On distraction

Strengths and weaknesses are context-dependent.

I often hear concentration praised. The capacity to remain unaffected by noise in our environment, stay focused on a complex task, and achieve consistent results over long periods, this is a desirable trait. Not so the tendency to switch off fast: sensitivity codes weakness and incompetence.

Yet excessive concentration can harm. Always follow the usual procedure, irrespective of changes in environmental conditions: surely, nothing bad could ever come out of that? Easily distracted people may be better at adapting – always shifting, always balanced in a fluid world.

Saturation stiffens then? Concentration kills? By the same token, excessive distraction amplifies ambient chaos. Never resist entropy, surely, no wrong could ever come out of that?

The message should not be therefore, how can we concentrate better, or how can we become better lateral thinkers? But rather, when is it appropriate to court distraction, and when is it appropriate to ward it off. Neither teachers nor managers seem to make a very good job of it, unfortunately.

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