Inspired by Distraction

Two days ago I was working from home on a user research project about small business owners' process of getting their website together (unfortunately that's as specific as I can be). As I was sipped my tea and culled through response after response, I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere interesting, wasn't unlocking the actual story. Without consciously doing so, my mind ended up wandering towards an "emotion color wheel" my mom showed me several months ago (see below). A-ha! It all suddenly made sense - a perfect way to describe these users' experiences was that they flipped back and forth between anxiety and excitement, sometimes literally using each word in the same day. Psychologically, according to this astute emotional wheel, it makes a ton of sense.


A few months back, I read a great article about our cultural addiction, literally addiction, to distraction. The writer, Tony Schwartz, opens with a very relatable story: 

One evening early this summer, I opened a book and found myself reading the same paragraph over and over, a half dozen times before concluding that it was hopeless to continue. I simply couldn't marshal the necessary focus. 

I was horrified. All my life, reading books has been a deep and consistent source of pleasure, learning and solace .Now the books I regularly purchased were piling up ever higher on my bedside table, staring at my in silent rebuke. 

He goes on to recount some startling statistics about how long the average white collar worker spends scrolling through their email, and viscerally explains how he believes his own so-called addiction has negatively affected other daily routines such as eating healthfully, exercising, or drinking too much. 

Anyway, it's a great article, it really is. And when it was first published, I connected with it so much that I read it several times and posted it for others to see. But now, several months later, I have a new take on this cultural "epidemic:" instead of fighting with our distraction, why don't we let ourselves be inspired by it?


Five years ago, I spent a semester in Mali, Africa which culminated in a month-long independent research project. I wanted to investigate how Malian's feel about and conceptualize the body and embodiment and so I chose to interview dozens of Malians about sex, death, the physical act of praying, the differences between mind, body, and soul, spirit possession, body image, and several other body-related topics.

At the beginning of my project, I tried to carefully plan out my days and weeks, scheduling 2-3 interviews a day that would not interrupt family meal times and would still allow me ample time to write up my notes. By the middle of the first week, my plans already started to become severely "side-tracked" with spontaneous afternoon drives to visit distant relatives of my host family, last minute trips to the market, unexpected weddings and funerals and other rite-of-passage ceremonies, and, to be honest, lots of lounging and casual conversation with my host family that I couldn't bring myself to leave. Plus, I swear that whenever I sat down to write at the Windows 95 computer smack in the middle of my host family's living room, it seemed like the surrounding noises - radios playing in the distance, little tiffs between my host siblings, the prayer call, pots clanking, water splashing, soccer-matches being called - ended up being amplified ten-fold.

It seems so obvious now, but a major revelation I had around week 2 or 3 was that all these "distractions" were part and parcel of my project. All these conversations I'd been having, all these outings I'd been going on, all this lounging I'd been doing, all this meal preparation I'd been helping with, all the noise, not only during that month, but during my whole stay - that was my project. That was my "data," that was what I learned and came to know. I rightfully ended up titling the paper, "Sex, Death, Spirits, and the Daily Grind: An Exploration of Daily Life in Bamako, Mali." 


One of the renowned psychologist Carl Jung's major teachings was about what he calls collective unconscious, the idea that we are born with the ability to tap into our collective knowledge both presently and of our ancestors. The website I just linked to describes it as such: 

The collective unconscious is a universal datum, that is, every human being is endowed with this psychic archetype-layer since his/her birth. One cannot acquire this strata by education or other education or other conscious effort because it is innate. 

We may also describe it as a universal library of human knowledge, or the sage in man, the very transcendental wisdom that guides mankind.

What if we allowed our minds to wander, to really wander, and to let our distractions not annoy us, but inspire us and make connections?

I'll let you know where it takes me...