[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
As a child I was confused by a story about a kid torturing himself by trying not to think about orange penguins. The intended moral was that it’s impossible to not think about something. But I never understood why you wouldn’t want to think about orange penguins. They seemed fun!
Since then life has brought me endless examples of “things I don’t want to think about,” and now I’m no longer confused. In fact, I really get it. And I’m sure you do too. The list of things I’d prefer not to think about gets longer every day.
What’s extra frustrating is that even mentioning the concept of “not thinking about things” immediately gets my brain firing about whatever I’m trying to avoid. Suddenly the events I’m trying to suppress or ignore come rushing back in a disappointing flurry of negativity.
This makes me try harder: I mustn’t think about The Thing. But the only way to actively avoid anything is to remember to avoid it! Which means it’s in your mind in the first place! It turns out that not thinking about things is just thinking about them—in disguise!
AAAAAHHHHHH! Orange penguins are everywhere! I’m the kid in the comic now!
The only way to distract ourselves is to ACTUALLY distract ourselves. Negative avoidance can never be enough—we need a positive choice of something else.
In other words, I can’t “not think about orange penguins,” but I can read a fantastic book about grey elephants… and, once I become absorbed, hours will pass where I forget I’m even trying to forget about orange penguins at all.
I don’t want to be the dog from Up
I’m very distractible. And I’ve often been tempted to view my distractibility as a negative, as if there’s something wrong with me. Usually this is because I’m trying to focus on a specific project, so distraction simply means not working on that one thing.
But there are other ways to look at it. After all, if your aim is a varied, interesting life then distractibility is necessary. It’s part of the magnetism which draws us away from where we are and towards somewhere new.
Then there are times when we need to escape. This could be because we need to recharge, or because we’re waiting for news, or because something terrible is happening and there’s nothing we can do about it. At times like these, being able to distract ourselves with—or better, to absorb ourselves in—something positive, interesting, or creative is a superpower.
Just yesterday, I clicked an amateur YouTube documentary, thinking “I’ll watch this for two minutes while the kettle boils.” An hour and a half later I was hopelessly gripped by the history of beefs between players of a specific videogame in the early 2010s and I badly wanted more.
I could probably have spent today learning about what happened next. (Mercifully, I had more important things to do and I managed to motivate myself to do them. Just barely.)
Is it a positive distraction or a negative one?
But how do we know when we are being helpfully absorbed and when we’re being unhelpfully distracted? Whenever I’m confused about this, it’s usually because I’ve forgotten that there are two sides to any distraction: what we’re distracted from and we’re distracted by.
Normally I’m so focused on the from, and too busy beating myself up for my perceived lack of progress, to wonder whether this particular distraction might be beneficial.
If you’re struggling with guilt over distracting yourself, try asking this: Are you being distracted from something good, wholesome or productive by something pointless, anxiety-inducing or useless? Or is it the other way around?
In short, distraction itself is neither good nor bad. It’s the concrete distraction from x to y that we have to judge. When it’s not clear cut, I like to give myself some slack—as long as I’m enjoying it, then at least I’m getting something out of it. (And if I’m not enjoying it, then that’s a further clue that maybe I should put the distraction down and do something else.)
Things that have distracted me lately
At times, we all need a little distraction, so here are a couple which have entertained or absorbed me lately:
Marble Racing – This is the very definition of wholesome, silly entertainment. At first, I watched because I was impressed at how well made it is, and how intricate the marble constructions are. Some hours later, I had adopted favourite marbles and was cheering them on from my living room. Surprisingly addictive.
Geoguessr – Explore the Earth and figure out where you are from the clues. This isn’t even a guilty pleasure because I always feel like I learn while I’m playing!
This video of a guy who builds an entire computer using wires and simple chips; it taught me a lot about how computers work at a low level. (I’ve also enjoyed various YouTube videos of people fixing things.)
Unfortunately, thanks to that story from my childhood, I can’t distract myself without thinking about orange penguins. But it might not be too late for you. Don’t beat yourself up for your distractibility. Use it!
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.