A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington explored the best way to go about sticking to tasks for longer periods of time. Their findings identified two key components to maintaining attention: receiving feedback along the way and setting goals.
“Sustaining one’s attention is notoriously difficult,” said researcher Matthew Robison. “The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be. If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator.”
Rewards don’t help keep our attention
The researchers conducted four experiments with the study participants. The team had them complete tasks that required focus and attentiveness for 30 minutes. They wanted to see how various factors -- including rewards, feedback, and goal setting -- impacted their ability to remain focused.
In all of the tests, the participants lost steam over time. The longer the experiment went on, the harder it was to maintain attention the whole way through. Interestingly, the team learned that rewards weren’t an effective way to help the participants make it through the tasks.
“Even in conditions when people report feeling motivated and engaged, it is difficult to maintain optimal performance, especially if the task is attentionally demanding,” Robison said.
Goal-setting and feedback help us stay engaged
However, the researchers learned that getting feedback and setting goals helped participants get through the tasks. Goal setting didn’t help when it came to motivation to complete the tasks, but it was effective at helping the participants maintain their attention throughout the trial.
Similarly, when the participants received feedback at scheduled times throughout the experiment, they were less likely to have wandering thoughts. The researchers believe that combining these two strategies may be the most effective way for consumers to best complete long-term tasks.
Moving forward, the team hopes these findings are used in practical, real-world settings\. Even with the right strategies, maintaining attention on the same task for long periods of time can be difficult.
“We need to be cognizant of the level of difficulty involved in sustaining attention when we ask others to perform tasks where they must be attentive for long periods of time,” said Robison. “It is possible that we put ourselves in harm’s way by relying too much on the human attentional system to accomplish feats that may not be achievable.”