Breaking through Boredom, Distraction, and Other Attention Impediments

Why Multitasking is the biggest threat to attention

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Although Malcom Gladwell might have you believe otherwise, mastering a skill takes more than 10,000 hours; it takes prolonged focus and concentration. Achieving this focus is not easy in our distraction-prone culture. Dr. Restak identifies the biggest roadblocks and how to overcome them.

Woman working at home office
Clearing the mind of attention-seeking distractions allows for creativity and efficiency, including focused attention. Photo by Stock-Asso / Shutterstock

Impediments to Attention

Sustained attention will enable us to harness the discipline needed to achieve our goals, but first we must recognize impediments. The first is the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which is the relationship between alertness and performance. 

While alertness improves performance up to a certain point, it has diminishing returns once alertness has reached its peak level. This is relevant to attention because we need to be alert to pay attention, but if we’re too alert, or stressed out, we’ll lose focus.

The second impediment to attention is boredom. Attention varies with interest, so sometimes you have to “fake it ’till you make it.”

If you give the topic a chance and approach it with an open mind, you might find it more compelling than you initially thought. Even people with ADHD can perform normally if they’re interested in the topic.

Emotional blunting, or “burn out,” is the third impediment to attention. If we keep performing a repetitive task, eventually we become inattentive and start daydreaming. This is why breaks are essential.

The next impediment is sensory overload, which occurs when there are too many things going on at one time. This is why students might have trouble listening to a teacher in a classroom if their classmates are whispering, eating, or fiddling with things on their desk.

Multitasking and Decision-Making

However, the biggest impediment to sustained attention is multitasking, which is trying to perform multiple tasks at the same time. Have you ever wondered why it’s particularly difficult to decide between three options?

For example, if deciding whether to go to the beach, the mountains, or the movies, we would likely eliminate one of these choices immediately and make our decision between the other two. We’re much more comfortable choosing between two options.

Our brain is binary, which means that the medial frontal cortex divides one half into one choice and the other half into the other choice. The medial frontal cortex is part of the brain’s motivational system, where rewards are represented. 

In an experiment matching upper and lower case letters, each option was encoded on one side or the other of the medial frontal cortex. With the introduction of a third letter in this matching test, efficiency dropped precipitously. It was as if each hemisphere was occupied in managing one task, and there was nowhere for the management of a third task. 

Binary multitasking is about all we can handle because of how our brain is constructed. Your brain will have a much better time when its decision tree is reduced to no more than two alternatives.

Consequences of Multitasking

The more people multitask, the worse they do. They become more distractible, less organized, and have problems distinguishing relevant information from irrelevant information. 

They also have problems with mental file keeping—knowing where to put things in conceptual boxes and how to access them. Additionally, multitasking diminishes their ability to apply sufficient attention and concentration needed to develop original ideas. 

First ideas often seem brilliant, but they’re superficial and derivative. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube provide you with other people’s ideas—raw, unorganized data. 

Depth, clarity, and cohesion of thought take focused attention. All three are impaired by multitasking. As the novelist and essayist Jay Griffiths has written, “Skim-talking and skim-reading promote skim-thinking. Thoughts that are summoned at speed are likely to be not the best but simply the first.”

To form associations and connections, Dr. Restak recommends time and the absence of distraction. He also says you should slow down and pay attention in order to think most efficiently and creatively. In a word: ponder.

The greatest challenge that we face in our culture is to enrich our powers of attention while accommodating our society’s increasing demands for multitasking. While we have to engage in some multitasking, we don’t want to drive away our attentional powers. 

Novelist Phyllis Theroux offered insight into the topic of attention.

“Looking back … I see the idea of attention, pure attention, emerging in different forms and guises,” Theroux said. “Slowing down long enough to pay full attention requires an empty mind.

“We must clear the decks and be nothing else. This is what goes counter to the culture, which tries to distract and divide our attention so that it never rests on any one thing for any length of time.”

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.