Directed Attention and You


As you may know, my day job is providing evaluation services as President of Creative Research Solutions. One of the primary reasons I chose this career was because I wanted to work directly with people who can put good research to use. I want this blog to serve as another outlet towards that goal.

The topic of this post, Directed Attention, was not only central to my research during my past life as a graduate student, but has also continued to be relevant in my work, my daily life, and even in the design of this website.

What the Heck is Directed Attention?

One of the things I love about social psychology is that the jargon is usually pretty straightforward. Directed attention is pretty much what it sounds like; it’s a cognitive resource used when you intentionally focus your attention on something. That “something” can be a concept, a sound, or your favorite TV show. As long as you are intentionally focused on it, you’re using directed attention.  Directed attention is not used in situations where your attention is grabbed by something automatically, be it a loud noise, a delicious smell, or a sudden movement. Simply put, directed attention is what you “pay” when you pay attention.

The Cost

The “payment” metaphor in “paying attenion” is apt.  The use of directed attention comes at a cost.  With continued use directed attention eventually becomes depleted.  Most of us have experienced this in the feeling of being “burned out” after a long day of work.  It becomes increasingly difficult to focus.  We find ourselves more easily irritated, frustrated by minor setbacks that we might otherwise take in stride.  The good news is, there are plenty of ways to manage and even restore directed attention throughout the day.  Some of these may seem like “common sense” but even so, understanding why something works can be a great motivator.

  1. Eliminate distractions. Directed attention is really about ignoring everything but whatever it is you want to focus on.  The more things there are to ignore, the more directed attention will be used for the same task.  Make sure you have a clean, quiet workspace to help maintain your ability to focus much longer.
  2. Do the hard stuff first. Some activities require more directed attention than others.  Exactly what activities are most taxing may vary from person to person, but you probably already know what you have the most trouble focusing on.  Such activities tend to feel complicated, draining, and difficult.  Get these out of the way early or they are just going to get harder.
  3. Spend time in natural spaces. You might be surprised at this one, but it turns out that being in a natural environment tends to restore directed attention.  There has even been some research suggesting that nature photographs can be restorative.  As you can see I have incorporated this point into the design of this site.  Which brings me to my next point:
  4. Help other people save directed attention. It is often worthwhile to spend a little bit more of your directed attention on helping other people save theirs.  When communicating with other people, try to make the most important points stand out.  Break up long paragraphs, use boldface to emphasize important points, and avoid tangents.  Use whatever you can to “direct” your audience’s attention for them, so they don’t have to.
  5. Don’t let anyone waste your directed attention. Unfortunately, not everyone knows about directed attention.  When information is poorly organized, consider whether what you are looking for is worth it. If so, recognize that you may need some time to recover afterward.

Have you found this information helpful?  Please feel free to share your comments below.  Special thanks to my dissertation committee co-chair Stephen Kaplan, a pioneer in the directed attention field, for introducing me to this topic.


About Travis

As President of Creative Research Solutions, Dr. Travis Tatum is dedicated to helping individuals, institutions, and communities improve their performance through high quality research and deliverables.

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