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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

May I have your attention?

Updated: May 30, 2023

female professional multi-tasking at work

Do you consider yourself a good multi-tasker? How many things can you juggle successfully at the same time without dropping one or more?

Do you thrive at reading the headlines, packing lunches, listening to music, and talking with your spouse or roommate all at the same time? Or, would your conversation partner describe you as distracted? How much are you doing right now!?

When you lead meetings, are you ever tempted to yell, “Put the phones down!”? Does it feel like no one pays attention when others are talking?

When you are trying to finish a report, concentrate on a webinar speaker, or participate in a conference call, do you find your attention diverted by notifications of incoming emails, social media posts, or texts on your phone?

Do those pings distract you or can you ignore them? Do you turn them off when you need to concentrate? Or, do you welcome them as a relief from the boredom you feel from the task at hand?

How effective do you consider your multi-tasking skills?

Or, try this paper and pencil test from the Potential Project: (1)

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper. Time how long it takes you to carry out the two tasks that follow:

On the first line, write: I am a great multitasker

On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, as below: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

2. Now, you will attempt the same result by multi-tasking. Draw two more horizontal lines. Time how long it takes you to write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence on the line below, changing back and forth from line to line. In other words, you write the letter "I" and then the number "1" and then the letter "a" and then the number "2" and so on, until you complete both lines.

Which task took longer? How much longer?

What is multi-tasking, really?

Multi-tasking is often referred to as “switch-tasking” because we are not actually giving our attention to both tasks simultaneously, but switching our attention from one to the other.

That is why texting and driving is such a dangerous idea. When you are texting you are not paying attention to driving. You can’t. The human brain is limited in its ability to focus and pay attention.

Technology use, such as smartphones, tablets, and computers, is often blamed for our tendency toward multi-tasking and our diminishing attention spans. Younger audiences are especially likely to multi-task on multiple screens with multiple windows open.

Why do we tend to multi-task with technology? Because our brains thrive on novelty and seek out new information. (2) When an intriguing message pops up on our screens we are driven to click on it. When we do, we are rewarded with the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good.

We jump from one new thing to the other, click by click. Our brains are less inclined towards the cognitive control needed to concentrate, focus, and follow through to finish a task.

How well can you focus and pay attention?

Take this test from Psychology Today:

Did you just take that test? The desire to try something new and learn about yourself took you away from the blog to another screen.

Are attention spans growing shorter? You may have heard a human’s attention span is now only 8 seconds, one second shorter than a goldfish. Whether that claim holds up, research does show that our attention spans are impacted by multitasking.

When we switch between tasks our productivity goes down and we make more mistakes. (2) If you disagree, try the paper and pencil test above!

What are the benefits of giving others our undivided attention?

What are the benefits of eliminating distractions when doing a task? Should “multi-tasking” or “uni-tasking” be our goal?

Author Sherry Turkle, in Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, (3) describes three types of attention and describes the benefits of achieving greater attention:

  1. “Uni-tasking” is intentionally focusing on doing only one thing at a time. It is choosing to turn off notifications, put a “do-not-disturb” sign on the office door, and write the article. It is the opposite of multitasking. It is undivided attention. It allows for…

  2. Deep attention, which requires eliminating or tuning out competing distractions and maintaining focus on listening, learning, or creating. It is paying close attention to the person speaking; taking notes on what you are reading; and concentrating. It enhances relationships, learning, and productivity.

  3. Hyper-attention is attending to multiple stimuli that are related and can contribute to enhanced productivity such as attending to multiple screens in a classroom, or to several recipes being prepared simultaneously. It is multi-tasking wisely.

It is important to recognize that the way you choose to allocate your attention rewires your brain. (3) The brain constantly changes over a lifetime. The more one multi-tasks, the more their brain will default to multitasking.

Conversely, the more one works on deep attention the better their brain will be at concentrating and focusing on one task at a time. Additionally, the ability to focus is enhanced by adequate sleep, meditation, reducing distractions, being outdoors, and exercising. (2)

How can we encourage audiences to pay attention?

How about others? How can we gain the attention of our multi-tasking audiences? The Microsoft Canada research report on attention spans (4), provides additional terms to describe three types of attention along with approaches communicators can take to enhance their audience’s attention:

  1. Sustained attention is maintaining prolonged focus. Approach: Be clear, personal, relevant, and get to the point.

  2. Selective attention is maintaining focus in the presence of distracting or competing stimuli. Approach: Defy expectations, keep it moving, and use simplicity to focus on your message.

  3. Alternating attention is shifting attention between tasks (“multi-tasking”). Approach: Embed calls to action, be interactive, continue experiences onto other screens, and use sequential messaging.

What is your goal? Multi-tasking or “Uni-tasking”?

When might multi-tasking be advantageous? When might uni-tasking be preferable? When is concentrated focus essential? Whenever deep work or deep conversation is desired, give it your deep attention. Exercise your brain.

Are you still with us? Good for you. You have maintained your focus and reached the end of the post. You are primed to do some deep work - go for it!

“A lot is at stake in attention. Where we put it is not only how we decide what we will learn; it is how we show what we value.” ~ Sherry Turkle

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