Michael S. Ofsowitz
Associate Professor, Psychology



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Distractions can play a serious role in your life and, in particular, in your work in school. They can be both good and bad. A good distraction is something that takes your mind off of a painful occurrence; listening to music while getting an injection is an example, or watching a movie instead of ruminating on sad thoughts. A bad distraction is something that takes your mind off a task that needs concentration, or a task that's normally fun; thinking about a poor test grade while taking a new test is an example, or trying to hit a baseball while contemplating the position of your feet, or thinking about the pimple on your chin instead of enjoying the conversation.

It will be helpful if you can control the distractions in your life. Of course, this is easier said than done.

A lot of the situations dealing with distractions have something to do with psychological problems (from mild to severe), and I don't want to get into that. If you have anxiety problems or depression or too much stress and wish you could distract yourself from the bad thoughts, that's something for a counseling session or a self-help book. Same with insomnia and the distractions that keep you awake, or ADD and the many distractions that keep you from attending to anything that you're supposed to. To talk about those kinds of things here would be unprofessional: it's not my job. But examining distractions that play a role in school performance is a part of my job, and some of them are common among students who aren't suffering from psychological problems.

For example, students often believe that they study better when music is playing in the background. The research on this tells a different story: that music in the background is actually a distraction, and it distracts from the task that requires concentration. This happens no matter what the music. There's an exception to it, but I don't want you to think this applies to you: People who have trouble concentrating because they are too frequently distracted by things (yes, this starts to sound like ADD), can benefit from having the music as something that distracts them from other distractions. In other words, if the music quiets the interrupting voices in your head, then it helps. But take my advice: that applies to a small minority of individuals; the vast majority of us do better when there is no music on in the background, no TV, no friends talking, etc.

An interesting little tidbit related to that is that most people are actually more distracted when they listen to music than when they listen to speech. In other words, we're used to letting our minds wander when music is on. And if you think that all goes away when studying, think again. Studying with music on is not a good idea.

Another very interesting finding from research is that people can get distracted from tasks simply because of stereotypes that reflect poorly on them. If you're a member of a minority group within a culture that has negative stereotypes of that group, just knowing you belong to that group will distract you from the tasks at hand and you'll do worse on them. It's very subtle. And yet the little mental energy you spend worrying about fulfilling the stereotype (or worrying about trying not to fulfill it) is enough to reduce your performance on the task that needs your concentration. There's no simple advice to employ a solution for that, although knowing about it might help you ignore it.

Similar to that is the distraction that comes from negative beliefs about your own abilities. You might have formed beliefs about yourself like, "I'm no good at math, " or "I don't take tests well," or whatever. These are obviously self-defeating, but they are also distracting. If you're in the middle of an essay test and instead of working on the answer to a question your mind is thinking, "I don't do essay tests well," then you're distracting yourself from the task and won't do as well on it. (It's not so much the negativity here, but just the off-task thoughts; the negativity is bad enough, but the off-task thinking is what's distracting.)

Test anxiety is another common problem in school, and there are two opposing sides to the distractions involved in this. A test-anxious person tends to be (like many other anxious individuals) hypervigilant - that is, overly vigilant, on the watch for anything threatening. The person is too easily distracted by things that can interfere with the task of taking the test. The person is also distracted by their excessive worrying, although researchers distinguish distraction from worrying; indeed, it would be nice to be distracted from the worrying. (That's the other side of distractions in this issue: anxieties can be reduced if we can distract the person from thinking about whatever worries them. However, relaxation training is usually more effective.)

As you might imagine, people differ in how distracted they tend to be. People who tend toward distraction are more likely to get into car accidents, less likely to follow whatever they're reading, less likely to attend to the lecture they're sitting in during class. This is just another of the many individual differences that exist between us. Obviously, all other things being equal, school is going to be made easier if you're less distracted. But there's no switch to turn it on and off. An interesting finding from research, though, is that individual differences in distractibility don't matter much when there is a lot to attend to. We call that a "high perceptual load" condition. Lots to see and hear, for example. When that's the case, even easily distracted people pay attention.

So I've mentioned a lot of distraction problems; now are there solutions? One is just knowing about all this. You might not have known about distractions and their role in schooling, and now you know more about it. That can help. They key is to avoid the distractions. Some evidence suggests that it's better to work on avoiding distractions than to work on more intent focus. That is, there are two separate things here: you can practice avoiding distraction, or you can practice intently focusing on the task at hand. Those are not the same (one is like practicing "stop it!" while the other is like practicing louder silent reading, if that makes sense). The research suggests that you should work on trying to stop distractions. And how? Well, one thing is to avoid them: turn off the music, turn off the phone, etc. Find a quiet place if the task is studying. Another is to try what we call "thought-stopping": just yell at yourself (silently, in your head) to STOP when you catch your mind doing what it shouldn't be doing. Insomnia advice can work also: write down the things that worry you. Once they're on paper, you can stop ruminating about them because you know you wrote them down and can get back to them, or you might even write down that they aren't worth worrying about. You can also write down some "if-then" plans before you engage in the task that needs your attention; anticipate your distractions, and describe things you should do if they arise (e.g., "if I hear a sound I will not turn my head to look for it" or "if I start thinking about how much I hate _______ I'll smile instead and get back to work"). And when it works, briefly congratulate yourself as a reward.

Whatever you try, it usually takes work and time. If you're lucky, the distractions are a recent bad habit and you can "nip it in the bud" before it gets out of hand. More likely, they're a harder problem, but working on them will help, and it might even work quickly. But it won't work if you don't try.