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The Science of Selective Attention: How to Improve Focus

Selective attention is a mental process that helps you focus on something specific by ignoring or filtering out things that don't matter. When you tune out distractions, you can  concentrate on something specific. External stimuli are filtered or “selected” according to our expectations and goals. It's a voluntary, controlled process that allows us to focus on what we want to pay attention to. This type of attention is also known as goal-directed or conceptually driven attention.

In the workplace, this can manifest as blocking out the sound of the espresso machine or the conversation between colleagues that doesn’t involve you. Note that selective attention differs from inattentional blindness, which occurs when you fail to notice something obvious due to a lack of focus.

Your individual level of cognitive control determines how you ignore stimuli and focus on a task. It also functions as a mechanism for controlling emotions that might come up as you complete tasks. For instance, imagine the pressure to finish a project before the deadline. That’s when selective attention can help you focus on what you need to do without getting overwhelmed by nerves or stress.

Theories of selective attention

The human brain processes sensory inputs in a complex way. Several theories of selective attention explain how we filter and process information. Three of the most notable theories include the following:

Broadbent’s Filter Model of Attention

Donald Broadbent proposed that the brain processes information based on physical characteristics such as pitch, intensity, and location. When you receive information from multiple stimuli at once, all the data enters an unlimited-capacity sensory buffer. Then a filter selects one of the inputs based on its physical characteristics and allows it to pass through for further processing. This limited capacity prevents overload and helps the brain to focus on a task.

Suppose you're listening to two podcasts at the same time. Your mind will choose to focus on one podcast over the other based on who’s speaking, the topic being discussed,, or other characteristics such as the tone of voice or background music. The podcast you don't focus on doesn't reach conscious awareness—instead, they remain briefly in the sensory buffer store and decay rapidly if not processed. 

The Cocktail Party Effect

The Cocktail Party effect is the ability to focus on one conversation in a room full of conversations. It suggests that your brain can selectively focus on relevant information while tuning out irrelevant stimuli. When you’re at a party, instead of hearing all conversations simultaneously and getting overwhelmed, you separate them into individual conversations that you can focus on.

This phenomenon was first studied by Colin Cherry in 1953, and he proposed that the brain uses a combination of physical features such as sound, location, and intensity—like the Broadbent model —to attend to one conversation selectively. However, it also involves recognizing voices, so our brain can differentiate between relevant and irrelevant information.

In this experiment, Cherry sent participants two auditory messages at once and asked them to repeat one of the messages. The results showed that participants could selectively attend to one message at a time and ignore the other.

Treisman’s Attenuation Model

Treisman proposed her attenuation theory of attention in 1964 as an improvement to the Broadbent model. According to Treisman, all messages enter our conscious awareness, but are processed differently. The brain automatically processes physical characteristics like pitch, intensity, and location. 

Then it evaluates relevant features such as meaning or words by attenuating irrelevant information before passing it through to consciousness. The brain only pays attention to the essential components of an incoming message, thus allowing us to focus on what we need and ignore everything else. 

Types of selective attention

Selective attention falls into two categories: top-down and bottom-up.

Bottom-up attention

Bottom-up attention is an involuntary, stimulus-driven process that draws our attention to things in our environmenteven if it isn’t our intention. This type of attention is also known as data-driven or sensory-driven attention. Visual and auditory cues can draw our attention to certain stimuli even if we don’t want to pay attention. Here's what they entail:

Visual attention

Selective visual attention focuses on one visual stimulus attribute while ignoring others. For example, you might focus on one image on a screen and ignore other visual distractions. Heat maps provide visual evidence that we focus on certain areas that we find interesting or are relevant to us in our field of vision and ignore others.

Two models explain how visual attention works: the spotlight and zoom-lens models. 

  • The spotlight model explains selective attention as a spotlight focused on one particular area while other information outside that focal point is less clear. 
  • The zoom-lens model compares attention to adjusting the focus of a camera lens, narrowing our view and allowing us to focus on specific visual information as needed.

Auditory attention

Selective auditory attention focuses on one sound or voice while ignoring others. For example, you might be able to focus on a conversation in a crowded office and ignore other overlapping conversations.

The filter model and attenuation models explain how auditory attention works. 

  • The filter model means a focus of attention acts like a filter that blocks out other sounds or voices. 
  • The attenuation model suggests that auditory attention reduces the volume of all other sounds, so you only hear one sound.

Top-down attention

Top-down attention is more voluntary and conscious. It involves focusing on certain tasks or activities to carry them out successfully by ignoring other external distractions. This attention requires you to intentionally concentrate your energy on a specific task, allowing you to pay attention to one message at a time and ignore the rest.

For example, suppose a project manager is tasked with creating a budget for their team. They would use top-down attention to decide which items are important for their budget, what objectives they need to meet, and how to create the budget. Then, they would focus on the task and ignore any external distractions that might take their attention away from their goal.

Selective attention in the workplace

Selective attention plays a crucial role in the workplace. Taking advantage of selective attention ensures that employees can effectively concentrate on important tasks and filter out extraneous distractions. Here are four examples of selective attention in the workplace:

Focusing on important tasks

In a busy work environment, employees must use top-down attention to focus on important tasks, even with distractions like background noise, colleagues talking, or ringing phones. Consciously focusing on a specific task helps employees meet deadlines in a busy environment. 

For example, if you need to work on a presentation, try using headphones with white noise or music to drown out distractions. You can also take breaks throughout the day to give yourself a change of scenery and help you refocus.

Prioritizing and filtering information

In an era of information overload, employees must be able to sift through emails, messages and notifications to get the most important information. You know that juggle between checking emails, responding to messages, and attending meetings? This is where prioritization is crucial.

Switching between tasks requires focusing on the most important task at any given moment while ignoring less relevant information. For example, you can use tools like automated filters and rules to help you organize emails and prioritize tasks.

Cross-functional collaboration

Sales, marketing, HR—all departments have different goals and tasks. You need to keep up with everything going on in different departments, identify areas of collaboration, and focus when working across teams. 

Selective attention prioritizes urgent tasks and manages multiple streams of information. For example, when sales and marketing work together on a project, focus on the most important tasks and how they can achieve their common goal.

Managing simultaneous activities

With multiple deadlines to manage, a need to stay on top of email, and the constant noise of conversations in an open office space, it can be hard to keep track of everything. 

Multitasking allows you to switch between tasks and prioritize multiple activities at once. For example, if you’re working on multiple projects with tight deadlines, use top-down attention to focus energy on one task and switch when needed.

Improve selective attention and focus with these 5 tools

Modern workplaces demand a high level of concentration. To stay sharp and on top of your tasks, it's important to train your selective attention and focus. Here are five tools for improving selective attention and focus.

1. Forest

Forest is a pomodoro timer app that helps you stay focused. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management strategy that breaks down work into intervals (usually 25 minutes) separated by short breaks. Research by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign highlighted that even brief diversions from a task dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.

With Forest, you can work in short bursts of concentration. Set a goal, and the timer starts ticking. As long as you don't leave the app, a virtual tree will keep growing on your screen—if you do, the tree dies. 

You can take a break after each block to refresh your brain and body. Breaks increase your energy, productivity, and ability to focus. When you take a break, do something that gets your blood flowing, such as walking, stretching, or standing up from your desk for five minutes.

What we like about it:

  • Earn coins for each successful session, which you can use to buy virtual trees that will be planted in the real world
  • Set a daily goal and track your progress over time

2. Freedom

Freedom blocks out distracting websites and apps. It eliminates the tasks of putting your phone away, turning off notifications, and logging out of social media apps by restricting your access to certain apps. 

With Freedom, users report gaining an average of 2.5 hours of productive time every day. 

Turn on work mode on your phone to stop notification alerts. 

What we like about it:

  • Create categories of websites you want to keep off-limits during work hours
  • Set a timer to restrict access for a certain period of time
  • Track how much time you spend on distracting activities

3. Headspace

Headspace teaches you how to meditate which changes the brain's structure and function through relaxation. This relaxation technique increases your focus, attention span, and working memory.

Headspace includes guided audio meditation sessions and mindful exercises that focus on breathing, posture, and awareness of your thoughts and feelings.

What we like about it:

  • Tailor-made programs for different goals such as productivity, creativity, or sleep
  • Short animations explain the basics of meditation

4. Calm

Calm provides meditations, music and soundscapes tailored to lull you into a dream state. During sleep, our brains process information, create memories and restore mental energy for the next day. Sleep also supports problem-solving, creativity, short-term memory, and emotional processing to help us stay alert and focused. 

The app helps you create a healthy sleep routine that includes winding down before bed with activities such as reading or listening to music. With it, you can get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

What we like about it:

  • Progress tracking with insights into your sleep quality
  • Guided sleep stories narrated by celebrities like Matthew McConaughey or Leona Lewis
  • Breathing exercises to help you relax before bedtime

5. Supernormal

AI note-taking tool Supernormal does the work of scribbling down everything said in a meeting, freeing you up to pay attention and participate instead of worrying about taking notes. 41% of respondents in a study said they now attend four to seven additional weekly meetings, compared to pre-pandemic levels. With schedules packed with meetings, Supernormal helps you keep track of what's discussed. 

What we like about it:

  • Summaries of meetings with headlines, highlights, and key themes
  • Organization of notes by topics and speakers
  • Automatic transcription with a high accuracy rate

Aid your attention with Supernormal

Assistive technologies cultivate selective attention and focus by providing an extra set of eyes and ears to help you manage multitasking and information overload. Combining techniques from mindfulness meditation to eliminating distractions with tools improves productivity and efficiency.

And don't forget your note-taking assistant. Supernormal helps you skip this tedious task and focus on what's important. Start using Supernormal today to streamline your workflow and become a better multitasker.

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