The Redemption of Distraction

The Latin word tractus denotes the action of pulling or dragging. For a visual image, you might imagine a farm tractor pulling some machinery. Traction, originally, is to pull. Thus,

extraction, pull out
subtraction, pull under
protraction, pull forward
attraction, pull to
contraction, pull together
retraction, pull back

And, of course…

distraction, pull away

Today, the word ‘distraction’ (or, in the Latin, distractus) seems to receive endless commentary.

The formative prefix dis refers to ‘away’ or ‘apart’, as in

distribute, give away
discard, card away
distil, drops away

There is a linguistic lesson here. The dis prefix is not always privative or undesirable. Granted, words like ‘discontent’, ‘disempower’, and ‘disown’ carry strong negative connotations. However, it’s important to note that dis as the opposite of something (as in ‘dislike’) does not always mean dis in the sense of ‘away’ or ‘apart’, as in the word ‘distribution’.

Etymologically, there is no particular reason why ‘distraction’ is a negative word.

It becomes a negative word for us when we realize the object or activity to which we are being ‘pulled away’ is less valuable than the important ‘traction’ that warrants our attention. However, let us not blame ‘distraction’ for our woes, as if it were an evil spirit dangling shiny objects in our peripheral vision.

Distraction itself is value-neutral. For centuries it has even been used as a tool to enhance concentration. Consider how a monk uses the faint, interval ringing of a bell or chime to ‘pull away’ their thoughts from the world in order to refocus their meditation. Similarly, today we consider alarms and event reminders positive distractions precisely because they pull us away from another activity.

It would be foolish to decry all distraction as if they themselves were the root of our intermittent concentration. Indeed, the issue is not that we allow too many dings, bells, and whistles to superficially interrupt our day, but that we do not adequately leverage distraction, like the chimes of the monastic, to pull us back to the effort of focussed labour. The only value (positive or negative) of an interruption is relative to the value of the present activity. Seen from this perspective, distractions are vital tools for focus and concentration: they pull us away from other interruptions.

Perhaps we ought to get over our cultish demonization of distractions so that we can effectively utilize them. Perhaps we would benefit from instituting better distractions — not necessarily less of them. Perhaps the spreadsheet, artwork, or document before us needs its own interval or chime. Perhaps eliminating so-called ‘negative’ distractions is only half the story: a monastery is designed to eliminate interruptions, and yet sights, sounds, and smells are still employed to ‘pull away’ one’s focus from intruding, wandering thoughts. Such a place does not provide the absence of distraction, it utilizes distraction. Intentional distractions ‘pull away’ our thoughts from useless tangents, in order to ‘contract’ our focus back where we want it.

What are you working on today? A lesson plan? A proposal? An artistic installation? An assignment? If other distractions compete for your attention, give your project or undertaking its own distraction — perhaps an interval chime or a subtle, recurring alarm. If you are focussed on your project, the distraction will be a reinforcing, congratulatory reward for remaining on task. If your mind has wandered, the distraction will pull you away from the excursion. Either way, distraction becomes a wonderful, and welcomed, interruption.

[A version of this article was recently published in the Caesura Letters. Visit caesuraletters.com/subscriptions to subscribe in email, ebook, or paperback formats.]