In today’s work environment, it’s never been harder to get focus work done. We are constantly fighting a barrage of notifications and messages from social media as well as our work tools like Slack and Gmail. As focus work becomes more elusive, those who can successfully cultivate it become more valuable.
As Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
With this in mind, selective attention is arguably the most important concept in cognitive psychology. Understanding how selective attention works within our brain will help us develop better frameworks to harness our attention and improve our focus.
What is Selective Attention?
Selective attention refers to the act of focusing on a specific information in an environment while filtering out unimportant details. This includes both auditory and visual attention.
We constantly make use of selective attention as we live our lives. Selective attention is also referred to as The Cocktail Party Effect, which refers to your ability to listen to a single conversation in a busy restaurant that is filled with noise, light, movement, and other distracting stimuli. Another example of auditory selective attention is taking a phone call while driving.
Without selective attention, we would be too cognitively overwhelmed with stimuli to function for a majority of the day. A core concept of selective attention involves the disregarding of irrelevant information. This is key as psychologists increasingly believe that attention is a limited resource.
Original Theories of Selective Attention
Attention is one of the researched concepts in psychology, brain research, and cognitive neuroscience, with the first studies dating back to 1858. Research on selective attention ramped up in the mid-twentieth century and spawned a number of theories.
Broadbent's Filter Model
One of the first theories of selective attention was developed by Daniel Broadbent. Broadbent hypothesized that stimuli are filtered very early in the cognition process, with certain stimuli being filtered out through a bottleneck and others allowed to pass through. Broadbent proposed that filtering of stimuli was based on physical properties like color, loudness, direction, and pitch.
Treisman's Attenuation Theory
The psychologist Anne Treisman built upon Broadbent’s theory with one major difference. Treisman proved in several studies that the initial filter attenuates rather than eliminates irrelevant information. This means that people can still process the meaning of information that they are not fully focused on.
Memory Selection Models
Memory selection models further built upon Broadbent’s and Treisman’s theories. In memory selection models, attended and unattended information is assessed based on the meaning of the information in a second-stage after initial filtering.
Kendra Cherry lays out a great example of this while also explaining the Cocktail Party Effect:
Imagine that you are at a party and paying attention to the conversation among your group of friends. Suddenly, you hear your name mentioned by a group of people nearby. Even though you were not attending to that conversation, a previously unattended auditory stimuli immediately grabbed your attention based on meaning rather than physical properties.
In more recent years, researchers increasingly agree that attention in the human brain is a limited resource that can only be divided over a fixed amount of information. This means that we can only allocate our attention to so many sources at any given amount of time.
Selective Attention & Your Productivity
In the age of smartphones and computers, the fact that our attention is a limited resource has large implications on the way in which we approach work, focus, and productivity.
Remove all distractions
In today’s world, we have an endless number of distractions during the workday. Our cell phones and computers produce a constant stream of notifications and messages. These distractions come from both personal and work tools like Slack and Gmail. These distractions lead us toward divided attention.
With the knowledge that our attention is a limited resource, it’s no wonder that getting time to focus is becoming increasingly rare and difficult. We recently wrote about how phones reduce your ability to focus even when they’re not actively distracting you.
In order to combat these distractions, you can take the following actions when you want to avoid divided attention and improve focus:
- Remove your phone from the room.
- Close all non-essential apps and websites.
- Turn off all notifications.
Taking these steps removes those sources of information that act as cognitive drains on your attention.
Since attention is a limited resource, splitting our attention while multitasking reduces our ability to complete tasks. Studies suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40%. A study at Stanford University found people who were heavy multitaskers performed worse at sorting out relevant and non-relevant information.
Dr Robert F. Bornstein, a psychology professor at Adelphi University, states “It's not really possible to be texting (or chatting) and devoting adequate attention to another resource-intensive task (like editing a document.) Each task "fades from short-term memory. We must then refocus to regain that information when we switch our attention back to the original task, which takes time and effort."
Reducing multitasking means we keep a single task in our attention and working memory. This improves your information processingand enables you to be more productive and get more done.
Optimize for periods of intense focus
In order to optimize your productivity, it’s helpful to set aside explicit periods of time for intense focus. You can use a technique like timeboxing to assign periods of time to focus on a single task. This works well with selective attention because it enables you to remove all distractions and concentrate all your attention on one task at once.
Track your attention and focus
You can’t improve what you can’t measure. It’s impossible to know if you’re improving your focus without measuring it. James Clear writes in his article on selective attention, “the only way to figure out what works and what doesn’t is to measure your results. If you repeat this cycle for 20 years, then you end up becoming very good at focusing on the things that matter and ignoring the things that don’t.” You can use a productivity tracker like Rize to track your focus and see exactly which apps or sites are distracting you.
We are being overloaded with information. Those who can filter data and selectively attend to the most important work will be more productive and successful. Improving your selective attention will improve the way you process information. That in turn will improve your productivity and quality of work. Selective attention and the ability to filter out the increasing amount of information will continue to be one of the most important concepts in the cognitive sciences in the coming years.
- Broadbent DE. Perception and Communication. London: Pergamon Press; 1958.
- Treisman AM. Selective attention in man. British Medical Bulletin. 1964;20(1):12-16. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a070274.
- Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. PNAS USA. 2009;106(37):15583-15587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903620106
Photo by Romain Vignes
Macgill Davis is the cofounder of Rize - a simple, intelligent time tracker that improves focus and helps build better work habits.