Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Controlled distraction might not be such a good idea

I'm sure I didn't coin the term "controlled distraction"* but I don't know where I first heard it.  My own usage for the phrase is to describe the sweet zone of idea generation in brainstorming or from forced connection exercises.  The person trying to create ideas needs to be focused on the problem but not too much so.

Daniel Pink, I think in this video, described how the use of rewards limited creative thought by encouraging the participants to focus too tightly on the problem at hand.  He, and many others, have suggested ways to loosen that focus just enough.  My recent post on messy desks as conducive to creative thought fits this paradigm.  Working at a messy desk causes you to see a wide variety of objects and ideas that might encourage unexpected connections to the problem and new ways to solve it.

Nature has an article on how distracted minds might not be that smart after all. Their introduction:
If you have to make a complex decision, will you do a better job if you absorb yourself in, say, a crossword puzzle instead of ruminating about your options? The idea that unconscious thought is sometimes more powerful than conscious thought is attractive, and echoes ideas popularized by books such as writer Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Blink.But within the scientific community, ‘unconscious-thought advantage’ (UTA) has been controversial. Now Dutch psychologists have carried out the most rigorous study yet of UTA — and find no evidence for it.
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*I was just being modest. I really thought I had. And I guess it is still possible that in my usage I had, but a lot of people use the phrase in conjunction with creativity. Dang it.

Some examples:
Terry N Williams uses the phrase and also explicitly ties it to the Unconscious Thought Advantage. 
My shorthand version of a useful process is:1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options if they exist yet2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity*.3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.4. Live with it.
Ha, Two students of mine summarized a lecture I gave on the subject. The link is to one student's review.
Alcohol will not help to our creativity, and restrictions can not help to improve our creativity. Money won't, either. But, there are some ways to help our creativity. First, controlled distraction is good at creativity, and random words help us too.
Talk about incestuous amplification!

Smarter creativity says:
I started thinking that what I wanted and needed was a deck of cards, inspired by Oblique Strategies, that would instead take me away from what I was focusing on and introduce a new subject. A kind of controlled distraction. I wanted a question or a subject on something I didn’t know, that I could research as quickly or deeply as I wanted in order to cleanse my thinking palette.
B.J. Kurtz uses the phrase to describe a strategy we have in common to improve concentration. At some point in my youth I was diagnosed with something like ADD; I was (and am) unusually susceptible to distraction and play music I am well familiar with as a sort of white noise. For Kurtz:
The only way it worked is by my second commonality: the need of music. The only time I write in silence is when I’m doing this blog or when I am writing in the early morning. However, if I want to write for longer than a half hour, I need music playing in the background. I’m not sure what it is about music. In theory, it should be a distraction. But, as I’m writing, I zone out the words and listen to the melody. It helps me tap into the tone of my scenes. But, it is also a controlled distraction, cutting out the clutter of everyday and replacing it with something I want.
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After five years of writing about creativity, I feel I am only a little more knowledgeable than when I started. Controlled distraction is good. Not it isn't (here - ah, this post you're reading right now). Brainstorming is good. No, it isn't. I guess learning about nuance and limits is still learning.

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