Focusing on Distractions

Why we care about NBC's 11:35 timeslot

During a week in which there were plenty of newsworthy stories floating around, I spent the majority of my news-reading time emotionally invested in a fight among millionaires. I don’t tend to get overly wrapped up in the lives of famous people, but for reasons that are difficult to articulate, I’m apparently completely entranced by the sight of a bunch of rich people fighting over exactly what time they should be paid millions of dollars to tell jokes on TV.

And I’m not the only one.

Conan O’Brien’s ratings have been way up this week and last in the wake of the announcement of his refusal to move his show to 12:05 AM. On its face, a tussle between a late night funnyman and a multi-billion dollar television network should probably rank pretty low on our shared list of concerns, but occasionally our collective attention seems to zero in on the random and inconsequential.

Full disclosure: I’m personally sick of making shaky connections between everything and the recession, so I’m just not going to write another recession column. So … recession aside, a lot of heavy stuff has been clogging the news pipes lately, from the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti to more domestic concerns like the run and ultimate election of Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate and what that will mean for the future of healthcare legislation. It hasn’t escaped my attention that Haiti was demolished on the same day that O’Brien released his statement to the “People of Earth.” And while Americans are donating to the relief effort in Haiti at a near-record pace, we’re also organizing rallies across the country in defense of O’Brien.

This level of attention is clearly ridiculous. And I’m all for it. I’m not saying we all need to run out and buy yearly subscriptions to Us Weekly, but a little selective catharsis by way of celebrity obsession—or other non sequitur distraction—can sometimes keep our attention diverted from the kinds of things that stress us out and make us crazy.

Fortune Magazine declared yesterday that SAS, the world's largest software company, was "the best company to work for." The reason, in part, is that the software giant has a multi-million dollar campus and provides employees with activities in which to get involved: wii-bowling, cooking classes, intramural basketball... you get the idea. And while these perks may seem trivial, Fortune reports that SAS yeilded a 2% turnover rate last year in an industry where the average hovers around 22%. And while the average SAS employee clocks about 35 hours per week, I can only assume they spend less time than that in the company-provided aerobics class—which leads me to believe that a little indulgence or distraction goes a long way.

But for most American workers, there are no company provided basket-weaving classes to consume our excess energy and focus, so we're left to create our own distractions. I know that after I take my daily snarky-blog-reading break and get worked up over something trivial, I return to my work more focused and with a clearer and calmer head. Maybe when we’re too emotionally invested in stuff that doesn’t matter, it gives us the space to be composed and reasonable about the stuff that does.

I'm with Coco.

What kinds of distractions get you through the day? Does your workplace provide any "perks" to keep employees happy? Let me know: