Is divided attention related to time poverty?

Omair Ali

Perspectives Editor

We live in a society where our attitude towards time runs parallel to the phrase, “Time is of the essence.” Through wages, years of education and other means, time has been given importance as something of value. With this sense of time comes a cultural attitude towards time as a precious, scarce resource, which had given light to the idea of time poverty.

Time poverty, or time stress, is a subjective perception that one feels when they do not have enough time to do what they want. This form of stress can arise from an occupied lifestyle, which can include any combination of work, school, family and meeting social expectations.

Not everyone will feel time poor, but those who do should understand that time usage is divided into two distinct categories: the quantity of activities or time that is consumed and quality of the time being spent. While living a generally occupied lifestyle relates to the quantity of time, what markers could indicate the quality of time usage?

Divided attention is a cognitive consequence of information overload. Adapted from John Sweller’s cognitive load theory, information overload occurs when one’s central nervous system’s working memory capacity is overwhelmed by too many informational inputs that impair our cognitive capacities. I recognize divided attention as a negative marker for quality of time usage because it generally decreases performance. Last week, I mentioned clear examples of time wastage facilitated by dependence on media technologies (informational tools that can divide our attention) or multitasking behavior, which made me think that inappropriate uses of attention might relate to time poverty.

However, the clarity of this perceived relationship becomes blurred when looking back in time. Per a 2015 Gallup poll, it appears that society’s sense of time scarcity has not changed over the last two decades. Maybe this means that our cultural transformations have not made an impact on our collective sense of time scarcity. Or maybe this means that there is not enough data to reject or accept the hypothesis of whether there is a relationship between time poverty and divided attention.

Modern society’s perception of time can make it seem as though there is never enough time for people to get stuff done. Photo Credit:

Determining the Relationship through Introspection and Self-Observation

Until we have significant data across a spectrum of ages, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds that relates divided attention to time poverty, we cannot elucidate, let alone confirm this relationship.

Maybe a person does not have divided attention but they feel time poor. Or maybe a person that experiences divided attention but do not face time poverty. Since both time poverty and divided attention are subjectively perceived variables, it is possible that this relationship can be found only individually on a case-by-case basis.

But do I believe that divided attention plays a role in my own sense of time scarcity? On occasion, yes. And do I suspect that others, including people I know well, face these issues as well? Yes, I think some of them do.

Within ourselves, we can determine if we struggle with divided attention, and if so, how that might contribute to our own scarcity of time.

Introspection is the most available means of determining the mental and behavioral obstacles that might contribute to divided attention and our perceived scarcity of time. But more precise than this is recording what we do at every given moment (and for how long) throughout the day. Daily activity logging—accurately recording every significant activity one does and for how long they pursue this activity—is a practice needed to complement introspection and to confirm our suspicions about distracting behavior. But this must be done in excruciating detail (i.e., whenever you switch from one task to the next) to establish a complete profile of how one uses their time. After accomplishing this, one should have a better idea about his own usage of time and how well his attention matches his intended behavior.

Perhaps this was not a definitive answer for this matter, but I hope that this was certainly a curious thought that suggested the importance of looking into ourselves to help make conclusions. After all, many of the issues we face, such as time poverty and divided attention, depend completely on our unique collection of circumstances and behaviors, which sometimes cannot be extrapolated to imply correlation or causation.