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Podcast Episode 061: The myth of multi-tasking – working memory and listening with Professor Stefan van der Stigchel

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How good is your multi-tasking? Is it a skill you try to work on?

On this episode of Deep Listening, Prof. Stefan van der Stigchel explains what happens when you’re multi-tasking, and why it might not actually exist at all.

An expert in attention, Stefan shares how to write notes to best retain information and continue listening. He explains what your working memory is, and how distraction cuts your performance in half.

Learn how to really pay attention when listening, and how to prepare your environment to minimise distraction.


Episode 61: The myth of multi-tasking – working memory and listening with Professor Stefan van der Stigchel

Stefan van der Stigchel:

I know that listening is very difficult because you use working memory when you listen to a conversation. Working memory can actually only perform one task at a time, but we use working memory for a lot of different actions, like when you’re making computations, or when you’re reading, you use working memory. What’s difficult when you listen is that you only think you should do is, in the end, listen.

Oscar Trimboli:

Deep Listening – Impact Beyond Words.

Hi, I’m Oscar Trimboli, and this is the Deep Listening podcast series, designed to move you from an unconscious listener to a deep and productive listener. Did you know that you spend 55% of your day listening, yet only 2% of us have had any listening training whatsoever. Frustration, misunderstanding, wasted time and opportunity, along with creating poor relationships are just some of the costs of not listening.

Each episode of the series is designed to provide you with practical, actionable and impactful tips to move you through the five levels of listening. I invite you to visit to learn about the five levels of listening and how others are making an impact beyond words.

Yeah, I know Jonny, it’s hard to keep everyone’s attention after 60 episodes. In this episode of Deep Listening – Impact Beyond Words, we speak to a global expert in attention, or the opposite of distraction. Imagine you could get all the hacks you need to understand how to notice when your attention is wandering, whether your attention is diverted internally or externally, understand the difference between sustained attention or your concentration, and tension in the moment.

We spend time exploring the role of working memory and it’s relationship to multitasking. Multitasking is possible, just not in the way you think, especially when it comes to listening. Joining us today is Professor Stefan from the Netherlands, from Utrecht University, and he’s written a brilliant book called How Your Attention Works. What I love about this chat, and listen out for a couple of really interesting things, the role of the speaker in helping the listener to listen. Yes, you have a responsibility as a speaker to help others to listen to you, and listen carefully. As a high school teacher explains to us how you can use the technique she uses at the beginning of every class, at the beginning of every meeting in your workplace. Then finally explore what are you attention rituals, and how do you get into a place and space that your attention is available for the speaker. Let’s listen to Stefan.

Stefan, as a world expert in attention, I’m fascinated. What frustrates you when other people don’t listen?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

I’m a university teacher, right. When I’m in lecture room, for me, the most important thing is to get the information across. A lot of the times … I actually teach about the subject attention, so I’m an attention researcher.

I talk to the class about how important attention is and what attention exactly is. It’s a little bit weird if I have the impression that I don’t receive the attention on the moment I just told them that information is crucial to transfer information. Luckily, I can then use that phrase in order to capture their attention again, and make sure that they understand that attention is crucial, or else my job is completely useless.

Oscar Trimboli:

Stefan, the lecture room has changed quite a lot in the period of time in which you been teaching. I’m curious about the changes between pen and paper, and laptops and iPads. I’m curious what that means for the attention of people in your lecture rooms.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

I agree that the lecture room has changed a lot. I do advise them to use pen and paper. I normal start in my lectures with the examples of the scientific literature that have shown that when you write stuff down, you remember information better compared to when you type it down. That’s a part of the whole embodied cognition literature. But I actually do sometimes see people close their laptop, and take pen and paper, and start making notes by using their body in a more elaborative way compared to when they type on a laptop.

Oscar Trimboli:

Could you expand a bit in referencing this literature as it relates to taking notes with pen and paper, versus typing with them and what it does to your attention?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Even if you throw away your notes after listening, we still see that people have a better memory of the thing they just heard when they’ve written it down on pen and paper, and when they made connotations, when they’re writing it down. When they use graphics, whatever turns the content into a different way of representation. Of course, when you are listening, you receive auditory information. By transferring that into some other symbols of representing that piece of knowledge, that way of transfer, you use your working memory. Working memory, in the end, is crucial to get information into long-term memory.

When you repeat something in your working memory, the chances of that information being stored in long-term memory increase the longer the information is repeated in working memory. Working memory does a lot of things. It makes sure that information is transferred to long-term memory, but you also use working memory in order to process information, and to handle information, and to manipulate information.

When you use working memory for other things, it becomes very active and this means that the chances of the information being stored in long-term memory become actually increased, simply because you are using working memory in a very active way. Because it’s active, the information is maintained better, and therefore also stored with increased chance in long-term memory.

The other thing is of course your body. We don’t only have our brain to store information, but we also store information simply by making body movements. Of course in the end, they are stored in the brain, but we all are familiar with, for instance, when you start to play tennis. In the beginning, it takes a lot of effort and you have to think about every movement that you make. But after a while, it becomes internalised and you don’t need to think about it anymore consciously in order to play tennis.

We know that information also has a bodily component and memory also has a component related to the human body. The more you use your body when you’re listening to information in order to store that information, the better it will be stored in the brain. This is the whole idea about embodied cognition, that we’re not only the mind, but we’re also the mind and the body.

I can imagine that the moment you are typing, there is a more simpler one-to-one relationship, so you are literally writing down what you have because you’re limited in what the keyboard can tell you what to do. The keyboard is extremely limited in what you can do with it, so you’re restricted. I think because you are restricted, you are forced to use the symbols that the keyboard tells you to use. But you’re completely free, on the other hand, the moment you are writing on a piece of paper.

We also know that the moment you are listening to something, you can also just draw, scribble, make these weird little drawings that have nothing really to do. It’s partly automatic and you just use it to let go of all the [inaudible 00:08:54] in your brain. You just want to do something while you’re listening.

The freedom that a pen and paper gives you also allows you to not listen, or don’t write down what you’re listening to, but just do other stuff. I think that freedom makes you less restricted.

Oscar Trimboli:

People often joke with me that I must be a perfect listener. I’m far from that. I get as distracted as anybody else. I think I just notice when I’m distracted more than most. I’m curious what you struggle with yourself when it comes to your listening.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

I know that listening is very difficult because you use working memory when you listen to a conversation. Working memory can actually only perform one task at a time, but we use working memory for a lot of different actions, like when you’re making computations or when you’re reading you use working memory. What’s difficult when you listen is that the only thing you should do is, in the end, listen. Of course, in your daily life, there are a lot of different things that you want to do or also thinking about. What’s difficult when you’re actually listening to something is that you should focus on that one task. That’s not just me personally, but I think a lot of people have difficulty dong that in order to really clear their working memories to make sure it’s only doing that one particular task.

I tend to mind-wander a lot and I think a lot of people are experiencing that. Mind-wanderers need extremely interesting topic because what it does is the moment you are focusing and you’re concentrating on something, you have to ignore also all the internal information that’s coming to you, so all the internal processes. You might worry about something or you might struggle with something. The moment you are listening to something, you have to actively suppress the mind-wandering network.

I tend to have [difficult 00:10:50] in that. I want to listen, but what I’m actually doing is I’m thinking about yesterday or thinking about my future plans. My mind starts to wander. Honestly, I have no reason to assume that I might wander more or less than other people, but I do find it difficult is when I am at a scientific conference and I really want to listening to a specific talk, but I’ve been listening for a couple of hours already to different talks that my mind starts to wander. It frustrates me because I want to listen and it was really my intention to listen.

I see my mind-wandering starting already. [inaudible 00:11:25] conference, you can only lose track for one or two minutes and you’ve completely missed the message because you’re missing an important aspect about the experiment or whatever. Then it becomes really frustrating because you cannot go back in time and ask to the presenter, “Can you please explain it to me again,” because now you’re in a hall with 300 people. Then you’ve just missed your opportunity.

Even if you really stressed to yourself that I want to listen for the next 15 minutes, the moment you start to mind-wander, you’re lost. That to me is pretty frustrating, especially if I actually want to listen.

Oscar Trimboli:

Aside from academic theatres, is there a story that brings distraction to life for you?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Sure. People come into my room when I’m on my work quite often to ask me questions or to talk about a certain experiment. Of course, when you’re in your working environment, things are not always positive. What I’ve tried to learn is that communicate to if people enter my room to say, “This is not the right moment. I cannot listen to you. My mind is not open. My working memory is full. I’m worrying about something.” I’ve start to realise that people actually appreciate it if you say it.

In the past, there are too many occasions in which I was claiming to be listening, and they ask me questions, and I just noticed my mind is somewhere else. I am mind-wandering about a meeting before and that I simply have to admit that I have no idea what they’re talking about. That’s quite embarrassing and it’s frustrating, but I’ve learned through my peers that there are people who can acknowledge that, that they can acknowledge if somebody walks into the room, ask them a scientific question, “Please, not now.” I think it’s good to have a culture in a work environment where you can admit that, “Although I might be looking at you right now, I am honestly not listening. This is not due to you, you’re very interesting. You probably a very interesting question, but what’s happening to me right now is that my mind is wandering and I’m not ready to receive your information.”

I think in my environment, people have to learn that that’s a possibility and that they can come back at a later time when it’s not something person. I think previously what happened to me is that I was almost afraid to tell the other person because I was afraid that they were going to take it personally, that you are not interesting to me. I try to make sure that it’s not about them, but it’s simply that the current situation is for some reason not appropriate.

Oscar Trimboli:

Most success in dialogue comes from agreeing to have the conversation at the right time and the right place, rather than the urge to have the dialogue in the moment.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

I think that the most important thing that I’ve learned is to have to make sure that your mind is completely free. When I talk about the mind, I talk about the working memory. Of course, the working memory is crucial because I investigated, I do a lot of research on working memory.

I know from extreme cases that when you’re worrying about something or when your working memory is full, it’s extremely difficult to concentrate and to focus on something particular. To me, of course, investigating it has helped me to understand. It’s also the reason why I wrote the book, I hoped that if people learn about how working memory works, that they can also put it up to discussion, and to talk about other people, and understand that it’s actually pretty normal, and that this is just how the brain functions.

When you have extreme stress, it’s impossible to concentrate. Concentration is extremely difficult when people have a neurological disorder or a neurodegenerative disorder. The first they complain about in neuropsychological clinic is concentration and focus. Because concentration is so difficult, it’s generally also the first thing to deteriorate the moment the brain gets into trouble. The important thing is that you listen to the appropriate and the right information, and that you really start to ignore because it’s a default function of the brain that you ignore all the information that’s not relevant. It’s interesting to see that your brain is extremely good at picking up information that’s relevant, like [inaudible 00:16:02] information is irrelevant.

Although there are a lot of situations in which we allow us to be distracted, and I think what’s important these days is that you make sure that you have less of these distractions, in that if you want to listen, if it’s relevant to you, that you can actually listen. I think that’s one of the most important challenges of our time.

Oscar Trimboli:

Stefan, many of us use the term attention quite loosely and generally. I was wondering if you could deconstruct the term for us and bring a level of precision that will help us understand it much better and make it more useful.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Everyone who has trouble understanding what attention is shouldn’t feel worried because it’s actually a very complicated scientific term. There is actually movement within my field that claims that attention should not be used as a word, because it’s a too multifaceted term that’s simply there is not one single mechanism, intentional mechanism in the brain. But I think said that, I will try to do my best.

When coming from a sensory domain, every day we are bombarded with a lot of facial, and auditory, and tactile information, and our brain is simply not equipped to process all that information. It doesn’t need to. What it does, it selects only part of that information for further processing. This is attention from an input point of view. It’s all the information that comes to you. In any given moment in time, you are only able to focus your attention on one piece of information in the outside world.

On the other hand, we also have internal attention. If you want to focus, if you want to read a book, if you want to listen, you should focus on that information, allocate your attention on it, but keep your intention for a longer period of time. This is what we call the attention span or concentration. The first step is to focus on the right information. It could be something in the external world, it could also be something in the internal world. Then the second step is to keep that information, all that piece of information for as long as possible. That’s something we call sustained attention concentration.

One dimension is at a particular moment in time on what piece of information do you focus, where do you put your attention. Then there’s the time aspect, how long are you able to keep your attention on that piece of information. Those actually two different concepts, but they are used intertwined. We use attention for both processes. In any given moment in time, what do you allocate your attention on and then how long are you able to keep your attention on that piece of information.

Oscar Trimboli:

A great distinction. I’m curious if you would at this moment step us through what’s happening in our minds, and specifically as it relates to working memory from an external point of view, whether that’s from a visual distraction or something else, and how the body makes sense of all that information coming in.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

It’s impossible for information to reach working memory if it’s not attended. Attention is the gateway into working memory. Because working memory allows conscious thought, it’s impossible to think about something that has not been attended. This could be something internally, something externally. Therefore, it’s crucial to capture someone’s attention if you want to convey a message, because without attention it can never reach working memory.

But once it has entered working memory, the information has to stay there. That’s complicated because for information to stay in working memory, it needs to be repeated, it needs to be actively repeated. We’re all familiar with that, where we’re asked to remember a complicated phone number. We need to repeat it in our minds all the time because else we might lose that information.

That’s the same thing when you focus on something, when you have attended to something, but you want to keep your attention there. It requires an active process of rehearsing what you’re doing. When you’re reading, the information needs to be continuously repeated. The task needs to be actively maintained in working memory.

That’s a problem because working memory is fragile. We know that information can just be dropped from working memory quite easily, simply because you have lost your train of thoughts or you’re thinking about something else. But what can also happen that something in your environment occurs that automatically captures your attention. When you’re talking to someone and somebody enters the room, what’s possible and what’s very likely to occur is that the person entering the room will automatically capture your attention. This is a reflex. There’s nothing the brain can do about it that has allowed us to survive. When something happens in your environment, attention automatically goes to that piece of information because it’s probably relevant.

However, this does mean that when your attention is captured, that information is automatically transferred into working memory. Now, what you’re thinking about is that person entering the room. This is something that happens automatically. This means, this implies that previous task that you were doing, so for instance when you’re listening to someone, that task is out of your working memory. It’s no longer a part of working memory because it has been simply be replaced by the information and the environment that has automatically captured attention. As a result, you have lost your concentration. Therefore, listening is difficult because it requires working memory. Working memory is fragile and it’s very easy for information to be lost for working memory.

Oscar Trimboli:

I can’t help but thinking while I’m listening to you that the term multitasking referenced as a myth may be true and it may be false.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

That very much depends on your definition of multitasking. If you define multitasking as performing two tasks at the same time, that require working memory, that’s impossible. The working memory could not perform more than one task at a time.

What you’re doing when you’re multitasking is that you actually are switching between tasks, so you’re performing one task, and then you’re switching to the other task, and then you’re switching back to the other task again. You’re not performing them parallel, but you’re performing both tasks serially.

There is a cost associated with performing tasks one-by-one in a serial fashion. Every time you changed your task, there is residual cost from the previous task that you are performing. That’s a phenomena we call task switching, and the costs are called switch costs. Everyone has switch costs. Male have switch costs, female also have switch costs. This is just to make sure that nobody thinks that multitasking is something that differs between the sexes. Male and female are just [inaudible 00:23:26] in switching tasks. There is no difference in that. Everyone has a cost associated with switching different tasks, the tasks take longer, there are more errors that you’re making, and it triggers the stress system. The moment you are switching tasks all the time, it’s very tiring for the brain because in the end, it will result in stress.

I think everyone can relate to that the moment you want to focus something, but you’re disturbed all the time. What’s then happening is that you’re switching between tasks all the time. In the end, you become irritated. You notice that you are more stressed every time you disturb it, compared to a situation in which you’re not disturbed all the time.

This does however mean that it’s not impossible for the brain to perform two tasks at the same time because I can still walk and talk at the same time. However, walking does not require working memory in my case. When you’re young, it does. When you start to learn to walk, it’s a very conscious process. But after a while, walking becomes automatic and it doesn’t require working memory anymore.

Multitasking only refers to tasks that actually are not automatic. Unfortunately, there are a lot of tasks that we have to perform, which are not automatic, and therefore require working memory. But sometimes, multitasking comes in really handy. I have small kids, but the moment when I’m preparing dinner, I also want to look after my kids just to make sure that they’re safe. In that situation, I’m multitasking. I’m trying to cook, but at the same time, I am once in a while checking up on how my kids are doing. This might result in the meal being done a little bit later, and perhaps not as tasteful as I would have my full concentration, but again, I choose this strategy because it allows me to keep my kids safe.

I’m also a little bit against the theory that multitasking is always a bad idea. There are a lot of situations in which it actually is a good idea. However, there are also a lot of situations in which a bad idea, and that is a task that requires fulls focus and in which the task that will disturb you are completely irrelevant, like looking at your mobile phone when you’re in a conversation to someone. In that situation, it’s actually a bad idea to multitask.

Oscar Trimboli:

I’m really glad you went there because I’m visualising a modern workplace, I’m visualising a meeting room. It’s got lots of white around it and there’s six chairs in the room, and the table is rectangular, and people are facing a projector screen, and there’s some light in the room, there’s a door at the entrance and people are sitting down. Some people are sitting down taking notes with their laptop, some people are sitting down taking notes with pen and paper, some people are sitting down not taking any notes at all. What am I curious about right now is, what happens for the person’s working memory as a presentation is taking place?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Because working memory can only perform one task at a time, they’re either listening and making notes or they’re doing something else. When they’re replying to income emails, it’s really impossible for them to actually listen, because replying to emails will then be the task that’s in work memory, while listening is not.

Of course, one could argue that I can switch really quickly between listening and replying to that email that just came in, however, we know from experiments that the information will be processed to a much lesser extent when you actually listen the whole time, than when you are disturbing yourself all the time. The information will not be stored and it’s very likely that you will miss information, because the moment you are typing the email, you’re missing incoming information because you’re not attending to that information. You’re currently attending to the writing the email.

You’re missing information and it’s very likely that you will leave that session very tired and a lot more tired compared to a situation in which you’ve only listened to what is being presented to you, because that continuously switching between the tasks is tiring for the brain. In the end of the work day, you will go home a lot more tired compared to a situation which you have not been multitasking.

One might argue, “No, I’m actually making notes.” That’s indeed very well possible, but a lot of the computers are equipped with notifications. A lot of the time, we’re running programmes that are fighting for your attention, so every time a new email comes in, you see a notification. Of course, one can argue that, “Okay, I can ignore the notification,” but we know from experiments that people are actually quite poor in ignoring that information.

Knowing that you have a new message creates something I’d like to call mental itch, and that you’re extremely curious what that new information is because the brain simply loves new information. I agree with the argument that a notification doesn’t capture a lot of attention, and you can very quickly disengage from a notification itself, but what’s the problem is, is what the notification does to the system. You are just simply curious what that new piece of information is.

We know from experiments that if people perform a difficult task, and they are aware that they’ve got a new message, simply because we played a sound on their mobile that they’ve got a new message, performance actually drops quite dramatically. Simply knowing that you have a message fills part of your working memory because you become extremely curious what that new piece of information and you will lose part of your concentration on what you’re currently doing. I think that the situation that you are describing is actually a situation in which is extremely likely that the information will not be attended fully.

Oscar Trimboli:

Stefan, you touched on performance decline. I’m curious, are we talking a decline of 1%, 10%, 50%? Are we just leaving it to luck? Is there much chance that we understand it if we were there or we weren’t?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

It very much depends between different people. When I would tell you, it becomes an average, and of course it very much depends on your type of task that you’re doing, if it’s extremely difficult or if it’s really easy. But again, I have situations or I’ve seen situations in which a task is extremely difficult. As you really need to perform well to perform above chance level, and just know when you have a message, brings performance down to chance level. If it’s extremely difficult, you will need all of your attention span and your full working memory capacity to perform a task.

Even a slight occupation of part of your working memory by something in the external world that’s not related to the task, will just bring the task down to chance level. We’re not able to do it simply because the working memory capacity is extremely limited.

Oscar Trimboli:

Basically what you’ve said is although [inaudible 00:30:44] hearing somebody, there’s a 50/50 percent chance that you could be listening to them or not.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Yeah. People just simply guessing. We do tasks in the lab. You’re more than welcome to do them. They are so extremely difficult. The moment you lose part of your concentration, you can only perform at chance level, then you’re simply guessing because you haven’t devoted your full attention to the task and your performance simply collapses.

Oscar Trimboli:

Stefan, you spend a lot of time in a lecture theatre. The role of the speaker and the role of the listener is quite clear. Can you spend just a little bit of time deconstructing what happens when a lecture full of people are sitting in front of you who are supposed to be listening to you, what’s happening for their working memory in that moment?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Yeah, so when I start a lecture, I mostly make sure that what we’re doing is we’re going to start an agreement, an agreement between a sender and a receiver. The sender of information in that case is me, because I am going to be the lecturer for the next 45 minutes. What I am asking them is for them to really try to focus on the information that I am presenting, and not to be distracted by other information.

What my part there is, is I try to make the lecture as fun and engaging as possible. This is my role. I am more than happy to agree that the moment I lose their concentration, it’s not only their fault, but it’s also my fault. I don’t really agree with the terms or the claims that concentration span of listeners is really decreasing. I tend to blame it on the sender partly that … It’s an agreement, It’s not one of their faults. If you present information in an engaging way, people can still listen as long as they actually try to listen. It’s an agreement. When it goes wrong, it is probably blamed on both sides because I don’t agree with the claim that a concentration span has decreased over the years. There is no scientific evidence for such a claim.

I think people can still concentrate just as well as previously. People can still watch Netflix series for hours. If we have an interest in podcast, I have no doubt that people can still listen to that for the whole period of time. It’s simply an agreement that you have to present information in an engaging way and the person that’s receiving the information should be open for the information. Then concentration in a communication style is still possible. When I’m in a lecture room, I try to make that clear, that this is something between you and me, and we’re going to do this and we’re going to get this task done, this job done.

What the receiver needs to do, in terms of working memory, it needs to make sure that it’s not performing other tasks that tax all the working memory. When you’re listening to information, you should be sure that your full working memory is devoted to processing the incoming information. What’s important to know about this is when do you start the lecture, it’s important to realise that you cannot expect listeners to listen from the first moment immediately. They have to clear their working memory. They might be having a conversation with a person that’s sitting next to them, and you should appreciate that it’s not possible to stop, have that conversation and then have complete focus. It takes some time for the listener to clear their working memory and to make sure they only have that one particular task in working memory.

When I lecture, I try to make sure that I am not loading their working memory from the first moment on, simply because I know that they’re still processing, their working memory is still processing part of that previous information. However, after a while, their working memory should be empty and there should be only one thing in their working memory. In that case, that’s listening to the lecture, the person that’s standing in front of them. They should try to make sure that that’s the only thing they listen to. They need to make sure that their environment is such that there are no distractions that can automatically interfere with that process.

I always try to make that clear, but of course I have a easy task because I teach this stuff, so I can actually get it into practise immediately. Then when I see people disturbed, then I can actually tell them then, “Hey, you’re not putting my theory into practise.” When somebody’s late and they enter the door, I can then demonstrate that, see, everyone’s lost their concentration right now because somebody is entering the door and all our attention is automatically captured by that person.

I think you can understand that people don’t dare to come in late in my courses, when it’s an attention to course because I can say you’ve not paid attention last time because as you would note that coming in late is an extremely problem for everyone’s concentration.

Oscar Trimboli:

Just take us back a little bit. Take us back to the part where you’re helping them make the transition or relax at the beginning of the lecture. Do you have a tip or a hack to help with a technique to ease them in at the beginning of your lecture?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Yeah. It’s not something I do, but it’s a story I like a lot. I’ve talked to a high school teacher, and that teacher told me that she has a new class every hour. What they do is they come to her classroom, so they walk through the hallway. When she told that she starts with one minute of silence every time each lecture starts, so she knows that people are coming in, and they’re still thinking about their conversation, or just something that happens on the hallway.

She just takes a minute and it’s a minute of silence. You could compare it to something like meditation, which we know has extremely good effect on attention span. What it allows you to do, it allows you to clear your working memory, just empty it. You can put something on paper, a thought you might have, or an idea, or a task that you need to do later in the day. She allows her students to do that, to put things on paper, to externalise so that the content of the working memory and put it into an external memory, which is a piece of paper and then allows them to empty their internal working memory. I really love that idea of using our external world as a way of storing information such that it doesn’t tax our internal memory.

Oscar Trimboli:

Stefan, you’ve written this wonderful book, How Attention Works: Finding Your Way in a World Full of Distractions. What are some of the really practical tips you can provide for us to help us make improvements on how we bring our attention and organise our working memory to the task at hand, in this case, how to listen?

Stefan van der Stigchel:

One of them is make sure that your environment is such that you don’t allow yourself to be distracted. I think everybody can come up with examples, a way to do it. Turn of your notifications.

The second thing that’s important is to make sure that your working memory is empty. Don’t require yourself to focus immediately when you start doing a task. Allow yourself, for your working memory, to be empty. You could use the external world as a way of doing that.

You can also create something I would like to call an attention ritual, so something you associate with a period of concentration. You can clean your house just a couple of minutes or you can go and take a shower. Do something that you associate with a period of concentration.

I’m a big music lover and I have a vinyl collection. What I tend to do before I start to write is that I play around with my vinyl collection, I just reshuffle it a little bit, or take some records out, put some new records in. This allows me to get my working memory empty and it’s something I would like to call attention ritual.

Another trick that you can use is meditation. We know that meditation is an extremely good concentration trainer. It’s one of the only things that we know actually generalises to other situation. I really am convinced about the quality of the literature on meditation as it’s being an enhancer of attention span.

Sleep well. I know it’s an open door, but I would like to go there. We know that sleep is something that really fills up the battery again for concentration. But also, other breaks. When the moment you start to mind-wander, you might realise that your battery is actually empty. Because in the end, concentration is not infinite. Everyone has a certain concentration span. After you have noticed that your battery becomes empty, you need to take a break and that break should in the most ideal situations, shouldn’t be just a walk outside in nature or in a park, a situation where your attention actually can fill up the battery again, the attention of battery.

If you don’t have to use your attention, your attention network can restore again. We know that walking in a park is a situation where your attention is not really necessary, except [inaudible 00:40:44] when there are wild animals, but in the Netherlands we don’t really have a lot of wild animals any more. This is a situation where we know that having a break actually helps you concentrate after the break.

Don’t pick up your phone because when you pick your phone, it still requires some attention. The perfect break is a situation where your retention is not being used at that time.

Don’t try to multitask. If it’s not necessary, do tasks, not try to do them at the same time, but pick priorities, and make one task and fulfil and complete a task before moving onto the other task.

I think those are just some very basic principles that people can use in order to enhance their attention span. With one, I think the most important lesson is that it’s like a muscle, it needs training. When you have a period in which you don’t focus for quite some time, you will realise that when you come into a new period of focus, in the beginning it becomes difficult and you realise that you struggle with attending for a longer period of time. But the good things is, you will notice, if you train [inaudible 00:41:51] for some time, that you notice that you can concentrate longer and longer.

I think it holds for every cognitive capacity, but even motor capacities like a muscle. You need to train it. What you can do is you can develop your own training programme and try to lengthen the time of concentration each day. I think everyone will notice that it actually helpful, it does improve your attention in the end.

Oscar Trimboli:

G’day. It’s Oscar here. Have I got your attention? We’re just going to take a little break from Stefan and I’m super curious, what do you use when you struggle with your concentration? What do you use to get yourself back in the moment? What do you use to notice internal and external distractions? What do you struggle with when it comes to maintaining your concentration? What hacks do you use to maintain that concentration?

For me, it’s always a glass of water. That’s why I always ask for a glass of water in the meeting. It’s a great way to keep my brain hydrated, but it’s also a mental shortcut for me when I get distracted to come back into the conversation. I’d love for each of you to go and visit and leave your tips, hacks and tips there. But equally, if you’re struggling, why don’t you write down the situations when you struggle and then we can all help you along the way to becoming a deeper listener.

I’m really loving this interview with Stefan. The big thing for me right now is multitasking as it relates to listening is a complete and utter a myth. You need to be present, you need to be in the moment and that’s why 86% of us in the research says we’ll be distracted.

All right, let’s go back to Stefan with his final tip.

Stefan van der Stigchel:

Final tips. I think it’s important that you have a limited amount of attention, and therefore attention is a valuable good. The moment you start to realise that … I think it’s an important moment, at least for me, it’s always been an eye-opener that I should devote my attention well and only to the stuff that’s relevant because I only have a limited amount of attention during the day.

I don’t like the idea that Silicon Valley holds our attention, and use our attention on a certain market, and that we’re doomed in a sense because I am confident that I can beat Silicon Valley, just by putting off my phone and shutting it down. I always feel very positive that you can simply win the competition for your own attention by just taking the right steps and shutting off your phone at certain moments in time, and simply concentrate. I’ve started to appreciate that more and more, the more I know about concentration.

Oscar Trimboli:

I hope like me, you took so much out of this interview. I love when Stefan refers to the mental itch when you think a phone or a notification is coming through. He talks about the fact that concentration is not infinite and concentration is like a muscle, it needs to be trained, and reinforcing this myth around multitasking at the front of working memory. It’s impossible to do because there are high switching cost as it relates to the role of listening.

Don’t you love that the speaker has as much responsibility to help us listen as we do? I think that’s a shared responsibility. A bit curious, what are your attention rituals? What do you do? I noticed Stefan had a vinyl connection that he plays before he undertakes a task requiring concentration. For me, I love music myself and there’s always a soundtrack I’m playing to break up the concentration throughout tasks during the day.

Sometimes, I can get by with just one track, and sometimes it might be a little bit more. Yup, then it’s quite a wide range of English, US, Australian music, as well as classical music too. I find each of those just rewires my brain in a completely different way.

The biggest tip I took from today was Stefan’s reference to the high school teacher and the technique that she uses to have a simple minute silence, have a reflection in writing to externalise the distraction so that then we can become present in the room as well. I wonder what techniques you use to help the speaker and the listener come to the same place and space at the same time.

Finally, I love the way Stefan role modelled the lost listener. That time when he was at university lecture surrounded by 300 people where he was trying to understand some of these complex scientific terms. It was great to see that a world champion expert in attention who not only lectures on the topic, has written a book and speaks on it, gets distracted too, exactly like me.

I want to make it clear that I struggle with my attention every single day as well. I’m not a perfect listener, but I’m practising every day to build that mental muscle that Stefan was referencing as well.

I really encourage you, if you get a chance to get and get Stefan’s book, How Attention Works, because it’s really simple, it’s really accessible, and it’s got some really practical tips to reinforce there.

I wonder what you struggle with when it comes to listening. Hey, why don’t you leave us a tip about what you struggle with when it comes to listening on our Facebook Group, the Deep Listening Facebook Group. You can see it at

It takes a tribe to create a movement. To create 100 million Deep Listeners in the world, I ask for your help. If you could share this podcast episode with one person who you think is struggling with their listening, we could get to 100 million Deep Listeners in the world in only 36 months. Thanks for listening.

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