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.

__________

If you found this post useful:

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.

Links:

Advertisements

The Dangers of Social Networking: Are We Frying Our Brains? Is it 21st Century Onanism?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Social networking: Are we in danger of infantilization?

Internet social networking has now become the target for age old debate on harmful media influences. Leading neuroscientist Professor Susan Greenfield has speculated that as we spend too much time on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, we run the risk of infantalizing the mid-21st mind. However haven’t we heard similar arguments before most notably with TV and video games, right back to the chivalry books of Don Quixote?  Indeed eerily similar warnings of the dangers of on-line social networking were also made for masturbation (onanism) in the 19th century. According to Lord Baden-Powell, such ‘beastliness’ was said to destroy both health and spirits so that the practitioner becomes ‘feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum’. Is social networking becoming the onanism of the 21st century?

Too much on-line onanism?

Too much on-line onanism?

At best, Prof. Susan Greenfield’s comments are conjecture. She admits that there is no evidence to support her assertions (see Newsnight link below). So why bother then? Well, she’d just like the government to provide some funding to satisfy her hunch.  But by contrast, oh the bells, the alarm bells from Dr Aric Sigman who claims that there is ample evidence although, according to Dr Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) Sigman only bothers to look at half of it (see link below). In short, the half that would provide us with a balanced scientific perspective is missing.  It is worth pointing out that Dr Sigman’s piece does not cite any research that he carried out (although it’s difficult to tell as he did not cite the full list of authors in his reference list, so he may be in there somewhere). The paper looks to be a  literature review with his own conclusions and he concedes (in the Newsnight interview) that it is meant to be a one-sided piece intended to provoke discussion, something he appears to specialize in (see: In Bed With Mary Whitehouse). The paper is based on the assumption that Internet social networking increases isolation and loneliness which in turn leads to health problems.

As with many of these media-scare stories, the more dramatic conclusions require a leap of faith that correlational studies indicate causation. They do not.  So for instance, does Internet social networking increase isolation and loneliness or do lonely and isolated people seek out a means to make themselves less so? This could mean that on-line social networking is a positive thing. And perhaps we should for a moment consider e-learning’, providing wider educational opportunities? No, the ‘e’ doesn’t stand for evil!

Dr Sigman speaks of displacement arguing that children are sitting in front of a computer when they could be out socializing with friends. However, couldn’t the same argument be made for watching television (er, yes it has), reading and even doing homework. I know I would have rather been out playing ‘kick the can’ as a child, when I was stuck in doors reading about the printing press and how it gave ‘the great unwashed’ ideas above their station (pretty much in the same way as the Internet does today). Worries that children can be too ‘bookish’ are now largely overlooked in favour of newer ‘dangers’. And presumably, on-line social networking has displaced ‘staring aimlessly out of the window on a rainy day’ too.

Sigman has also made the claim that we can only be friends with someone if we can shake hands with them. That’s assuming that everyone has hands and  that they can shake them! He also makes questions whether we should be chatting on-line to people across the globe instead of playing with ‘real friends’. Has he forgotten ‘penpals’ at school, the practice of writing to complete strangers in different countries? It was heartily encouraged! As a social psychologist, I would have thought connecting with people from other lands was a good thing (in contrast with good old-fashioned, small-minded, back-porch xenophobia). However, some evidence suggests young people are using online social networking primarily to enhance existing friendships and interaction with ‘e-friends’ is secondary. Unfortunately Facebook only uses th category ‘friends’ for all online contacts. It doesn’t mean that each and every is viewed the same; users may make their own distinctions. Thinking about my own experience. I have over 600 contacts in my email contact list although only 20 that I use frequently. It is not a coincidence that these are the people with whom I have the greatest face-to-face contact.  In short, much of the headline-seeking, scare mongering stems from a failure to understand how the average user uses online social networking, instead indulging in worst case scenarios. I could go on but instead invite you to read Sigman’s article and with the aid of Goldacre’s response ask you to think of alternative explanations that make up the whole of the picture. And while you’re at it consider how Greenfield throws together a heap of ideas and assumptions that do not necessarily have to be connected in the same way as she does.

So are we all twittering ourselves into oblivion?

Much has been made of the ‘rewiring our brains’ hypothesis and Prof Greenfield has speculated that in middle of the 21st Century – that is in about 40 years time –  our brains will be different. This seems a little premature to say the least. Sigman would warn us about exposing young brains to novel experienes but this also includes just about everything at school. Children have an enormous capacity for integrating new experiences. Chances are the world will be a different place and yes humans will adapt. Isn’t that learning? In the long-term isn’t it evolution?

We simply do not have the evidence to assess the extent of brain changes  and it certainly won’t just be all down to how much time we spend chatting to our real or ‘virtual friends’. Life is so much more quixotic! It’s also important to recognise that new technologies impact on different people in different ways. The diffusion of any innovation is such that we have innovators, early adopters, the late majority with laggards, er . . lagging behind.   So will we have a sliding scale of brain-mush? Will the ‘slow on the uptake’ be spared?  Again, more conjecture. It’s simply not possible, nor scientific, to conclude that any changes will be for the worst  and to pretend that ‘brain infantilization’ or ‘hairy-palmed isolation’ are  foregone conclusions (or even likely) is at best bad science. It’s just another example of not letting the evidence get in the way of  a good story.

See Links: