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Why Being Distracted at Work Is a Good Thing

Debunking a persistent myth about older workers


Do you get easily distracted at work or feel less consistently focused on the job than you used to? Not to worry. It turns out distractibility may be a good, and unappreciated, phenomenon of older workers.

The Value of Being Distracted at Work

A review of over 100 studies published in the Trends in Cognitive Sciences journal concluded that distractibility — what scientists call “decreased cognitive control” — has its value. It’s actually often associated with facilitating new learning and creativity in problem solving.

And it’s an advantage most people gain as they age, which debunks the myth that older workers are less useful than younger ones. With decreased cognitive control, studies show, people learn faster and remember some things better. Younger adults, by contrast, are frequently so focused on their goals, they may be missing the kind of other information that can be picked up when older people aren’t as carefully controlling what they’re doing.

Maybe Younger Workers Could Use More Distractions

A growing complaint from business leaders about young workers is disappointment that these staffers aren’t more cognizant of what they don’t know and more inquisitive — about everything, including “Why am I doing my job the way I do it?” and “How might our company find new opportunities?” Could the younger professionals be too focused to question things like this? Are they too afraid that the act of questioning suggests they aren’t as on top of things as they should be, rather than that they’re willing to admit their limits and want to know more? Are they limiting themselves by not allowing time for mind wandering and reflection?

Boomers and Gen Xers, take note of an opportunity!

Lynn Hasher, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and lead author of the review of studies in Trends in the Cognitive Sciences, looked mostly at research on adults age 60 to 75, but also people in their 50s. Hasher observed that older adults are expert at picking up information and using it to improve performance in new situations. They amass knowledge of other people’s behaviors — who they are, what they’re doing — which helps them develop wisdom.

In some situations, it turns out, seemingly irrelevant information can turn out to be useful.

More Distractions, Better Ideas

Research by Sharon Thompson-Schill, chair of the University of Pennsylvania psychology department, has revealed that people also become better at generating ideas when they exert less cognitive control. They are better at thinking up novel uses for commonplace objects.

This might be explained by older people’s accumulation of knowledge, experience and maturity —wisdom — percolating on a parallel track while distracted by something else unintentionally.

How Older Workers Can Put Distractibility to Use

So how can boomers and Gen Xers put distractibility to good use at work? Here are a few possibilities:

Older workers could make themselves valuable on product and service development teams. As they age, they may discover new needs that their generational peers or children have and then develop solutions to make life easier, reinventing new “lives” for existing products or brands. This could open markets at a lower cost than developing entirely new products.

People who are adept at picking up on others’ behaviors could help to identify their motivations and be prepared with possible solutions in advance of conflicts. They are likely to be able to facilitate ways to reduce workplace stress and tensions.

Companies could enable older generations to work on side projects (the way Google workers famously can) that re-energize them and also benefit their organizations’ innovation goals. Bonus: allowing this will let firms retain the loyalty of workers who have decades of experience, knowledge and relationships the employers won’t want to lose.

Work teams would benefit from creative thinking resulting from the combination of younger staffers who are adept at cutting-edge technology and older ones who can convey lessons learned from past experiences. This could be a too-rarely realized productive opportunity for cross-generational conversation and collaboration.

As more automation infiltrates the workplace, the kinds of critical thinking and creative problem solving that the studies cited will still be needed. Who knows? We could see some remarkable outcomes from older workers with the reflection habit and sharp, but wandering, minds.

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 2017

Phyllis Weiss Haserot
By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
Phyllis Weiss Haserot, a passionate champion of cross-generational conversation and President of Practice Development Counsel, helps organizations and individuals solve inter-generational challenges among work colleagues and with clients to achieve enviable productivity, knowledge transfer, engagement, retention, succession planning and business development results. Reach her at [email protected] and www.pdcounsel.com.@phylliswhaserot

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