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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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