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May 23, 2019 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

My Attention is Broke

As a kid, I would always get in trouble for talking with my mouth full.


I’m sure most of us have been there, stuck in this dichotomy wanting to comment on absolutely everything, while catering to a child’s perpetual hunger. Without realising, I was a juvenile multitasker. I wanted the best of both worlds. I craved not only the attention of my mum, but the indulging flavours of her untouchable homemade lasagne.


Now, at 22, my efforts at multitasking are somewhat more mature (don’t worry Mum, I developed the patience to swallow before speaking). Because I’m such a millennial, I immerse myself in the world of podcasts. But not very often will I ^only listen to a podcast. A host of other activities hijack a portion of my attentional capacity. Whether that’s exercising, cooking, walking from place to place, or even trying to sleep, I scarcely give my attention a cup of tea and a lie down.


But is this truly productive? Am I really retaining the knowledge Brian Cox is feeding me about how we measure the universe if I’m simultaneously maximising my cardiovascular burn?


In the current social climate, leaders and influencers flood our news feeds with the mantra of “Time is precious”. It’s akin to a propaganda slogan. The recent rise in entrepreneurship has seen a surge in this auspiciously natured message.  

They wax lyrical about maximising our time, so we pair multifarious tasks. In the case of pairing it with exercise, you have the opportunity to learn, and improve your fitness, in the same pocket of time. This is efficiency, right? But I’m not convinced that it’s so black and white.


Humans have a limited cognitive capacity. Neurologically, we can’t do everything at once—at least not to an efficient degree. We often overestimate our abilities. We’re an efficient species, sure, but sometimes this is let down by our audacity.


We are information processors. Every day our senses get drowned in information from what’s around us. One of the processing systems we use for this is ‘attention’. So, when we listen to a podcast, or music, we attend to what we are hearing. Usually, this is underpinned by the motivation to learn. Obvious, right? But sharing this process with another task reduces what we can attend to, and how our working memory processes new information for learning.


Many aspects of our modern social climate play into this multitasking narrative. The internet is a playground for our attention to swing, and see-saw, from one place to the next, rapidly. Music is so often present in the background when cooking, socialising, dancing, or to generally create ambience. Our phones take our attention hostage, whether it be when talking with others, driving, at work, in class, and so on. These are man-made tools, designed to serve the modern-day multitasker.


Yet, I think there’s a fine balance between being able to multitask and being able to multitask smart.


Broadbent’s model of attention splits this information-processing tool we call “attention” into three stages: Input (analysing what we attend to), storage (what we do with what we’ve attended to), and output (how we respond to what we’ve attended to). The ‘storage’ stage here is key. This includes how we use the information we’ve taken in, how we interpret it, and what we remember. The ‘input’ stage is crucial in not only determining this, but how we act on what we’ve attended to through our ‘output’.


Attention is currency, and our budget is tight. Usually, the more we attend to something, the greater the value we get out of it—it’s a relationship of reciprocity. The less attentional currency we spend, the lower the quality of, not only the way we process the information, but how we respond to it.


Thanks to Dr Sophie Leroy, we now understand this little thing called ‘attention residue’. This phenomenon rears its vexatious head when we’re unable to focus on the task at hand, due to our mind latching back on to a previous task. It’s like that friend who can’t move on with a new partner because they’re still hung up on their ex. Dr Leroy’s 2009 study on attentional residue showed that attentional disengagement from one task is conducive to better performance on a subsequent task. If we’re still sharing our attention with another task, while trying to optimise our engagement with another, our attention becomes fragmented. This leads to stress. Stress is bad. Stress decreases performance even further. We don’t need this.


Multitasking can be useful, and we so often don’t even realise we are doing it. Exercising would be far less enjoyable if I didn’t pair it with the hard kicks of Pusha T’s ^King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude, or the silky tones of the BBC’s Football Daily podcast. It can allow us to knock off that lingering to-do list, to feel as though we’re reducing our levels of stress. It’s important to acknowledge these good elements, and to reinforce that not all multitasking should be avoided. But, we ought to multitask within reason. We should be mindful of how we do so, what tasks we can allow ourselves to divide our attention on, and what we should give all of our attention to.


Life is all about balance, and multitasking is no exception. Developing a good level of introspection, sprinkled with self-awareness as to what works best for us individually, and how much we can take on, is key. No one’s approach can be a blueprint for anyone else.



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