In Psychology, attention refers to one’s ability to select and focus on relevant stimuli. Attention can be an element of concern for parents, when it comes to their children’s school performances, or for grown-up individuals, when they realize that they tend to be more distracted and unfocused than other people. When a diagnosis of a specific Attention Disorder is provided, the individual may benefit from the prescription of ad-hoc medications and/or from applying specific strategies.
However, if we consider ourselves ‘neurotypical’, we tend to underestimate how important attention is and how we can make an effective use of our focus in our everyday life. We often forget that – like any complex brain activity – attention consumes a considerable amount of mental resources, is finite, is influenced by mood and needs to be restored with time.
Often, to maximize our productivity, we may resort to ‘time management’, a series of strategies that can help direct our attention to the tasks that need to be done. However, we may discover that it is not enough to allocate time to each task in order to have things done properly. Sometimes we actually do not have the necessary focus to go through the whole list of tasks we planned so accurately. Some authors suggest that we should also look into what can be called ‘Attention Management’ (Thomas, 2019). This means that we need to understand better what attention is and how we can make a better use of this essential resource.
There are different types of attention and each of them serve different purposes. Selective Attention happens when we focus on a specific stimulus, like, when at the restaurant, we listen to our guest and ignore the background noise. Sustained Attention implies concentrating on a certain task for prolonged time. We do this whenever we watch a movie till the end. Alternate Attention is the ability of switching focus from one task to another. It happens when we listen to a lecture and we take notes at the same time.
In addition, some experts suggest that we can be in different mind dispositions or ‘modes’ in relation to how we pay attention to our environment. For example, we can be intentionally distracted – when we open our office computer and see what pops up from the various windows and applications; or we can be vaguely unfocused but ready to react – like the nonchalant security officer at the gate. We can be immersed ‘in the flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998) – like a pianist rehearsing his concert part. Or we can reach an enhanced state of mindfulness where we are fully present and in control of our focus – a doctor examining a patient, for example.
There is not much applied research about how to effectively manage attention, however, some basic strategies can be extremely helpful.
To free our work environment from distractions is a golden rule. There are external distractions (things happening around us) and internal distractions (our inner dialogue, thoughts about things happening in our life) (Goleman, 2015). It is important to learn how to keep at bay our hi-tech devices when we need heighted focus. Similarly, we can learn strategies to keep under control intrusive thoughts, ruminating habits, self-judgmental internal dialogue.
Taking breaks and breaking down tasks into smaller chunks help us get the most from our attention span and give time to our brain to recharge. Sleep restores the brain energy and maintains its functionality. Exercise has been demonstrated to improve attention performances.
We should avoid falling in the trap of multitasking. Multitasking, as we often intend it, is a myth and it is just an overuse of alternating attention. It impedes flow and sustained focus, and burns-out mental energy (Comer, 2022).
At a more advanced level, we can commit to developing our mindfulness skills. Regular mindful exercises can considerably boost our focus and our ability to be present here and now when we most need it.
Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1998). Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement With Everyday Life. Basic Books.
Comer , J. (2022) The fallacy of multitasking, Psychology Today.
Dzubak, C. (2008) Multitasking: The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown. The Online Journal of the Association for the Tutoring Profession, 1.
Goleman, D. (2015) Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York: Harper.
Rassovsky, Y. and Alfassi, T. (2019) ‘Attention improves during physical exercise in individuals with ADHD’, Frontiers in Psychology, 9. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02747.
Schumann, F. et al. (2022) ‘Restoration of attention by rest in a multitasking world: Theory, methodology, and empirical evidence’, Frontiers in Psychology, 13. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.867978.
Thomas, M.N. (2019) Attention management: How to create success and gain productivity–every day. Naperville, IL: Simple Truths, an imprint of Sourcebooks.