The Bright Side of Getting Distracted

The Bright Side of Getting Distracted

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Mental Health

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

As a multipotentialite, 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.

Fortunately, multipods are blessed with this 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. Recently, Emilie asked the community to share our #BrightThings, 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!

And share the #BrightThings you’ve been distracted by with the community in the comments.

Your Turn

Do you ever give yourself permission to be distracted? What positive distractions have you experienced lately? Why not distract the rest of the community in the comments!

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a hilarious and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a novel set in the prelife. He also spends his time on humorous talks about mental health, standup comedy, physics, computer programming, and everything from music, video games, languages and pub quizzes. 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 at


  1. Maryske says:

    Great article, Neil! Right – next time I’ll be trying *not* to think about something, I’ll be thinking about orange penguins… LOL

    Hm… some of my positive distractions, eh? I’ve developed a sudden love for walking recently; just exploring the village or the nearby woods.
    Singing is an oldie, but one I happily let myself distracted by.
    Youtube – the trouble is that it’s so addictive that it’s hard to turn away (“Now this is *really* the last one… or no, just this one more… and this one looks like fun… and no, I want to see that one, too, before I quit…” etc…)
    And another oldie: reading. Especially thrillers lately – I can immerse myself in those for the whole day. I’ve recently discovered German thrillers – they’re great! (Possibly simply because I’m far more familiar with the setting than the average American one ;-)
    Cooking is another one. Always fun. And delicious. For today, I’m planning to make panna cotta. Never made it myself before, but I love it, so…
    Oh, and I’m actually kind of distracting myself by beginning a new job search. Which feels incredibly ‘good’ (like you say “a good dog”…), because my current employer wants to keep me on for next year, so I don’t *have* to look for another job. Only… as a true multipod, I really feel the need to change careers…

    And giving myself permission to be distracted: to be honest, it feels like I do so a little too often. But once I do so (too often or not), I fortunately feel no remorse throwing myself into the distraction. So I guess that’s good ;-)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      This is really good, thanks Maryske! Sorry to have infected you with the image of orange penguins that I’ve been struggling with! But I love all of these distractions. Walking is hard right now as we’re not *really* allowed during lockdown, but I’m excited to get out to the countryside once things go back to normal. And I’m very jealous of your panna cotta…

      • Maryske says:

        Well, it got postponed till today – I haven’t done it yet. If it wouldn’t get so messy, I’d like to send you a portion!

        Living in the world’s exception to lockdown, fortunately walking is not banned here… yet.

        • Neil Hughes says:

          haha that would be a messy package to receive but I like the idea!

          Walking isn’t *quite* banned here, but short-ish walks close to home are preferred so I can’t easily go on long treks through the country, sadly. Glad you’re enjoying them on our behalf in the meantime! :)

          • Maryske says:

            LOL Who ever said anything about long treks through the country? All I’m doing is exploring the woods around town here. I don’t think I get further than a few kilometres… I just came back from one actually. Next time, I’ll be thinking of you, imagining you’re walking along with me, okay? :-D Better than nothing, if you can’t have your own long treks…

  2. Kyle Bachman says:

    What a topic this is! A couple of thoughts…. knowing that you are distracted is mindful IF you use that as information. A very fine therapist taught me that it is wise to look at my distractability with curiousity rather than judgement. This led me to consider when it was arising and when it wasn’t… was I distracted at my job because it was unfulfilling? Was it telling me there is something missing? What am I doing when I am least likely to notice shiny bright objects? Certainly there is an element of this that is a function of my temperment and that can always be cause for celebration. But if I am doing what I was created, sent, came to the world to do– perhaps there is less distraction because more of the present moment is the bright and shiny thing?!

  3. Amy DeStefanis says:

    Yesterday, I was definitely feeling distracted. Enough to mention it to my husband. I do have things I’d like to be productive with – so, I struggled through making some masks for family members who are nurses. I’m not a quick sewist (sewer just doesn’t look right). BUT, I will get faster. One of my multipotentialite things about 2 years ago was learning to sew, and quilt.

    Then, I decided to go back to school and retool my software development skills (after abandoning the corporate world years ago). So, this is my second semester back at square one after 20 years in the industry and a MS in MIS – taking “modern” software development classes. (There’s nothing new under the sun – just new words for it, just FYI). To that end, I had a project and a Quiz due today. Just finished the quiz (96%, and I could make a good argument about why the quiz answer was wrong on the one I missed…. :) Am I the only person who does that?)

    One of my classes was already online, 2 were not. When I told my professors (a week before spring break) that I would not be coming physically into the classroom, one said “if that’s what you feel you need to do, that’s fine. It won’t affect your grade.” The other professor said, “Let’s wait and see what the school does about online classes after spring break.” Wrong answer. They extended spring break, and the deadline for Withdrawing from the course was DURING that extended period. So, I withdrew. The prof asked me to come back after break, but for several reasons I decided not to. I’ve learned what I was interested in from the class, and I still have access to the materials…. and I was GETTING DISTRACTED.

    I hadn’t really sewn anything since I started back to school back in August. So, ping-pong-ball that I am…. Taking just the 2 classes and (slowly) making masks…. I’m taking more naps, I’m COOKING less, and I feel a little guilty about that – I don’t know why – my husband doesn’t particularly care for my cooking! (I’m more of a foodie type – he’s bland meat and potatoes).

    And, as yet another distraction in the middle of working on a Python programming project, Im writing here. Thank you for your email. Distraction is my super power these days.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Brilliant. This is exactly the kind of positive following-of-distraction I was thinking of. I’m glad you’re channelling all of those distractions into so many positive outcomes, and I hope that process continues for you :)

  4. Sarah says:

    Good article! The concept of considering both what you are distracted from and to seems really useful.

    I’ve been working at home the past couple weeks and have been distracted frequently by my cat. I’ve only had her since the end of December, so this extended period together has been a great opportunity for me to learn her routines, likes, and dislikes.

    I’ve also been participating on a chapter a day read along of the Harry Potter series on Litsy and have been binge-watching Shameless.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      I think there are a lot of times when I only consider one side of an equation, and “what am I distracted from” is the classic example. I’m glad you found it useful to look at the other side too :)

      Aw, that’s such a lovely distraction – pets are such a joy at a time like this!

      • Maryske says:

        Yeah… I imagine isolation wouldn’t be so bad when you have a pet to keep you company. Lacking one of my own (my landlord won’t let me), I’m keeping an eye on the birds and the hares and the fox and the badger outside. (Can you tell I live at the edge of a small village? :-)

  5. Noura says:

    well as a homeshcooled teenager one of the things that distracts me the most from my studying is just tumbling down a never-ending loophole of questions I want to answer via google or youtube. but I’d never say that it’s a bad thing even though it does distract me from my schoolwork. like just the other day I found myself watching Emilie Wapnick’s ted talk and that led me to getting an account on here and reading all these great articles that I find myself relating to. And a few minutes ago I was checking my email just because I was a bit bored and that led me to this and I’m honestly having a lot of fun writing this even though its very messy.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that distraction is a gift. I believe it represents the part of the mind that is continuously wandering and trying to quench its thirst for more.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Haha, great, I’m glad you ended up here to share this Noura! Sounds like a fun series of distractions to follow. Absolutely agree that distraction can be a positive motivating force if we channel it correctly – as you say, it’s about looking for something more than we have right now. I hope you find many more great positive distractions!

  6. Lynde says:

    I keep my snipping tool handy on my Taskbar and whenever – often – get distracted part of my mind apparently has an active unseen to-do-list in its view. So I constantly get ah-ha, oh look, this would be great for…pin prick moments that stop me dead in my tracks. So instead of being diverted from my diversion, I snip a shot, label and drop in my desktop IDEA folder. Then when I get back to any project of the moment that idea folder gets quickly checked and I pull relevant fodder to that project and fueled up full steam ahead.

  7. Katie says:

    Ok so it’s all good that an hour and a half just went by as I watched Marbula One racing and played the free version of GeoGuessr, right? I’m like THEE master at Googling and kicked some GeoGuessing A$$! Trying to figure out places in China? Pro-Tip find a phone number on the side of a bus! Ok back to work I guess :\

    • Neil Hughes says:

      haha, yes it’s brilliant that you did that! they’re both super addictive and also feel quite soul-nourishing (to me, at least!)

      I’m so glad you had fun! Ooh and I also recommend watching some of the expert Geoguessr players on youtube if you really get into it… it’s incredible to see how good it’s possible to get, without using google and even with strict time limits or even not letting yourself move around! I found it really inspiring to watch :)

  8. Danii says:

    This is a great article! I’m really interested to try the Geoguessr…that sounds fun.

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