I would like to know, why a person may have a temptation to do something unrelated (or slightly related to his current task) when doing particularly important job?

Like, when preparing for an important math test under a time pressure, to spend time on consulting grammar book on why some sentence were constructed in that particular way and what are the rules for constructing the sentences of this kind, then finding some question while studying this and switch to stydying the new question and so on. As a result spending much more time on "unrelated" things rather than on the important one?

What mechanisms lie behind this behaviour? Is there a scientific description of this phenomenon?

I'll rephrase the initial question: Why a person may have a strong subconscious temptation to distract oneself from doing very important job?

  • $\begingroup$ +1, very relevant question! I personally know that the best time to clean one's room, tidy the desk or go for a snack is precisely when the rational brain schedules an important learning activity! $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Nov 10, 2012 at 18:57
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Related: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procrastination - tl;dr most likely some sort of anxiety $\endgroup$
    – BenCole
    Commented Nov 10, 2012 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Or boredom. Two types of learners: those that like to diligently work through material given to them by their teachers; those that explode with ideas and need to follow their own creative thinking. The latter group "procrastinates" productively, in that they don't learn what they should learn, at least not now, but they learn lots of other related stuff, and in the long run learn more and better. Many successful people were great procrastinators. They worked on what later made them famous, instead of on their current jobs. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 10:56

1 Answer 1


This is a partial answer to your question.

It is something that I do frequently - often it is a case of having several tasks that must be done in varying degrees of important and urgency. What seems to happen is that the main, most urgent, task is 'deferred' whilst performing the less urgent and less important smaller tasks - effectively shrinking the 'to do' list.

A phenomena that seems to relate to what you are asking is known as 'mind-wandering', in the article "Tracking the train of thought from the laboratory into everyday life: An experience-sampling study of mind wandering across controlled and ecological contexts", (McVay et al. 2009), asserts that mind wandering is symptomatic of people being unaware of conscious activity. That mind-wandering

increasing with stress, boredom, sleepiness, or chaotic environments, and decreasing with concentration, effort, successful performance, enjoyable tasks, or happiness.

Also, according to the article "The Importance of Mind-Wandering", (Lehrer, 2011), assert that,

Activation in medial prefrontal default network regions was observed both in association with subjective self-reports of mind wandering and an independent behavioral measure (performance errors on the concurrent task).

In the article, there is a suggestion that normally opposing neural systems ('executive' and 'default') work cooperatively.

So, while it may seem as self-distraction or procrastination, it appears to happen often and is a normal function.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Your "shrinking the to do list" reminded me of the opposite practice reported by Burmeister in his book "Willpower": he told of one general who had the productivity tactic of creating a list of things to do, order them by urgency, and then delete everything but the top two items from the list and do them and only them. In this anecdote, procrastination appears as the exact negative of "getting things done", not only in results, but in its logical structure. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ @what yes, I am aware of this work - mind you, having written the above, my mindset, once focussed - has been referred to as working like a 'ballistic missile' (eg completing my PhD in 2.5 years while doing full time work). But, then I look at the list and get distracted again. $\endgroup$
    – user3554
    Commented Jul 12, 2013 at 11:23

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