The art of distraction.

And the importance of looking at stupid cat videos.

“Looking at stupid cat videos is my fucking job!”

A very talented and very funny writer who I used to sit behind once said this out of exasperation to a suit who’d come over to complain about some work not being done yet and must have noticed him watching something dumb on YouTube. And given there was a deadline to meet, perhaps thought him guilty of the serious crime of briefly enjoying himself.

There’s always a deadline though, isn’t there? There’s always something due, something ‘urgent’, something ‘high priority’. Such is the workflow management, or lack thereof, in a modern agency.

I know what it’s like to have the attention span of a concussed goldfish. My brain bounces around like a deranged pinball, it’s both a blessing and a curse, but in this job it’s mostly a blessing if you can use it right.

Because distraction isn’t an enemy of the creative process. It’s a vital part of it. Especially in the business we’re in.

In the research phase, I’ll read a bunch of stuff, and then stop. Jump on twitter. Watch a stupid video. Look at some memes. Talk shit with someone in the agency. Then go back and repeat this process on and off. And what some might label as ‘procrastination’ or ‘fucking around’ is basically me letting my subconscious work away before re-applying focus.

Same goes with thinking, or writing. I’ll work, work, work, then go do something else. Then come back. Then get distracted. Then come back. For a while I thought something was majorly wrong with me and I was ‘wasting time’, but the work ended up speaking for itself. It’s just how my brain is.

Distraction can act as a palate cleanser for the mind. Allowing you to come back to something with a fresh perspective.

If you’re a gamer, how many times have you sat there for an hour grinding away getting your ass handed to you by a boss. And then you rage quit. Then later on, open the game up again and smash the same challenge first go? Happens all the time. The subconscious mind is a mysterious thing. It’s working things out while you aren’t even aware.

Of course, I’m not saying that we should be constantly doomscrolling in the face of a deadline, but there’s a symbiotic relationship between focus and distraction in the creative process. You cannot use brute force to conjure ideas, you have to invite them in. And sometimes that requires creating enough space in your head for that to happen.

The other reason I think a certain level of distraction is healthy, is because we’re at war for people’s attention. We’re competing with TV, music, streaming, gaming, driving, walking, just about EVERYTHING. People do not seek out our work, it must steal their attention from wherever it was being directed. And it must be worth it. Otherwise we’re just pissing them off.

I keep notepads around the house. Next to the bed, in the kitchen, in the bathroom (I come up with a lot of ideas in the bath, funnily enough). Sometimes, no matter how long I sit there staring at a MacBook screen, the idea only comes once I wander off and start doing something else. And I think we should tune into that. If a great idea comes while we’re doing something else, and grabs our attention, then it’s worth respecting. Because those are the ideas we should be making.

Sometimes you need to be distracted for a great idea to pull you back into the work. The same way it will pull other people away from whatever it is they were doing at the time. It’s the universe giving you a little nudge.

So, if the answer isn’t coming today, take a breath and do something else. Let your subconscious have a play, and see in what ways it tries to pull you back to the work. Something that’s done your head in for weeks might get solved in seconds.


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