The Delights of Distraction – Part One

Delights of Distraction — Rewards of the Digressive and Dreamy

To be with the one I love and to think of something else:
this is how I have my best ideas.
                                           — Roland Barthes

I recently enjoyed hearing Matthew Bevis talking about poetry and distraction on the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, “Poetry Off the Shelf.” His recent essay in Poetry Magazine is titled “In Search of Distraction: The Rewards of the Tangential, the Digressive, and the Dreamy.”

Who cannot quote a few lines of Wordsworth’s “The World Is Too Much with Us”?

We hear a lot about our culture’s “pandemic attention deficit disorder,” as Rebecca Solnit has called it, and about our (and especially our youth’s) constant state of distraction, first by video games and then by social media. No one, it seems, can sit still and pay attention for long. We roam the Internet, gobbling morsels here and there but go for long periods of time without the nourishment of long-form reading. Attention seems to be a universally acknowledged virtue. And it’s widely assumed that we need to do something to fix our inability to fix on anything for long.

Bevis notes the publication last year of The Distracted Mind, by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen (a psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist), which offers strategies for changing our behavior in order to function more successfully in diverse settings. But . . . hold on there. . . .

Bevis makes a case for distraction as closely tied to artistic inspiration, and that the moment in which concerted attention lapses may be the moment at which a new perception dawns. He muses: “I’m writing this sentence as a distraction from a book about poetry that I’m meant to be writing, but also with a hunch that the book may get written via the distraction, that something in the book needs to get worked out — or worked through — by my not attending to it. Or perhaps the book was really always a distraction, and wherever the non-book resides is the place I’m supposed to be.” And he recounts this delightful practice: ““I like to put things up around my bed all the time,” Diane Arbus once noted, pictures of mine that I like and other things and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.”

Bevis wants more of that funny subliminal thing. And so do I!

Often, it seems, it’s when our attention lapses and we let our imaginations lead us astray, into speculation, hypothesis, and daydream where ideas collide, merge, and morph, that we stumble upon some of our best thoughts. As Diderot wrote: “Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea.”

Bevis turns to the role of distraction in the writing of poetry and a discussion of the writing of John Ashbery in particular. This was really interesting to me because I’ve always been aware of how reading Ashbery quickly leads me down all manner of mental rabbit holes. Reading Ashbery, even when I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about, has often led to writing a poem of my own.

I’ll come back to Bevis and Ashbery in Part 2 of this post. But . . .

By chance, on the same day I was reading Bevis, I came across an article called “The 2 Hour Rule: The Genius of Einstein, Darwin, and Nietzsche Applied” by Zat Rana at medium.com. Einstein was a daydreamer, Darwin a cogitator, and Nietzsche as well. All of these brilliant thinkers spent hours and hours . . . well, thinking, imagining, letting ideas roam freely leading wherever they would. Darwin and Nietzsche both took long walks for the purpose of mulling over their thoughts and ideas and letting things come together in new ways.

Rana says that “At their core, a healthy amount of daydreaming and reflection enable memory consolidation, and they allow non-linear connections to form, which both help our ability to break down and target issues and look at them through a new lens.” While we all engage in daydream at random moments, Rana suggests that dedicating a two-hour period each week just for thinking in a semi-focused way — that is, letting the mind address some general questions without being overly directive about it. Here are a few questions that Rana reflects on, and he maintains that doing so has been the highest-return activity in his life, forcing him “to balance the short-term with the long-term.” He says, “I catch problem before they become problems, and I’ve stumbled onto efficiencies and ideas that I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.”

• Am I excited to be doing what I’m doing or am I in aimless motion?

• Are the trade-offs between work and my relationships well-balanced?

• How can I speed up the process from where I am to where I want to go?

• What big opportunities am I not pursuing that I potentially could?

• What’s a small thing that will produce a disproportionate impact?

• What could probabilistically go wrong in the next 6 months of my life?

The idea of dedicating some thinking time to address meaningful life questions really appeals to me. I never begrudge the time I spend online, even as I flit from topic to topic. (I really don’t use social media much, but do succumb to rabbit holes, following the lead on one interesting tidbit after another.) But setting aside the time for just thinking seems like a luxury and as well as a worthwhile endeavor.


Matthew Bevis is a Professor of English Literature and Fellow in English at Keble College, Oxford. He’s the author of The Art of Eloquence, Byron, Dickens, Tennyson, Joyce (2007), Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (2012), and Life Lessons from Byron (2013), among others.

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