The odds are decent that you're reading this now to briefly distract yourself from something more important that you should be doing. That's not the good kind of distraction I'm going to tell you about, but since you're already here you may as well keep reading to learn something that might be useful later. 

New research out this week finds that distractions can be helpful during certain times of anxiety. Specifically, researchers from the University of California - Riverside focused on the kind of worry that accompanies periods of anxious waiting; the kind of interminable moments that come when you're expecting results of a medical test or a job interview, for example.

The notion of distracting yourself in these situations won't come as a revelation to anyone who has made it to adulthood. It's an intuitive technique we've all tried, but it's far from foolproof. Sometimes the distraction just isn't enough to fend off the worry... or maybe it's not the right type of distraction.

The latest research, published in the journal Emotion, suggests that the key to successful distraction is to enter a state of "flow" in which an individual becomes so immersed in an activity that the rest of the world and life seems to fall away. 

"Flow requires a delicate balance," explained UCR researcher Kate Sweeny. "Flow is most readily achieved with activities that challenge the person somewhat, but not too much; have clear, achievable goals; and that provide the person with feedback about how they're doing along the way."

In other words, a distraction can't be too boring or too frustrating. 

So what kind of activity occupies the goldilocks zone, unlocking flow and ultimately, effective distraction?

There are certainly many suitable answers, but for the purpose of studying distraction, the researchers chose a timeless and universal flow-inducer: Tetris.

Study participants who played an adaptive game of Tetris during a period of anxious waiting (the adaptive version of the game adjusts the difficulty level to match a player's ability level) were more likely to achieve flow and also reported less worry and more positive emotions than those that did not feel the flow.

"The Tetris study is key because it experimentally manipulates flow and shows effects of that manipulation, which provides convincing evidence that flow actually causes well-being during waiting periods, not that it just happens to coincide with well-being," says Sweeny.

There's also plenty of reason to believe that flow is beneficial for productivity, happiness and more. That doesn't mean you should become a Tetris addict though; instead take note of all the times you reach a flow state and find ways to incorporate those activities into your life where you can, maybe including a game here and there.

Published on: Oct 30, 2018