The Secret to Attention That Lasts

            Are you setting aside time for work and time for breaks to boost your productivity?  Among other brain hacks, time management can be a powerful tool for keeping yourself motivated and getting through work in the classroom or the boardroom.  That’s only half of the equation for sustained attention:  a new study finds that feedback outperforms setting goals for yourself.

                Researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington find that regardless of the circumstance, the best way to keep yourself focused on the task at hand may be to receive feedback.  Participants in the study were asked to work on a cognitively demanding task while informing the researchers about how often their minds wandered, contrasted against how easy it was to stay focused after setting a goal for themselves.

                Goal setting did improve attention but didn’t improve motivation or keep their minds wandering away from the task at hand.  When the researchers provided feedback at halfway points of the experiment, it significantly decreased the amount of mind wandering or thoughts unrelated to the task at hand!

                Over time, both goal-setting techniques and feedback were not able to keep participants from a decline in performance, which is completely normal when the brain is asked to sustain attention for long periods of time.  Cognitive fatigue caused the participants to report tiredness, more mind wandering, and lower levels of motivation.  Researchers believe this highlights the necessity to remember that humans are not indefatigable computer systems.

                If you’re trying to keep your motivation up or inspire a team to keep going, providing feedback may be the best way to do that!  Setting personal goals or team goals can definitely improve attention, but it’s got a time limit.  Taking breaks, setting goals, and providing yourself or your team with constructive feedback is a recipe for success.

Further Reading

Robison, Matthew K., et al. “Examining the Effects of Goal-setting, Feedback, and Incentives on Sustained Attention.” PsyArXiv, 7 Aug. 2020.

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