There are several types of attention that people use during everyday activities, such as when driving or cooking or in a classroom setting. Selective attention is one of the kinds of attention that requires a person to focus on one activity in the midst of many activities. Sustained attention is used when a person needs to focus on one event for a longer period of time. The other types of attention, divided attention and alternating attention, are needed when a person has to focus on many things at once.
A person may need to use selective attention when attending a large gathering or when out in a public area, such as a restaurant. In a room full of people, all carrying on multiple conversations, she will need to focus on the conversation or activity she is participating in, ignoring the other conversations going on around her. Selective attention may be used when a person is studying in a room that is noisy as well.
When a person is able to sit and focus on a single task for a long period of time, she is using sustained attention. Examples of sustained attention may include reading a book for hours or completing a task such as sweeping the floor. Some people find it difficult to maintain this type of attention and may become distracted easily. A key part of sustained attention is being able to re-focus on the task at hand after a distraction arises.
The other types of attention are divided attention and alternating attention. When a person uses alternating attention, her brain is able to switch from one task to another. Usually, the tasks require the use of different areas of the brain. A common example of using alternating attention is reading and then making a recipe. Other examples of this kind of attention include singing and dancing or driving a vehicle. When driving, a person's attention shifts from accelerating, checking the road for obstacles, and signaling to make turns, among other tasks.
Alternating and divided attention are more complex types of attention than sustained and selective. Divided attention is also commonly referred to as multi-tasking. Someone may use divided attention when on the phone if she checks her mail at the same time. Unlike alternating attention, a person using divided attention does not change from one task to another completely different task. Instead, she attempts to perform them at the same time.