Video: A Great Strategy To Fight Temptations? Distraction.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Today, I’m talking about the Strategy of Distraction.


Whenever I’m tempted to break a good habit (or indulge in a bad habit, two sides of the same coin), I say to myself, “I can leave my desk—in fifteen minutes.” The delay of fifteen minutes is often long enough for me to get absorbed in something else. If I distract myself sufficiently, I may forget about a craving entirely.

When we distract ourselves, we purposefully redirect our thoughts, and by doing so, we change our experience.

Of course, it’s not enough to be distracted; we must distract ourselves in the right way. Checking Pinterest isn’t a good distraction for the person who wants to break the habit of late-night online shopping; reading a mystery would work better.

Also, making a purely mental shift can be difficult, so distraction works best when it involves some physical activity: walking around the block, woodworking, or cleaning out the kitty-litter box. Of course, if it’s an enjoyable distraction, such as playing catch with a child, so much the better.

Using the Strategy of Distraction doesn’t mean trying to suppress an unwelcome thought, but rather deliberately shifting attention. When we try to squash a particular thought, we may trigger the “ironic rebound,” so that paradoxically, we think about it all the more.

Although people often assume that cravings intensify over time, research shows that with active distraction, urges—even strong urges—usually subside within about fifteen minutes.

On a different subject, in the video, I mention that readers can request free, signed, personalized bookplates to put in their books. If you’d like to email me your request, for you or for gifts, click here. U.S. and Canada only — sorry about that.

Do you use the Strategy of Distraction to help you master your habits?

  • Gillian

    These strategies of delay and distraction often work well for me. After dinner, I often crave another glass of wine or a piece of chocolate. What I do now is tell myself to have a glass of water first, then I can have the wine or chocolate in 15 or 20 minutes. As Gretchen says, by then the craving has usually diminished or disappeared. Engaging in a different physical activity before indulging a bad habit frequently gets me over the hump too.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I haven’t used it before, but you can bet that I will now! This is a great idea, and it is bound to work with me because once I get distracted by something, I generally forget all about whatever the distraction took me away from. This tip will come in very handy. Thank you!

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    I’ve noticed that many of us create (me, included) ‘household chores that must be done’ or errands or emails to our cousin in Texas, all in order to avoid doing that task in front of us when it’s daunting on a physical, emotional or mental plane. It’s well known in writers circles that staying put at the desk, as you’ve suggested, right where the task needs to be done is helpful. I know it as BIC or ‘butt in chair”. You can also think of it as ‘holding the space’ or ‘showing up’. It’s the act of saying hello to the distraction, telling it to wait for a few moments until you’re done here, and re-focusing on the task at hand. The distraction coming up is nothing to be worried about. It’s only a problem if you let yourself follow it, like a sailor follows the siren call of a mermaid!

  • Steve Malerich

    I’ve found distraction to be an excellent aid to frugal living. With a little distraction, that incredible whatever that would be wonderfully useful or pleasant to own can quickly lose its sparkle.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I should use this strategy MUCH more often, and positively. Very important to distract yourself with an action that will boost your feeling of integrity.

  • Julia

    This is like the technique of learning to knit to to help stop smoking. THEN, if you feel the craving for a cigarette, you knit a row. By the end of the row, the craving has gone.