How to keep from losing your focus

Do something else for a minute and...hey, look, a bird!

A study in the physiopsychology journal Cognition is challenging old assumptions that say the best way to focus on a specific task is to just keep focusing on it.

Researchers at the University of Illinois discovered that "attention" is not a finite resource that can be used until it's exhausted and then must be renewed, as other researchers found conclusively "40 or 50 years ago" according to the Alejandro Lleras, lead author of the report.

"You're always paying attention to something," Lleras said. "[Sufficient supply of] attention is not the problem."

Instead the "vigilance decrement" – in which the brain's focus on a task decreases over time and the subject's performance declines -- can be reduced by shifting the attention from the primary task to a secondary one for a short time.

Students working on the study are rumored to have discovered the correlation long before Lleras was able to document it, referring to it as "a break" – a crude, street-slang term for which we apologize.

In the paper Lleras didn't address allegations that his conclusions had been published elsewhere in such scientific maxims as "a change is as good as a rest," "time is what we make of it," and "constant occupation prevents temptation."

While those statements seem clear enough, the connection to others that sound similar in the same documents is mysterious, including "a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse," "a cat in gloves catches no mice" and "if ifs and ands were pots and pans there'd be no work for tinkers," and "children and fools speak the truth."

Lleras ignores such distractions and keeps on with his main point:

"Constant stimulation is registered by our brains as unimportant, to the point that the brain erases it from our awareness," Lleras said. "So I thought, well, if there's some kind of analogy about the ways the brain fundamentally processes information, things that are true for sensations....zzzzzzzzz."

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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