Daniel Kahneman, a researcher at Princeton, conducted a study where he gave participants a simple task. At the sound of a rhythmic pacer, memorize a string of 4 digits shown and then add 3 to each digit. He dubbed this the Addi3 experiment
Simple task right? Turns out, the effort to do such a task pushes our brain’s focus the limit. More so than even tasks you might be expected to do in complex environments. That’s because the simultaneous process of both reading information, applying an operation, and storing it is as mentally taxing on our brain as possible.
When we focus on our tasks, there’s a limit to how much focus we can put on something. Even if you had to memorize a string of numbers for the sake of your life, you cannot put as much mental attention as you do for the Addi3 experiment. It’s the simple way our brain allocates focus.
So the question of mental focus doesn’t become how much effort you wish to put into it or what stakes are involved. It’s the process the task itself involves. Maybe you can listen to an audiobook while working out. Or watch TV while cutting vegetables (at least if you’re accustomed to cooking). But you certainly need to focus when driving in dark, foggy conditions.
In your work, it’s up to you to decide how to allocate tasks. Ensure that the ones you choose allow you to operate with the peak mental focus to get the most out of your work.