I've found, counter-intuitively, that I get my best thinking and writing done when I'm in an environment which distracts me. Bizarrely, I find I focus better, when I'm also distracted.
Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist David Creswell can shed some light on this topic. In his recent research, Creswell explores what happens in the brain when people tackle problems that are too big for the conscious mind to solve.
The decision paradigm Creswell set up involved choosing an imaginary car to purchase based on multiple wants and needs. Each car was described by 12 attributes (a leather interior, for instance, or poor gas mileage). Each group of participants was presented with four options, one of which has twice as many positive as negative attributes. Test subjects had to sift through the choices; those selecting the "good" car were defined as making better decisions.
One group had to make a choice immediately. These people didn't do very well at optimizing their decision. A second group had time to try to consciously solve the problem. Their choices weren't much better. A third group were told the problem, then given a distracter task to do first — something that lightly held their conscious attention but allowed their non-conscious to do more work. This group did significantly better than either of the other groups at selecting the optimum car for their overall needs.
To put it plainly, people who were distracted did better on a complex problem-solving task than people who put in conscious effort. That's because stepping away from a problem and then coming back to it gives you a fresh perspective. The surprising part is how fast this effect kicked in — the third group only had two minutes of distraction time for their non-conscious to kick in. This wasn't the "sleep on it" effect, or about quieting the mind. It was something much more accessible to all of us every day, in many small ways.