The Value of Distractions

Last Updated Oct 2, 2008 12:05 PM EDT

  • One way to distract yourself at work.The Find: Empirical research has found that it's sometimes counter-productive for managers to insist their teams keep their noses to the grindstone: distractions can help solve the most difficult problems.
  • The Source: New research led by Kellogg School of Management Professor Adam Galinsky published in the September issue of Psychological Science.
The Takeaway: Everyone's had the experience of beating their brains for a solution to a problem only to take a break and find the answer almost immediately upon their return. How can you promote more of these eureka! moments? Recent research suggests distracting yourself could be the key for some -- but not all -- problems.

The researchers gave 94 test subjects a psychological test known as a remote-association test (delightfully dubbed: RAT), which tests creativity. In it, participants are shown three words and are asked to come up with a fourth word that links all three. For example, if the words are cheese, sky and ocean, the correct answer is blue (blue cheese, blue sky, blue ocean). Some were then made to focus continually on the test while others were distracted with another task. All were then asked to solve the problems. The researchers conducted the test twice: once with quite difficult problems, once with easy ones.

Those who were distracted so only their unconscious minds could ruminate on the answers performed significantly better at solving the hard problems, but no better at getting the easier ones more quickly or more accurately. What's the takeaway? If you're facing a doozy of a problem don't hesitate to take a break (and those contemplating an office redesign after yesterday's post might want to pencil in plenty of space to distract workers) but if it's merely an annoying, but relatively routine issue you're dealing with, keep your head down and your eyes on the task at hand.

The Question: How tolerant are you or your team's distractions?

(Image of desk distraction by happyeclair, CC 2.0)

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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.