Can I have your undivided attention? Chances are, probably not.
It isn’t unusual to fall into the trap of multitasking—and thinking we’re doing a great job at it. After all, emails can’t go unanswered for too long, and Slack pings need attention. Yet the hours in your day aren’t getting any longer.
Once you look closer, it’s easy to see that when we divide our attention, we never fully engage with each task we aim to complete. Multitasking may feel efficient, but it often reduces the quality of our work and leads to unnecessary stress—in both our personal and professional lives.
Do that long enough, and you end up with a terrible feeling that you aren’t doing good work, and the quality of your outcomes isn’t what you expected.
This guide is designed to shed some light on a few burning questions around the topic of splitting your attention and what happens when we do.
Is dividing your attention actually possible? Can you successfully be productive while “dividing” your attention? And finally, what tools can you use to increase focus and lower a fragmented attention span?
Let’s dive in.
What is divided attention?
Divided attention refers to the ability to perform multiple tasks at the same time. It has become commonplace in today's fast-paced world, where people are expected to juggle a multitude of responsibilities simultaneously.
Some simple examples of divided attention can be checking emails while attending a conference call, browsing social media while watching TV, or preparing dinner while helping your child with homework.
But there’s more nuance to divided attention than first meets the eye.
What are the 4 types of attention?
There are four main types of attention:
- Sustained attention involves maintaining focus on a single task over an extended period. This type of attention is crucial for tasks that require prolonged concentration, such as reading a book or writing a report.
- Selective attention is the ability to concentrate on one task while ignoring irrelevant information or distractions. For example, studying in a noisy environment requires selective attention.
- Alternating attention involves switching between tasks that require different cognitive skills, such as alternating between writing an essay and solving math problems.
- Divided attention involves performing multiple tasks simultaneously, which can negatively impact productivity and efficiency.
But wait—why do the types of attention matter? Once you become aware of how you tend to pay attention—for instance, whether your attention is usually more sustained or more divided—you start to notice the effects of those types of attention. If you notice that your divided attention yields worse results, it becomes way easier to kick the habit.
Alongside awareness of attention type, it’s important to know the why behind our tendency to try and split our attention.
Why do we use divided attention? What the science says
Maybe you think you’ll save time. Or, maybe you think you’ll complete more tasks in less time. Whether for these reasons or similar ones, the urge to be more productive usually powers the reasons why you might try dividing your attention.
However, plenty of neuroscience and cognitive psychology research suggests this tendency hurts us more than helps us:
- Multitasking makes you more prone to increased errors: According to some findings, multitasking also reduces efficiency, as well as our reaction time, which makes us less productive overall.
- It lowers our ability to memorize: Findings suggest divided attention diminishes our encoding ability when trying to memorize concepts, even if it has less of an impact on the ability to retrieve memories.
- It decreases our ability to perceive the world correctly: Recent research sheds light on how dividing our attention impairs our overall perception, even if we’re still able to pick up on small visual details of the task at hand.
The differences between what you think you’re doing when you multitask versus what research shows is actually happening make one thing clear: Dividing our attention gives us the illusion that we’re doing more.
It’s easy to see where the issue lies—the perceptual mirage of being productive isn’t actually generating any tangible output you can build upon. Plus, it’s safe to say the illusion of productivity is dangerous because it leads to wasted time—a finite resource that you can never get back.
How to improve divided attention
If you’re wondering how to improve divided attention, what you’re really asking is how to stop multitasking. After all, multitasking is one of the first things we do when we make ourselves juggle too many things at the same time.
While multitasking can negatively impact productivity when you’re trying to do it over long periods of time, there are strategies to improve divided attention skills and manage tasks more effectively. These techniques optimize cognitive processes, attentional resources, and working memory, enabling you to handle multiple tasks with greater efficiency.
Here’s a look at a few:
Prioritize tasks and focus on the most important ones first
It's essential to recognize that multitasking often leads to subpar results, since our brains struggle to switch between multiple tasks. A far more effective approach is to prioritize tasks and focus on the activities with the highest return on investment (ROI).
By doing this, you can minimize the negative effects of divided attention and maintain control over your mental resources. Consider establishing a system to determine which tasks are of the highest importance.
For instance, think about the Eisenhower Matrix and its four categories:
- Urgent and important
- Important but not urgent
- Urgent but not important
- Neither urgent nor important
By organizing tasks in this way, it’s quicker to point out which ones only look urgent but can be put off for later. This practice makes sure you concentrate on the most important tasks and lowers the possibility of you getting sidetracked by lesser tasks and dividing your attention.
Next, focus on high ROI activities. These tasks have a significant impact on your goals and offer the greatest rewards for your time and effort. By consistently practicing this approach, you’ll train your brain to prioritize high-ROI tasks over time, lowering your tendency to multitask.
However, you must remember to create an environment that supports a focused attention span. Get rid of any distractions or potential interruptions—unnecessary browser tabs, noisy locations, and phones all count here.
Take breaks as needed. It’s just as important for our brains to have time to recharge as it is to focus. Adding short breaks to your daily routine will improve your overall performance.
Set specific time blocks for each task
Don’t shy away from the practice of time blocking. Begin by making a list of all the tasks you need to complete within a specific timeframe, such as a day or a week. Once you've established your task list, allocate a specific period for each activity.
This process helps create a clear roadmap for your day, enabling you to work through tasks in a focused and efficient manner.
Here are some tips for setting time blocks:
- Be realistic: When assigning time blocks, consider the complexity of each task and allocate an appropriate amount of time. Be mindful of your own capabilities and avoid overestimating your ability to complete tasks within a short period.
- Consider your peak productivity hours: Identify the times of day when you're most productive and schedule your most demanding tasks during those hours. This ensures that you're working on high-priority tasks when your energy levels are at their peak.
- Group similar tasks together: Try to schedule related tasks consecutively, as this helps maintain your focus and minimizes the mental effort required to switch between different types of tasks.
- Schedule breaks: Remember to include regular breaks in your time blocks. These breaks give your brain the opportunity to rest and recharge, improving your overall focus and productivity.
- Allow for flexibility: While it's essential to have a structured plan, it's also crucial to be adaptable. Life is unpredictable, and unexpected events can throw off even the most well-organized schedules. Be prepared to adjust your time blocks as needed to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.
By implementing specific time blocks for each task, you can create a structured work environment that promotes focus and minimizes distractions. This approach not only improves your sequencing and information-processing abilities but also reduces the urge to multitask.
As a result, you'll be better equipped to tackle your tasks with greater efficiency and productivity, ultimately leading to more satisfying and successful outcomes.
Use productivity tools like Sunsama
Don’t underestimate the power of planning tools that centralize and automate your task management work. Take Sunsama's guided daily planner as an example.
It’s designed to encourage deep work on singular tasks, without fluff or extra bells and whistles. Its minimalist approach to planning eases you into deep work and eliminates context-switching.
Sunsama’s planning dashboard is organized so you don’t have to toggle between applications. You can simply drag and drop emails, task cards, and notes, all from a long list of apps you’re likely already using.
Consider some of its highlights as a daily planning tool:
- Prioritize tasks: Sunsama enables you to organize your tasks based on their importance, ensuring that you're focusing on the most critical activities first. By prioritizing tasks this way, you can allocate your cognitive resources more effectively and avoid the pitfalls of multitasking.
- Create a structured workday: Sunsama's daily planner allows you to plan your day with intention, setting specific time blocks for each task. This structured approach promotes focus and helps you maintain momentum as you work through your to-do list.
- Minimize distractions: By providing a centralized platform for managing your tasks, Sunsama reduces the need to juggle multiple applications and tools—which can be so distracting. This approach allows you to concentrate fully on the task at hand.
- Integrate with popular tools: Sunsama integrates seamlessly with widely-used productivity tools such as Google Calendar, Trello, ClickUp, and Asana. This integration allows you to manage all your tasks in one place, saving you time and ensuring that nothing falls through the cracks.
- Monitor progress and adjust as needed: Sunsama's intuitive interface enables you to easily track your progress on tasks and projects. This feature provides valuable insights into your work habits and allows you to make adjustments as needed to improve your productivity and overall effectiveness.
By incorporating productivity tools like Sunsama into your daily work routine, you can create an organized, focused work environment that minimizes distractions and reduces the temptation to multitask.
The Pomodoro Technique
While the Pomodoro Technique has gained popularity, it's still not a mainstream method. This technique involves working in focused intervals (typically 25 minutes) with short breaks (5 minutes) in between. After completing four intervals, you take a longer break (15-30 minutes). This approach helps you maintain focus and avoid multitasking.
Example: You have three tasks: writing an essay, studying for a test, and organizing your room. You could dedicate two Pomodoro intervals to the essay, two to studying, and one to organizing. This way, you focus on one task at a time while still making progress on all three.
The Touch-It-Once Principle
The Touch-It-Once Principle encourages you to address tasks as soon as they come to your attention, preventing the need to revisit them later. By completing tasks in a single sitting, you avoid the inefficiency and distraction of multitasking.
Example: When you receive a document that needs reviewing, read it and make necessary edits right away, rather than opening and closing it multiple times throughout the day. This helps you stay focused and saves time in the long run.
The 80/20 Rule (Pareto Principle)
The 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Identify the most impactful tasks and focus on completing them before tackling less important ones.
Example: If you're a student, you might find that studying specific topics yields better test results than others. Focus on those high-impact topics first, and then move on to the remaining material.
Use your attention wisely
Divided attention leads to a landmine of pitfalls. Too many auditory and visual stimuli overwhelm you, your working memory is less effective, and your attentional resources are depleted faster.
However, adopting strategies that help you focus on your most important tasks one at a time is one of the best ways to fight multitasking. This will ultimately lead to better productivity, higher alertness, and a more focused approach to your daily work.
Selective attention and properly managing your cognitive resources are non-negotiables for making progress in today’s world.
It’s why you should try Sunsama—take the next step toward intentional productivity.