The Column

Going Off The Rails, in a Good Way

I was deeply distracted this week and my culinary pursuits suffered.

On Wednesday I made tabbouleh, a Lebanese bulgur wheat and parsley salad, but I left out the bulgur wheat. I mean there were only 4 ingredients.

Even after making the “salad” I absent-mindedly chomped through a plate that consisted of parsley, lemon juice and a Roma tomato.

Someone not so distracted noticed though.

My husband after courteously swallowing his plate of herbs without a word, politely noted later on how he missed the bulgur wheat and hoped it might make a return.

We’ve all been there. So engrossed in something else that we’ve skipped the main ingredient entirely.


Distractions can be good; distractions can be bad.

I used to get emails in the morning notifying me what post would be arriving that day. I had to unsubscribe because most days it would be junk, but then I’d see something unexpected.

A certain source that shouldn’t be contacting me. Like The IRS (US tax collectors), which seems to enjoy contacting me in 2021.

Then I’d wait from 8 am (arrival of email) to 8 pm (when postman reaches us) fretting about what was inside that letter. Wholly distracted for an entire 12 hours.

Behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan in “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much”, shows how distractions because of worries in your life (say financial problems), take up such bandwidth that your situation continues to deteriorate in other areas.

Those suffering from scarcity become so focused on solving their immediate financial needs that they lose sight of the future making irrational blunders, like taking payday loans.

You slide down in productivity, slip up and fall behind the crowd. A vicious downhill spiral.

Mine are tiny distractions that pulled my mind away from the present. But imagine if your mind is on where you’re going to get your next meal. Whether you have a job in the morning. If you can afford a medical bill.

It’s one of the main arguments for giving a universal income; so that no one has to worry about where their next plate of food will come from. They’ll be able to thrive like everyone else who doesn’t spend their bandwidth distracted on basic survival.

Unfortunately, that’s for our governments to decide, so what can we do? 


The Good Distractions

Philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in “In Praise of Idleness” that selected distraction can, however, do wonders. These are distractions you can concoct yourself.

Like an engineer that reads a historical romance or a primary school teacher who heads to a kickboxing class.

Something entirely off your normal track can distract while you await a decision, phone call, letter, paycheck. And opportunely, distractions can ignite your creativity too.

The microwave was discovered when Percy Spencer was feeding squirrels. Archimedes was chilling in the bath and conquered the key to boat buoyancy. The periodic table was literally dreamt up.

I mean popcorn was probably born from distraction too, it’s too serendipitous.

You are chugging along on your normal track, (studying, working, doing your normal), why not shake it up and veer off to attend your debut jazz ballet class?

Like going off the rails, but in a good way.

In the best-case scenario, the distraction provides an innovative solution to a problem you’ve been tackling. In the worst, you take your mind off your worries for an afternoon.


There’s a lot of noise in 2021.

We’re all still dipped in pandemic worry. But you can always mix it up with the good distractions. Choose wisely, it doesn’t look like your cellphone.

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