Although we are capable of multi-tasking, we are not capable of multi-focusing: neither the male nor the female brain can focus on more than one thing at a time. If we’re doing three things at once, the brain is still only focusing on one thing at a time; however it is rapidly switching focus from one activity to the next. This greatly reduces our efficiency and increases the likelihood of oversights and mistakes.
When we’re not focused, it’s as though we’re working in a poorly lit room. With practice we get reasonably skilled at fumbling around in the dark, but we never reach our potential. On the other hand, when we pay full attention to what we’re doing, it’s like suddenly switching on the lights and seeing clearly – the task becomes much easier and our performance inevitably improves. If we learn something in an environment where other things are competing for our attention, we don’t remember for very long. If we’re fully focused on something, we remember for much longer because we create lasting changes in the brain.
Neuroscientists describe the brain as having a fixed “attentional capacity”. This means that if we’re listening intently to something (eg speaking on a mobile phone), we reduce the input that our brain is receiving from our other senses (eg we decrease our peripheral vision while driving). Even just reaching for an object while driving increases the risk of having an accident nine-fold – something I can sadly attest to from personal experience. No matter what we’re doing, we are better at it if we put our full attention on the task at hand.
Three major factors that reduce our ability to pay attention are fatigue, depression and stress. Poor concentration and memory lapses are often related to being tired, emotionally down or anxious. Also, as we age, the brain’s attentional capacity is reduced, which means we need to work even harder at tuning out distractions and staying focused on one thing at a time. Hence it’s important to establishing this as a good habit early in life.