Drowning in Distraction: the Science of Pleasure and Procrastination

Youve tried the Pomodoro technique and Triskelion. You’ve arranged your to-do lists according to the Pareto Principle. And you have all the latest productivity apps on your smartphone, like Wunderlist, Any.do and HabitRPG.

But you still find yourself stopping off at the mall, perusing the latest Lego construction kits when you should be driving to the gym for your after work workout.

Sometimes it seems like you’re always on the lookout for something to distract and divert you from the tough tasks that you aren’t used to.

Why is it that you love being distracted so much?

Well, its not your fault

By: Mike Mozart

There are actually some serious scientific reasons why we’re driven to love distraction.

Bear with me a moment. There is a lot of research that can help you understand why your body reacts the way it does so that you can fight these feelings, watch them come and go, and stay on the things that will make you really happy in the long run.

As humans, we treat distractions as a little reward for doing something we don’t enjoy.

As measures for this kind of pleasure, it turns out that most animal psychology experiments use overt actions.

Things like pressing levers or jumping through hoops.

For example, if you want to see how a reward affects a rat, you put it in a box with a lever and give it food each time it presses the lever.

Sure enough, the rat will learn to press the lever once it learns that this produces food.

From this, neuroscientists have been able to show that short term pleasure and long term happiness are governed by separate circuits in the brain.

The pleasure system is based in the subcortex, that part of our brain that is most similar to other species. In fact if electrical current was applied by a researcher to this area of your brain, you’d feel a rush of pleasure.

Typically, a living human can’t do this, but we can kind of tickle these areas of the brain with drugs like cocaine or heroin. Obviously, not the course of action I recommended.

Now, pleasure and distraction aren’t always the same.

You can be distracted by something mundane and not really feel a rush of gratitude. When an addict burns out their pleasure sensors, they can feel a lot of WANT without feeling happiness.

How Desire Works

By: Ian Burt

Desire, the impulse that leads us to distraction, happens in nearby areas of the brain, in distinct, separate circuits.

These desire circuits are more widely spread around the subcortex than the pleasure circuits, and use a different chemical messenger system, one based around a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Are you with me so far?

Ok, now surprisingly, it is this desire circuit, and not the one for pleasure which seems to play a primary role in addiction. For addicts a key aspect of their condition is the way in which people, situations and paraphernalia associated with drug taking become reminders of the drug that are impossible to ignore.

The reason desire and pleasure circuits are so near each other

They normally work closely together, ensuring you want what you like.

But in addiction, the theory goes, the circuits can become uncoupled, so that you get extreme wanting without a corresponding increase in pleasure. Sure enough, addicts are notable for enjoying the thing they are addicted to less than non-addicts.

This is the opposite of most activities, where people who do the most are also the ones who enjoy it the most.

Most activities, that is, with the exception of television watching. You see the same pattern in couch potatoes as with drug addictions – people who watch the most enjoy it the least.

What’s this Got to do with Procrastination?

If you find you are putting things off that you know need doing, maybe you are doing too much of things you enjoy, and are stuck in this kind of brain circuit uncoupling. You can think of it as Distraction Burnout.

Ask yourself if you’re suffering from distraction burnout – you feel the need to be distracted, but you aren’t really feeling any pleasure when it happens. This sucks, and it’s a real sign you need to enter “distraction rehab” and rekindle your sense of focus.