What is the distracted mind?

Do you multitask? It’s rhetorical, right? We all multitask in one way or the other. Some of us may be better at it than others, for example, women are considered better multitaskers than men. But to cope in today’s highly stimulated world we all have to multitask to some extent.

The truth, however, is that multitasking is a myth. Neuroscience tells us that the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. If you think you’re multitasking when you’re driving and talking on the phone, you’re wrong. Driving is relegated to a subconscious activity while you consciously focus on the conversation. Another example is watching TV whilst flicking through social media or browsing the internet. Whenever you shift your focus away from the TV to your phone you miss what’s happening on the TV.

Task switching

It is neurologically impossible for the brain to focus on more than one task at a time. A more accurate way to describe what’s happening in your brain is task switching. Your brain is jumping quickly between two or more tasks.

And therein lies the conundrum. If we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time and are constantly switching it between different tasks, then when we are not focused on one, we are distracted by another. From a communications point of view, this means our audience is distracted.

This is the biggest challenge in communications today. All communication requires the attention of an audience whether they’re internal staff or external customers. We need to break through their distractions to get them to connect with our communication.



This is the Distractometer. It indicates how distracted our audience is. From being distracted and unengaged to being engaged and ultimately a fan of your brand, they sit somewhere on this scale. The goal of any communication is to move your audience from being distracted to being engaged and a fan.

The cost of distraction

Distraction comes at a cost. It comes down to the efficacy of your communication. How effective is your communication and how engaged is your audience? How much of your audience sits on the distracted side versus on the engaged side? Whatever the shortfall is between your effort to move your audience and the result is the cost of distraction. We all experience a gap and can improve on the results.

Causes of distraction

Contrary to popular belief, distraction is not new. It may have been exacerbated by digital technology, but as we’ll see, distraction has been around for thousands of years. If we dig into the brain we see from a cognitive control point of view, our brains function in two ways: What we want and what we like. What we want makes up the executive functions and allows us to set and achieve goals. This is one of the key functions that allow humans to dominate the planet.

What we like is driven by our subconscious desires, is short-term in planning and as some may say, is responsible for instant gratification. It is also driven by the promise of a reward for its activities. What we like is a much older brain function than what we want and goes back to our caveman ancestors. It was a survival tactic used to avoid danger and forage for food. We would scan the environment for anything unusual or new in case it was a threat or something we could eat.

Wired for distraction

Today we no longer need to avoid threats in the same way or forage for food, we forage for information. The same function of the brain that allowed us to survive is now being used to find the next bit of information. This means that we are wired for distraction. If we want to engage our audience, we cannot fight distraction but should rather learn to work with it.

For communicators to engage and focus the attention of a distracted mind, we need to use our understanding of how the distracted mind works and structure messages for distraction. This means using elements such as novelty, difference and the promise of reward to engage the distracted mind. We should also consider that there is a science to engagement.

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In the spirit of Saturday morning cartoons, we provide fun and interesting insights into the principles of storytelling for business communication.

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Date: 16 or 30 September 2020 at 9am