Distractions improve problem solving

Have you ever given a disapproving glance at someone’s phone going off in a meeting? Or sat there thinking, ‘Phew, it’s not my phone!’?

‘Can you please turn on your phone’ was the start of Bob Bannisters seminar on ‘How We Learn’ at the Learning and Skills exhibition in January.

Why? Because the distraction of a text or email alert is beneficial to learning. The idea that distractions improve creative problem solving is known as the Incubation theory, which suggests that we are more likely to resolve a problem if we are interrupted (i.e. given an incubation period).

This whole way of thinking, to embrace distractions, is a complete U-turn to what we have been brought up to believe. People are often told to ‘concentrate harder’ or ‘not to look at their phone’ when revising or focusing on a problem. To ‘eliminate distractions’ is often a key strategy in help guides showing us how to be highly productive people. 

Why distractions?

So how do distractions improve learning? It’s because breaks allow unconscious problem-solving processes.  A study found that on average people who were distracted in a task remembered 90% more of the interrupted tasks than those they completed undisturbed. While we are carrying out everyday tasks such as looking at our phones and brushing our teeth, we are totally unaware that our brain is working on that unresolved problem and generating new ideas.

The best distractions

Putting aside a problem is a well-known idea, but there are ways in which you can maximise the potential a distraction can have on completing a task.

​​It doesn’t matter what the distraction is, it could be as simple as making a cup of tea or more challenging such as completing a Sudoku puzzle, as long as the break stops you from thinking consciously about the problem you are stuck on. Studies have shown that an incubation period (distraction) involving low cognitive skills as opposed to a very demanding task or a complete rest results in better creative problem solving.

To get the most benefit out of the disruption, the break needs to occur at the most critical moment of problem solving. So next time you are frustrated by a phone call or colleague interrupting you while critically thinking, remember that that annoying interruption may lead to you completing the task more creatively.

A study in 2012 also showed that if the person being distracted knows that they will be coming back to the task after the incubation period, they will have a better chance at resolving the problem more successfully. The motivation of returning to a task leads the unconscious mind to create more solutions.

The next time you face that mental block and just need one of those solutions that come out of the blue, embrace a distraction, don’t curse it!