Different Kinds of Attention and Their Effect on You

by Vicki Parker, Ph.D. CCC-SLP 

As consultants one of your biggest assets is your time management ability.   One of the components of time management is attention which is our focus today.  The other components of time management are; initiation, memory, logic/reasoning and processing speed.

Your attention is not what it used to be.  Imagine this, you are at a continuing education event and find yourself daydreaming or zoning out. Suddenly you hear a piece of information that is interesting and realize you have missed the previous comment.  This is an indication that you are having difficulty with sustained attention.

Sustained attention is your ability to focus over time.  Here are some things you can do to help sustain attention.

  • New and novel activities assist with keeping attention. Sit in a new seat.   Move your seat halfway through a lecture.  If you are presenting, think of how you can change your style for different segments of your presentation (i.e.  lecture, interaction, short visual clips)
  • Practice vigilant tasks such as scanning magazine articles for various letter patterns. Find word search activities.
  • Reading has been found to be an activity that helps with sustained attention. See how many pages you can read with focused attention and concentration.  Try and go a little farther each week. For example, week one 3 pages a day, week two 4 pages a day, and week three 5 pages a day and so on.

You are at a restaurant speaking with a friend and lose your thought and focus. The restaurant is busy and you frequently find that you are distracted by the other people in the room or noises you hear.   You may be having difficulty with selective attention.

Selective attention is one's ability to attend even in the presence of visual distractions and unrelated noise.  Here are some suggestions for something you can do to help improve selective attention. 

  • Sometimes knowing you have a limited amount of time causes you to focus intently short term. Set a time limit for how long you are going to work on something.  Kitchen timers that are visual countdown timers are wonderful for building sustained attention and practicing selective attention.  Make sure you are gradually increasing the time you are working on a task as the task gets more complex.
  • Estimate the time and give yourself short term goals to focus on.
  • Background instrumentals and white noise have been found to be helpful for many individuals.
  • Ask yourself at random points. Am I focused?  This will often be the nudge you need to get back on track.

You are working on a proposal, the phone rings, you need to pick it up.  While you talk you are trying to work on your proposal at the same time.  You are making errors on your proposal and asking your caller to repeat information fairly frequently.  Neither is going well. You may be having difficulties with divided attention.

Divided attention is one's ability to attend to one item, switch attention to another stimuli/task and  return to the initial task.  Many think of divided attention as multitasking.  Divided attention has to do with mental flexibility and processing speed.  Suggestions for improving divided attention include:

  • Actually, try not to multitask with items that require concentration. If  you must multitask, It is better to pair a repetitive motor task with a mental concentration task.
  • Physical activities that have frequent transitions and changes often help with divided attention and processing speed. These may include activities such as ping pong, racquetball, tennis or juggling.

There are evidence based ways to improve the three areas of attention we have discussed above.  However, it is important for you to know your strengths and weaknesses. Try and identify where you may be having attention problems so that you and a professional can better address your individual strengths and weaknesses in attention and make a plan that is tailored to your needs.

Parker is the sole owner of  The Brain Trainer, a cognitive learning center and speech pathology services for all ages.  The location is 11030 Golf Links Drive, Suite 204. The phone number is (704)541-1373.

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