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Test your attentional focus: is multi-tasking a good thing?

aaHow often do you lis­ten to the office gos­sip while fill­ing in forms? Or read a doc­u­ment while talk­ing on the phone with a client? Or think about your prob­lems at work while help­ing your child with his homework?

We are con­stantly assaulted by lots of infor­ma­tion and often required to per­form sev­eral tasks at once. It is not easy to stay focused. How­ever being able to stay focused is cru­cial to achieve suc­cess. Indeed, if you are lis­ten­ing to the office gos­sip while fill­ing in forms, you will prob­a­bly make mis­takes. If you try to read a doc­u­ment while talk­ing on the phone with a client, you will prob­a­bly sound dis­tant and unin­ter­ested to your client and may not get the con­tract you expected to get. If you think about your prob­lems at work while help­ing your child with his home­work, you will prob­a­bly miss oppor­tu­ni­ties to teach her something.

As you may notice all the sit­u­a­tions above involve doing more than one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is enemy num­ber one when it comes to accu­rate and speedy performance.

Human atten­tion is lim­ited. Think about your atten­tional focus as the beam of a light. If the light is on an object it can­not be on other objects at the same time with the same inten­sity. Only dim light will be avail­able to light up the objects in the periph­ery. The same hap­pens in your atten­tional sys­tem. Divid­ing atten­tion results in less atten­tional power devoted to all the dif­fer­ent tasks that you are try­ing to do at the same time. The more tasks, the less atten­tion can be devoted to each. The result is more errors and waste of time. Although we all have the feel­ing that mul­ti­task­ing saves us time, it is often not the case.

Try the exer­cise below to test your atten­tional focus. Three words have been com­bined to make this grid of let­ters. How many times does each of these words appear…? Can you com­pare your per­for­mance while search­ing for just one word vs. two of them at the same time?

How many times is the word SUN shown?
How many times is the word BUS shown?
How many times is the word NONE shown?

Sun is shown 12 times
Bus is shown 8 times
None is shown 4 times

Pascale MichelonPas­cale Mich­e­lon, Ph. D., is Sharp­Brains’ Research Man­ager for Edu­ca­tional Projects. Dr. Mich­e­lon has a Ph.D. in Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy and has worked as a Research Sci­en­tist at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in Saint Louis, in the Psy­chol­ogy Depart­ment. She con­ducted sev­eral research projects to under­stand how the brain makes use of visual infor­ma­tion and mem­o­rizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Fac­ulty at Wash­ing­ton University.

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8 Responses

  1. Ajish Kumar says:

    This is true. You can­not divert your sin­gle atten­tion to many things.

  2. Psy­chol­o­gist David Strayer recently char­ac­ter­ized atten­tion this way: “Atten­tion is the holy grail. Every­thing that you’re con­scious of, every­thing you let in, every­thing you remem­ber and you for­get, depends on it.”

    Given what an impor­tant com­mod­ity atten­tion is, it’s a shame that we typ­i­cally man­age it so poorly. Of course, it’s not totally our fault. The mind has some left­over prim­i­tive wiring that makes us far more dis­tractible than we should ide­ally be in this day and age when we don’t con­tin­u­ously face threats to our basic survival.

    A clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, I’ve spent over twenty
    years devel­op­ing a way for peo­ple to exer­cise greater con­trol over their atten­tion. My solu­tion is a sim­ple elec­tronic device called a Moti­vAider ( that auto­mat­i­cally keeps its user’s atten­tion focused on what­ever the user chooses.

  3. Walter Trockel says:

    Dear Pas­cale,

    there are some flaws in the for­mu­la­tion resp. solu­tion of your problem:

    1.Three words have been com­bined to make this grid of letters:

    This is not true! Only the con­sti­tut­ing let­ters of three words have been used.There are parts of the grid not gen­er­ated by these words but only by parts of their letters.This can be eas­ily seen from the fact that the grid con­tains more“o”than
    ” e”,both being let­ters con­tained only in “ none” but not con­tained in either “sun” or “bus”.

    2.How many times does each of these words appear?

    This is not a well posed ques­tion as you fail to describe what kind of appear­ance is fea­si­ble. The cor­rect answer depends on that:

    a. just words from left to right : 0
    b. also right to left: 0 + 1 =1
    c. also from top to bot­tom: 1+ 2 =3
    d. also diagonal(all pos­si­bil­i­ties): 3 + 1= 4
    e. every word on a polyg­o­nal path not
    inter­sect­ing other letters:4 + 2 = 6
    f. other more com­plex ways ?

    It is very hard under these cir­cum­stances to focus atten­tion effectively.

    With kind regards

    Wal­ter Trockel

  4. Pascale says:

    Thanks for your com­ments Ajish and Steve.

    Wal­ter, it looks like you are a seman­tic expert!
    1. Indeed, the con­sti­tut­ing let­ters of the 3 words have been used to form the grid. It merely seemed clearer to slightly “mis­phrase” the instruc­tions. This should not lessen the power of the exer­cise to stim­u­late atten­tional skills.
    2. You are right that the instruc­tions should have men­tioned that the words could be writ­ten hor­i­zon­tally, ver­ti­cally and diag­o­nally. Our apolo­gies to our read­ers not famil­iar with word searches…

  5. Kate says:

    Thank you, Wal­ter! Def­i­nitely a flawed ques­tion. As a teacher, I’m a reluc­tant expert in flawed tests. Stu­dents will use more brain power and atten­tion to detail to locate, define and point out flaws than they will to learn the material!

  6. Alexis says:

    I am cur­rently com­pil­ing a list of the top 100 edu­ca­tion advice blogs and I would like to include your site in my arti­cle. (You were rec­om­mended by another blog­ger) I had prob­lems using your con­tact form so I was won­der­ing if you could e-mail me so I could ask you a few ques­tions about you and your blog. Please include the title of your blog in the e-mail, thanks!

  7. Kyle says:

    Not know­ing the direc­tion and hav­ing an open ended, unde­fined para­me­ter affords lead­er­ship to come forth and solve for more than a sin­gle, or a set, of solu­tions. By the way, I found SUN 13 times.

  8. Pascale says:

    Thanks for your com­ment Kyle.
    As to find­ing SUN 13 times: that’s the beauty of this exer­cise! You may be right. It is very hard to come up with the same count (for dif­fer­ent peo­ple and even for some­one try­ing to count sev­eral times): A great atten­tional challenge.

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