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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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