Healthy Mind

There Are 4 Different Types of Attention, and Understanding Them All Can Help You Improve Your Focus

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Ever fallen down a TikTok rabbit hole, spent hours playing Candy Crush, or had a full day disintegrate in the midst of your latest binge-watch—but somehow felt incapable of staying focused during a 30-minute work meeting? If so, it's probably clear to you that being able to pay attention has a lot to do with whether the task at hand is particularly engaging (or not so much). But being engaged is actually just one determinant of attention.

Consider a time when you had to put your brain to real focus—say, in puzzling through a difficult problem at work or helping a friend with a relationship dilemma. You likely paid a good deal of attention, not just because you were engaged, but also because you were challenged. In researching how we respond not only to things that engage us differently but also that challenge us differently, psychologist Gloria Mark, PhD, author of the just-released Attention Span: Finding Focus and Fighting Distraction, created a new frame for the different types of attention: focused, rote, frustrated, or bored.

“Just being engaged in something isn’t sufficient to characterize how our attention functions.” —Gloria Mark, PhD, psychologist

“It occurred to me that just being engaged in something isn’t sufficient to characterize how our attention functions,” says Dr. Mark. “Sometimes we’re engaged in something that’s hard and takes a lot of effort, like writing a report at work, and other times, we can be really engaged in something that’s not at all challenging, like a simple phone game.” And the amount of time and energy that we’re capable of or willing to invest in either thing will vary widely, she adds.

Below, Dr. Mark shares how different scenarios manifest as one of the four types of attention and offers strategies for maximizing your time spent in focus mode.

What do the four types of attention look like in practice?

1. Focus: high engagement, high challenge

What you might think of as being focused on a task—flexing your mental resources and chugging along productively as a result—is precisely how this type of attention feels. “Focus represents a temporal state when a person feels absorbed in an activity, and the activity requires some degree of challenge to their skill set,” says Dr. Mark.

This might be the case when you’re completing a project at work, building a piece of furniture, or brainstorming ideas with friends. Generally, this state of attention correlates with feeling motivated, concentrated, and creative, says Dr. Mark, adding that it’s a precondition to entering what you might call “flow”—or “feeling deeply creative, unaware of the passage of time, and optimally using your skills,” she says. But arriving at that point isn’t easy; being in and maintaining a focused state of mind “costs a lot of cognitive resources,” says Dr. Mark, “hence the phrase, paying attention.” And as a result, it’s not actually possible to be in focus all the time, nor is it a healthy idea to try (more on that below).

2. Rote: high engagement, low challenge

This is the attentional state where you’re fully absorbed in something and can stay that way for a long time without it ever requiring much mental effort. (Cue the Candy Crush or TikTok mind-numb from above.) “Rote activity is mechanical and routine,” says Dr. Mark. “For example, you might be very engaged in a game of solitaire, making choices easily or effortlessly, or you might be scrolling through Twitter without expending much energy.”

This type of attention uses much fewer cognitive resources than focus, which explains why you could continue paying attention to TikTok for hours without feeling the slightest bit exhausted, whereas spending the same amount of time doing work would leave you drained.

3. Frustrated: low engagement, high challenge

Perhaps the task at hand is so difficult that you just can’t seem to engage with it—and no amount of trying to focus is proving helpful. Dr. Mark exemplifies this type of attention, frustrated, as “the software developer who’s really struggling to solve a bug.”

“Frustrated attention is when you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall and not making any progress,” she says. “You find the activity difficult, but for one reason or another, you cannot give it up and move on—perhaps because you have a deadline to meet, you’re required by your manager to work on it, or you have some inner desire to finish it.” As you continue to remain in that frustrated state, you use up a lot of cognitive resources, much like you would if you were in a focused state.

4. Bored: low engagement, low challenge

Boredom conjures the scenario in which you're only able to think about how slowly time is passing—and that’s exactly how Dr. Mark describes the bored attentional state: Perhaps you’re surfing the internet, moving from site to site and barely sticking around long enough to read a few sentences. Or maybe you’re flipping through TV channels quicker than they can even load because nothing seems to catch your interest. “Boring activities just don’t provide much stimulation, making it difficult to concentrate on them,” she says.

The exact opposite of being focused, being bored actually underuses your available cognitive resources, meaning you have brain power but nothing to put it toward. That’s why time seems to crawl: “The only place to invest those spare mental resources [when you're bored] is thinking about how much time is left before the activity is over,” says Dr. Mark.

Why it can feel so tough to stay in the focused state

Of the different types of attention, focus is the ideal state for being productive and creative, and for feeling satisfied. But even if you could find enough highly engaging, highly challenging activities to fill your full day, you would eventually drain your cognitive resources with all that focus. “We have a limited capacity of attentional or mental resources in the same way that we have a limited physical capacity,” says Dr. Mark. “You can’t focus for an entire day in the same way that you can’t lift weights all day.”

That’s why it’s actually a good thing to spend some time in the lower-lift types of attention (rote, bored). This gives your brain a much-needed break and an opportunity to replenish some of those attentional resources.

“When you’re in a rote or bored state, the mind is open for distraction.” —Dr. Mark

The only problem is, those low-challenge attentional states make you prone to distraction. “People often think that you can be really focused on something, and then along comes a distraction to pull you away, but really, the reverse is often true,” says Dr. Mark. “It’s when you’re already in a rote or bored state that the mind is open for distraction.”

The solution? Working just enough breaks into an otherwise focused day to avoid draining your mental resources—but also structuring those breaks in a way that cuts your risk of distraction.

3 tips to gain control of your attention and improve your focus

1. Practice meta-awareness to identify your attention rhythm

Just like your physical energy fluctuates throughout the day, so, too, does your mental capacity. And tuning into when you tend to feel most focused can help you figure out how to organize your day in terms of work times and break times, says Dr. Mark. “Typically, people will have a period of peak focus in the late morning and/or mid-afternoon, but there are also individual differences,” she says. Those can be influenced by your chronotype, how much sleep you’ve been getting, whether you’re multitasking (which drains cognitive resources more quickly), and how many responsibilities are on your current plate.

To determine when you might be best equipped to focus and when you might need to switch to a less demanding attentional state, Dr. Mark suggests practicing what she calls meta-awareness, or bringing your actions into your conscious awareness, so you can better evaluate them.

This looks like checking in with yourself and asking questions like, “How long have I been focusing on this task?”, “Am I still getting value from working on this?” and “Do I feel like I have the mental energy to continue, or do I feel drained?” she suggests. The more you ask yourself, the more aware you’ll become of when it makes sense for you to take breaks in order to conserve your mental resources and preserve your ability to continue focusing later.

2. Do a rote activity during your breaks

In an ideal world, your breaks from work would include going outside and taking a walk in nature, says Dr. Mark; research shows that even a short amount of time spent in nature (including urban green spaces) may help enhance mood and alleviate attention fatigue, whereas longer periods of time in nature can even improve creative reasoning.

That said, it’s likely not feasible for you to take a walk in nature each time you need a break from focus, which is why Dr. Mark suggests, instead, using shorter breaks for specific rote activities. “This might sound contrary to popular workplace advice, where you’ll hear experts tell you to stay away from mindless games or activities during the workday,” she says. “But if you use rote attention strategically, you can actually help yourself replenish your attentional resources.”

That means turning to brief rote activities, like a simple crossword puzzle, a word game on your phone, or, yes, a few minutes of scrolling TikTok or Instagram—with a safety measure in place to prevent the accidental rabbit hole (see the tip below). “These kinds of activities keep the mind lightly engaged but don’t require much in the way of cognitive energy, which allows for some functional restoration,” says Dr. Mark.

3. Create ‘hooks’ to pull yourself out of breaks and back into focus

Because you run a higher risk of distraction whenever you enter a rote attentional state during one of your breaks, it’s essential to put measures in place to avoid getting sidetracked for too long. Dr. Mark calls these things “hooks” because they’re designed to pull you out of the rote state and remind you to re-enter focus.

In practice, this can be a meeting, call, or other calendar reminder scheduled for five to 10 minutes after the start of your designated break, explains Dr. Mark: “For example,” she says, “I knew you were calling me at 11:30 a.m., and I felt like I needed a mental break before hopping on, so five minutes before, I started playing an anagram game on my phone, allowing my mind to wander. This way, your call was the hook that I knew would pull me out.” Knowing there’s something that’ll remind you to stop the rote activity before you get distracted can also help you engage in it more freely, she adds, allowing you to reap the full cognitive benefit of taking a break in the first place.

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