From comic books and radio programs to TV shows and Atari games, the world has always been full of things that distract us. Today, most of us blame our phones or, more specifically, social media, Words with Friends, or Netflix as the reason we can’t get anything done.
Yet these aren’t the real culprits. Instead, our distraction is usually driven by our desire to escape discomfort, including boredom, fear, and anxiety. When you binge on The Office rather than doing your taxes, watching Michael, Pam, and Dwight is your (understandable) way of avoiding an activity you deem to be a tedious task. The secret to staying focused at times like these is not to abstain from The Office — you’ll just find another distraction — but to change your perspective on the task itself.
Ian Bogost studies fun for a living. A professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Bogost has written 10 books, including quirky titles like ‘How to Talk About Videogames, The Geek’s Chihuahua,’ and, most recently, Play Anything. In the latter book, Bogost makes several bold claims that challenge how we think about fun and play. “Fun,” he writes, “turns out to be fun even if it doesn’t involve much (or any) enjoyment.”
Huh? Doesn’t fun have to feel good? Not necessarily, Bogost says. By relinquishing our notions about what fun should feel like, we open ourselves up to seeing our daily activities in a new way. Play can be part of any difficult task, he believes, and though play doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasurable, it can free us from discomfort — which, let’s not forget, is the central ingredient driving distraction.
Given what we know about our propensity for distraction when we’re uncomfortable, reimagining difficult work as fun could prove incredibly empowering. Imagine how powerful you’d feel if you were able to transform the hard, focused work you have to do into something that felt like play.
Is that even possible? Bogost thinks it is, but probably not in the way you think.