You're Actually Bad at Multitasking

You're Actually Bad at Multitasking: Here's Why & How You Can Fix It

By Rachel Gerke, CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist

Cover image designed by

Multitasking gets a bad rap these days. Negative beliefs about the act of juggling multiple tasks at once exist for good reason, but some of the blame for this reputation falls on a simple misunderstanding.

Many people aren't aware that there are various types of attention and that there's a time and place to use each of them. Leveraging this knowledge can help you detect whether multitasking is helping or hurting you, your kids, your students or your employees.

Paying the Right Kind of Attention

There are four types of attention: sustained, selective, alternating and divided. Knowing when and how
to use them allows you to be more present, engaged and productive.

We cover each type of attention in greater detail below, explain when to use them and provide strategies for improving your ability to use each type.

4 Kinds of Attention

  • Sustained – giving something your full attention
    (reading a book)
  • Selective – choosing what to attend to
    (listening to a friend instead of the stranger next to you at a noisy restaurant)
  • Alternating – switching between different related activities
    (reading a recipe and making the recipe)
  • Divided – doing two or more things at once
    (eating and watching TV)

Sustained Attention

Use when a task requires your full attention

Many of our most fulfilling tasks require our full attention. Reading a book, having a deep conversation with a friend and meditation all call for sustained attention.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

The ability to recognize distractors and know when to remove them is crucial to successfully sustaining your attention. Some people struggle to focus if the lighting is too bright. Certain students can't study if there's a conversation going on behind them. Focus on what you can control. When there are too many distractors, sometimes it's best to relocate instead of growing frustrated as you try to fit into a space that is simply overstimulating.

Selective Attention

Use when a task requires you to choose what to focus on

You mainly use selective attention when there are distractors you can't remove. For example, listening
to a friend instead of the stranger next to you at a noisy restaurant.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

The best way to improve your selective attention skills is through practice. In class, we provide videos and pictures, then tell kids which parts they need to pay attention to. Afterward, the students have the chance to self-evaluate and decide whether they were able to focus and, if not, choose what they can do differently next time. A famous selective attention test was done by Simons and Chabris in which a video features kids throwing basketballs and asks you to count the passes. Give it a watch and see how you do!

If you're struggling to tune out the unimportant information around you, like background noise, you can also try advocating for yourself by asking to move.

If you go into a situation knowing selective attention will be required, it might help to think about what you'll need to pay attention to before you're in the situation.

Alternating Attention

Use when a task requires two different skills

When you do two things back and forth quickly, you're engaging in alternating attention. For instance, reading a recipe while cooking, or driving while checking your GPS. Alternating attention is also crucial for teamwork and complex tasks.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

At The Joy School, we help kids flex their alternating attention muscles by playing teamwork games. When playing with a Mystery Box, a game that allows students to become detectives to solve a mystery together, students must alternate between looking at clues and discussing them as a team. Afterward, we offer opportunities for students to evaluate how they did.

Large projects also offer the chance to practice and evaluate your alternating attention skills. If you find yourself getting stuck, you may need to step back and look at your desired end result and all the pieces it will take to get to the finish line.

Divided Attention

Use when you're doing two or more things at once

Divided attention is typically what people mean when they refer to multitasking. It can be a valuable skill we want our kids (and ourselves) to be able to use. Divided attention allows us to cook dinner while speaking to friends, talk on the phone while getting dressed and listen to the teacher while gathering materials.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

As you probably gathered, divided attention often combines something you do all the time with something you do less often. While the previous examples show positive uses of divided attention, sometimes combining routine and focused acts can be less effective. If your routine task isn't something you can practically do in your sleep, you may not be successful when you try to divide your attention.

For example, I am trying to avoid checking my phone (routine) while playing with my son (not routine) or checking parent emails (routine) while working with a class (not routine). The less routine task demands my full attention, and the other task can wait.

Some people are natural multitaskers, while others have to work on this skill. In fact, dividing attention slightly can be helpful. For example, there are people who find it helpful to chew gum while working on a test, but for others, the taste and act of chewing gum is overwhelming during a focused activity.

The problem arises when people try to multitask during activities that are not appropriate for divided attention. For instance, checking email on your phone while talking with your kids. There's no way you can give both tasks the amount of attention they need. Whereas making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is something most adults can do while having a conversation or listening to the news.

On A Personal Note

One of my goals this year is to cut back on multitasking, but I don't want to completely eliminate it from my life. My observation is that I am multitasking at the wrong time. Like many of us, I am missing things because I am too focused on the future ("What time do I need to leave so I'm not late?"), on a mundane task ("I should be doing laundry right now..."), or on unimportant information (a conversation happening nearby).

This personal goal extends to The Joy School, where we strive to help our students develop the executive functioning skills to recognize when it is a good time to multitask and when sustained attention is necessary. For example, one student often tries to read a book during my lessons. She says she is listening, but she is unable to read and listen at the same time. We have talked about how it is important to keep focused attention on the teacher and not divide that attention with an unrelated activity.

Declutter Your Brain

It is said that our ability as a society to focus and maintain attention is declining. In fact, I heard recently that even our ability to remember a phone number (7-10) digits is no longer the norm for adults.

Understanding when to divide our attention, sustain it, or use alternating or selective attention will help keep our brain space clear and keep us focused on what's important in the present.

Rachel Gerke

About the Author

Rachel Gerke joined the TJS team in the fall of 2014. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders from Louisiana State University and Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders from University of Houston. She loves being a Speech-Language Pathologist at The Joy School and cannot think of a more rewarding career. Rachel believes TJS is an extraordinary place for students to build confidence and social skills. In her free time Rachel enjoys spending time with her husband, Brad, and new little one, Greyson.

Degrees Held
Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Louisiana State University
Master of Arts in Communications from University of Houston

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