Displacement Activities: How We Use Them to Maintain Confidence and How to Use Them for Problem Solving

Displacement activities are things we choose to do instead of doing the things we are supposed to be doing. Many of us have at sometime succumbed to the lure of de-scaling the kettle over the call of a pressing deadline. When I was writing Don’t Wait For Your Ship to Come in Swim Out to Meet It  I was struggling with one chapter and woke up one morning with the bright idea that the bathroom needed redecorating. Of course I justified it because of the water connection: bathrooms and ships are quite similar, and I did use a bit of blue paint to create a nautical theme. In this post, we’ll look at the reasons for choosing displacement activities as well as how they can actually be useful in problem solving.

We engage in displacement activity when tasks seem overwhelming, boring, or when we resent having to do them at all (negative attitude). Sometimes we do them when we feel stuck, figuring that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. Sometimes we’ll defend ourselves by arguing that what we are doing is essential to the main task.

Feeling overwhelmed, so doing something else instead

Overwhelming tasks and goals affect our confidence. When things seem too daunting the temptation is to do something else instead. Self-efficacy is the sense of how effectively we operate in the world. Choosing a simpler more manageable task helps maintain our sense that we can get things done, even though these tasks may have nothing to do with our main goals. The cornerstone of goal-setting is to break big goals down into smaller manageable chunks.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

Over the years of working with students, the ‘study timetable’ seems like essential preparation but often becomes a displacement activity. I’ve seen study time tables so beautifully illustrated it would put the illuminations of medieval monks to shame with the intricacy and sophistication of the designs. The timetables are often laminated although I have no idea why they need to be splash proof! Yes it’s important to prepare but it should not displace the main goal.

To prepare effectively for a task we first need to know what the task entails and what we are going to need to complete it. A good metaphor for goal setting is a recipe (or a scientific experiment). We need to clearly state what ingredients we need and the step-by-step procedure to get an end result.

How attitudes can move us forward or hold us back

When we judge a task to be boring, we’ll pretty much do anything else to avoid it. It’s another key theme I use in academic coaching with students. Sometimes we get a sense of overwhelm when the task ahead appears monotonous. Some students protest that studying for exams is plain boring. However, this is their choice. By finding more interesting ways to study and by incorporating all of our senses, we can take away some of the sense of overwhelm and change our attitude to the task. We process information more effectively if we approach the task with a positive attitude. After all if we have to do something then resenting it only makes it more painful. By finding a way to make a task more manageable and more interesting we can boost our sense of self efficacy.

Displacement activities and problem solving

Sometimes when trying to solve a problem we just get stuck. In this case, a bit of displacement (more accurately ‘distraction’) might actually help. Have you ever noticed when you have hit a block with a problem that the solution just seems to pop into your head when you’re doing something else? This is a recognised phenomenon in psychology. Our brains continue to work on the problem in the background. It’s known as incubation or as I call it ‘putting things in my cognitive slow cooker’. It works best when you have really tried to solve a problem as hard as you can. In essence you’ve already given it your best shot. Now admittedly my ‘decorating the bathroom’ was a bit extreme. However, I had been working on the book for more than fourteen hours a day for over a week. It got to the point where I just needed to do something else. So to get the most out of this psychological phenomenon pick something that uses a different set of skills to the main task, that is, create some variety/balance. Alternatively, just go for a walk in the park. Taking a break gives our brains a chance to absorb the information.

In Summary

When we are drawn to displacement activities at the start of a task it is the sign that we need to change our attitude, look for redeemable qualities in the task, use more of your skills and senses to make the task more interesting, break the task down into smaller milestones and just take action.

The sense of self-efficacy gained from displacement activities is just a quick fix. It deals with the negative emotions associated by the sense of overwhelm but it is by taking control of the situation that leads to lasting confidence.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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