At work, I consider distraction my enemy. (Let me be clear that it’s almost always my own fault.) Like a lot of people, I’m often working on projects that require long stretches of concentration. Some days I bounce all over my project list, not exactly completing any one item, but making some progress on several. On these days, I often feel like I accomplished nothing. However, not long ago an experience made me rethink how to harness distraction in my job.

On the day in question, I was hanging out in an MRI tube, listening to the banging and whirring after a doctor decided to get evidence of what’s bothering my knee. A few minutes earlier, a technician asked me what type of music I wanted piped through the headphones. Because I’m a card-carrying member of Generation X, I chose “90s Alternative.”

Alas, I am a bit claustrophobic, and I didn’t see the need to disclose this embarrassing fact because I figured it wouldn’t be an issue since the MRI was of my knee. I’m tall and I thought my head would likely be just outside the MRI tube. I was wrong. When they slid the platform into the machine with me on it, I internally pleaded, “stop stop stop” as the metal tube swallowed up my body and head. So much for that assumption.

As far as coping mechanisms go, I tend to start with “everyone does this and so can I,” which helped me through two pregnancies. In this instance, it was also useful that my teenage daughter endured several MRIs through a study at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. She describes the MRI experience as “cozy,” so I tried, but ultimately failed, to find it thus.

Focusing on my breathing helped a little, and when I didn’t have my eyes closed, I tilted my chin upwards to look at the top of the MRI tube, meanwhile listening to predictable hits by Pearl Jam, Beck, and Green Day. Mostly I focused on the whirring and banging of the MRI machine for the first 20 minutes. The time crawled.

Then, suddenly, everything stopped. An unexpected song, Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” played in the headphones. What!!? My eyes snapped open. Annoyed, I began arguing in my head about the classification of this song. Surely it was rock, not alternative. Just because a song was recorded in the early 90s doesn’t mean it’s alternative. Throughout the whole song, I continued like this. I can’t tell you what the next song was, either, because I was fully engrossed in this internal controversy against Pandora.

As it turns out, that one-sided dispute helped me through the rest of the MRI faster than any other survival skills I had up my sleeve. Before I knew it, I was out of the tube and on my way back to work.

While I wouldn’t have chosen that song to interrupt my playlist, it worked exceptionally well to focus my attention on something besides the MRI. At work, when I’m distractedly skipping around between multiple projects, I plan to try to jolt myself out of this pattern by getting entirely outside of my predictable environment. I accomplish this either through working remotely for a few hours, listening to an entirely different genre of music for an hour, or with a 20-minute timed search for new ideas for our marketing team’s content.

I have Tom Petty to thank for helping me purposefully harness distraction for good. What I thought was an unwanted interruption in a predictable pattern was, indeed, exactly what I needed.