Have you ever been to a circus? With magicians pulling out one magic trick after the other, acrobats dazzling the audience with their stunts, and jugglers juggling all kinds of objects, a circus is truly an experience.

What is it that makes these performances astounding? The performers are undoubtedly talented. But the key to their success is their sharp and undying focus. The performers are aware that even a momentary loss in focus can cost them not just the performance, but even their lives.

This laser-sharp focus is a result of sustained undivided attention. Did you know that there are different types of attention in psychology that explain our ability to focus on something? Want to learn more about the various kinds of attention? Read on!

What Is Attention?

The concept of ‘attention’ is an area of study under cognitive psychology. Attention refers to one’s ability to select and focus on relevant stimuli. In other words, it’s how we actively process information in our environment and tune out information, perceptions and sensations that aren’t relevant at the moment.

For example, many people often work in their favorite coffee spots. Although there are many distractions in a public place such as the crowd, the staff and even the bustling noise of the traffic, people remain focused on their work. Their attention allows them to concentrate on the things that are important to them. As you can see, attention can help us focus as well as ignore information around us.

In order to understand how attention works, let us look at its key aspects:

  • Limited: 

Attention is limited both in terms of capacity and duration

  • Selective: 

Since attention is limited, we need to be selective about what and where to focus

  • Cognitive: 

Attention is part of our cognitive system and aids in our ability to survive

What Are The Types Of Attention?

As we’ve already established, attention is a dynamic phenomenon that changes according to the immediate environment. It’s a complex process that’s rooted in various cognitive functions. Over the years, researchers have identified various types of attention in psychology. Understanding the different types of attention is the key to being more efficient.  Before we dive deeper into the different types of attention, let’s look at the factors influencing these types.

  • Internal Factors: 

They depend on your brain functions and cognitive resources, such as emotions, mindset and interests

  • External Factors: 

They depend on the characteristics of the stimuli in your surroundings

There are several types of attention that we use during our daily activities.

  1. Selective Attention

Every day we’re exposed to various stimuli. Selective attention helps us navigate complex settings. You select from various stimuli and focus on what you find important. Take the workplace, for example. You are surrounded by coworkers and electronics which can act as distractions. You use selective attention to focus on your work and keep the noise at bay. It’s safe to say that if you’re good at selective attention, you’re good at ignoring distractions and concentrating on your priorities.

  1. Sustained Attention

This is the ability to focus on something for long periods of time without being distracted. In other words, you concentrate on time-consuming tasks by using sustained attention. There are three stages of sustained attention:

  • Paying attention, when you start to focus

  • Keeping attention, when you continue to focus

  • Ending attention, when you finally stop paying attention

Students often employ sustained attention to study for examinations. You’ve probably used sustained attention for activities such as attending business meetings or conferences or preparing business decks.

  1. Divided Attention

When you focus on two or more things at the same time, you’re using divided attention. You’re essentially dividing your attention between two or more tasks. This ability is also known as multitasking. Divided attention uses focus on a very large scale—not allowing us to fully focus on any one task. For example, you may have written an email while attending a webinar.

Divided attention doesn’t last long because you split your attention between various tasks and perform them at the same time. Multitasking is harmful as it affects your productivity in the long run. You must divide your attention only when it is absolutely necessary.

  1. Alternating Attention

Similar to divided attention, alternating attention involves shifting your focus and switching between multiple tasks. However, unlike divided attention, you’re not performing multiple activities at the same time. Even when you switch your attention among various tasks, you remain focused on the task at hand.

We use alternating attention more often than we realize. For example, you switch your focus between taking notes and making sense of those notes during a meeting or presentation.

Why Is Paying Attention Important?

Attention to detail is a crucial skill at the workplace too—employers look for individuals who know how to focus and divide their attention proficiently. Moreover, paying attention helps improve professional relationships as you listen attentively and respectfully to others. Let’s look at some of the other benefits of paying attention in the workplace:

  • Detail-oriented employees are likely to detect and prevent mistakes and help minimize the costs or wastage of resources. This benefits the organization.

  • The first step to communicating well is to listen well. Those who pay attention to others show that they value others’ opinions. The speakers feel heard and respected, which leads to stronger interpersonal relationships.

  • When you pay attention to detail, you start noticing valuable opportunities. You may discover facts, trends and other information faster than others and make a good impression upon your managers by making important suggestions in advance.

  • You will stop making silly mistakes and you will do things more thoroughly and diligently. It will drive business outcomes and you will shine at work.

  • When you start to pay attention, you store a lot more detail in your mind. People who pay attention have better memory as they’re more likely to retain and remember information.

How To Pay Attention

Did you know that you can train your mind to pay attention and increase your attention span? Here are a few effective tips to help you improve your attention span:

  1. Read It Again

Imagine that you are reading your favorite book for the second time. You’re likely to notice other details such as character motivation and plot points that you had missed the first time. Rereading helps pay attention to details and memorize things with greater efficiency.

  1. Take A Moment To Reflect

It’s easy to get caught up in the workplace, but you need to monitor your thoughts and feelings too. Self-awareness comes from paying attention to yourself. It is a great way to understand your strengths and weaknesses—enabling you to feel more in control of your thoughts and actions.

  1. Challenge Yourself

Improving your ability to pay attention to detail may be challenging, but who said it can’t be fun? Practice noticing small features in games or comic books. You can even play online games like ‘I Spy’ or ‘Where’s Waldo’ to train your eyes to see specific things.

  1. Break Down Goals

Every goal, no matter how big or small, requires a series of actions. If you have a long-term goal that you need to accomplish, break it down and pay attention to each component. Imagine that you have to appear for a job interview. You can break it down into multiple steps—things that you should carry, the clothes you should wear and the time you should reach the office.

  1. Take A Walk

It may sound strange, but paying attention to details can be achieved with an activity as simple as taking a walk by yourself. Take a route that you normally don’t use—it can be the road to your office or the nearest restaurant. You will be surprised by the number of things that you notice.


If you want to learn how to improve your attention span, start by listening more attentively to your coworkers and colleagues. Harappa’s Listening Actively course is designed to teach you how to be a better communicator. The ABC–Affective, Behavioral, and Cognitive–Aspects of Active Listening will help you become a better listener. The HARP–Hearing, Attention, Response and Perception–Equation will help you listen attentively and respond appropriately. Show others that you’re mindful of the smallest details and learn how to be attentive even on the busiest days!

Explore Harappa Diaries to learn more about topics related to the COMMUNICATE Habit such as Active Listening & What is Assertive Communication to fine-tune your communication skills.

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