I noticed some shells, not especially remarkable but I picked them up anyway and continued meandering. Then I saw the remnants of a sand castle that had barely made it to the morning intact. Sitting down next to it, I first arranged my shells and then dug patterns with their scalloped edges.

Suddenly an hour had passed and I looked up from my design which had become quite intricate. None of this was planned but all of it was original and creative, at least in my mind. I was as proud of my handiwork as any five-year-old. I also came away with some ideas about how to structure some writing that had me stuck — my mind was at work all along even though I was distracted.

Blog excerpted from Toder’s forthcoming book: The Inward Traveler. Photo: courtesy of Kalen Emsley.

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