One evening, you are driving, finding your way to your friend’s new house where you are invited to have dinner for the first time. While slowing down, you automatically turn down the radio, avoid talking while staring carefully at every sign. But the truth is, listening to the radio or talking don’t affect your vision. If this is the case, why would you feel the need to lower the volume and to avoid talking while looking for a new destination?
Dr. Steven Yantis, a professor in the department of Psychological and Brain science at the John Hopkins University says that the ability to multitask or to pay attention to two things at once is harder than focusing on just one thing. In other words, divided attention is harder than selective attention. He says: “Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain. The evidence we have right now strongly suggests that attention is strictly limited — a zero-sum game. When attention is deployed to one modality (say, talking on a cell phone) it necessarily extracts a cost on another modality (say, the visual task of driving).”
In order to better focus on one single task, we need to inhibit all extra distractions. For example, baking a good cake would be easier if we abstain from phone conversations. Note that other than unneeded stimuli, fatigue and depression are attention killers. Moreover, attentional capacities decrease with age.
On the other side, there are steps you can take for better multitasking. They would help you divide your attention more efficiently:
- Do simple tasks: Simple tasks are way easier to execute simultaneously than complicated ones. Doing the dishes while talking is easier than reading a novel while studying mathematics.
- Doing very different tasks: It is much easier to do ultimately different tasks, like ironing and talking, than doing too similar ones like drawing and writing.
- More practice: When you are better at achieving each task alone, it would be easier to do them both at the same time.
- Training and exercise: Numerous studies have proven that physical exercise improve your focusing capacities and the quality of your memory.
The ability of focusing on just one task is not for dummies! By selecting one single task, you can make sure to better execute it. Yet, you may find smart and effective ways to work on two different tasks when it’s needed!