Reclaiming Our Shrinking Attention Span
Have you noticed your attention span has been on a steady path of decline for the past few years? If so, you’re not alone. In 2000, the average person's attention span was around 12 seconds. By 2013, it had dwindled to just 8 seconds — a whole second less than a goldfish!
It seems that something is causing us all to lose concentration and lose focus. But why is it happening and what can we do to reclaim our shrinking attention spans?
What’s Behind Our Shrinking Attention Span?
It’s no coincidence that our attention spans have been on a downward spiral since the noughties. Technological advances, especially the mobile revolution, the growth in social media, and a change in how media’s presented to us all put us in a position where we don’t have to pay much attention to anything anymore.
Smartphones are probably the biggest culprit of them all. These small (or not so small anymore) devices have become our lifeline to the world. We have our entire lives stored on them, so it’s only natural that they’re with us throughout the day.
But these important pieces of tech also contain silly games and instant access to social media apps, 24/7 news, and messaging services.
The frequent pings and notifications are constant interruptions that seriously drain our attention span. How can your attention be on the task at hand when an email that just arrived in your inbox, the bank just changed your interest rate, or John from the office just posted an update on a work board? Mobiles often interrupt us when we’re in the middle of concentrating on something important, breaking our train of thought and dragging attention away from whatever we were doing.
And, even when you’ve not received a notification, the temptation to check your phone also plays on your mind, with the average person checking their phone up to 58 times a day.
Social Media Boom
Social media companies know what they’re doing when it comes to grabbing our attention. But, they’re also responsible for shortening our attention spans.
Tweets, Snapchat, Tinder, Instagram, and other social media posts are restricted in characters or length. We no longer have the opportunity to read long passages of text or focus our attention on an hour-long video. Instead, we’ve all become used to short snippets of information and news.
It’s become far too easy to scroll through news and update feeds without actually focusing our attention on anything in particular.
Think about how often you start researching something, looking up one thing only to click on a hyperlink in the middle of a sentence that takes you off in a different direction. It’s essentially a form of context switching, turning your attention away from the text you were reading and transferring your attention to something completely different.
Websites and the internet are designed to help us access information quickly and easily. However, hyperlinks simply encourage us to navigate away from what we’re doing, thereby interrupting our concentration and reducing our attention span.
General Media Changes
The way the general media presents information has changed dramatically over the years. We’re bombarded with 24-hour news and so many viewing options that we often flit between channels in our desire to find something decent on the TV.
When we finally decide what to watch and settle in for an hour-long documentary or a 2-hour movie, our attention is disrupted every 10-15 minutes by commercials.
Back in the 1950s and 60s, TV ads lasted an average of 1 minute. This was reduced to 30 seconds in the 70s, while today’s TV commercials average 15 seconds. Online video ads are even shorter, with many lasting anywhere between 1 and 7 seconds.
In addition to disrupting our concentration with ad breaks, media companies are also shortening the length of the content we’re exposed to and the amount of time we need to pay attention. We’re just not given the chance to flex our attention span to the max when watching TV, and this spills over into other areas of life.
Technology Isn’t the Only Culprit
Many of us like to blame modern technology for our dwindling attention span. It’s easy to see how smartphones, computers, social media, and a constant bombardment of ads could cause attention lapses.
But distractions are all around us, and not just because of technology. Consider:
- The student listening to a lecture while thinking about the night ahead.
- The employee sitting in a meeting while internally rehearsing how to close the deal.
- The store owner serving a customer while keeping an eye on the schoolchildren who’ve just walked in.
- The restaurant-goer chatting with friends while making their meal choices from the menu.
In short, a big part of our problem is that in today's busy world, it’s not always easy to stay fully present with what we’re doing. And today’s generations don’t have a monopoly on distraction. Some of the greatest historic minds wrote about the frustrations of being distracted by the world around them. John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, wrote,
“I am here speaking to you, and yet I consider by the way, in the same instant, what it is likely you will say to one another when I have done. You are not all here neither; you are here now, hearing me, and yet you are thinking that you have heard a better sermon somewhere else, of this text before.”
Even as far back as the 1st century AD, the Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger complained about how he would become distracted by “the multitude of books” being printed.
Humans are prone to self-disruption and allowing outside factors to influence their concentration. Technology is simply making the situation worse.
How to Reclaim Your Shrinking Attention Span
Whether your declining attention span is caused by your mind wandering or the temptation to multitask, there are plenty of ways you can get yourself back on track.
Plan Your Day
A well-formulated plan can help you stay focused and direct your attention to one task at a time. Plan your workday around when you’re at your most productive, using those times for deep work and concentrating on the most complex and important jobs on your to-do list. You can read up on chronotypes to identify your most productive time of day. Chronotypes is a neat classification system created to help people work in tandem with their biorhythm.
Figure in times for less taxing tasks such as checking and responding to emails, making phone calls, and general admin. And don’t forget to take frequent breaks. We all need time to regroup and refocus when energy levels and attention start to wane. A break gives you the opportunity to re-energize and return to the task at hand with renewed vigor.
Reducing or eliminating distractions will help you remain focused on the job in front of you. Remove apps from your desktop or hide them inside folders on your phone so you’re not tempted to have a quick check of social media when you spy the icon.
Switch on the Do Not Disturb settings on your phone and laptop. Turning off notifications and alerts will prevent unwanted messages and distractions to help focus all your attention on work.
As much as technology can harm your attention span, it can also be used to help you improve it. Try using the Pomodoro technique to manage your time, or install a desktop productivity tool like the kōno app to help you stick to your plan for your day.
Kōno can track when your working sessions begin and end as well as automatically block notifications during deep work sessions. Kōno can also block your access to distracting websites that you have a habit of frequently visiting when your attention should be elsewhere.
Regular exercise and physical activity are great for both the body and mind. Although most research focuses on the cognitive benefits of exercise on children, it’s easy to translate these benefits to adults too.
Physical exercise stimulates the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a major role in memory and learning. And it also produces endorphins and dopamine that help us block out distractions and improve our focus and concentration.
Whether it’s cycling to the office, taking a brisk walk during your lunch break, or playing a sport after work, get moving to reclaim your shrinking attention span.
In addition to helping reduce stress and anxiety, meditation is also beneficial in helping boost concentration. It’s a form of mental training that teaches the mind to redirect thoughts and channel them onto one particular thing. This ability to focus the mind strengthens your attention span and can also improve your performance.
The good news is you don’t have to spend hours in meditation to reap the benefits, as just 13 minutes of meditation a day can improve your memory and attention span.
We all know that we have to stay hydrated for our physical well-being. But it’s also proven that not drinking enough fluids affects cognitive abilities. Dehydration causes us to lose focus, impacting our concentration, coordination, attention, and our ability to work on complex tasks.
To remain focused and improve your attention span, ensure you drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Idly sitting in a meeting is likely to lead to distractions as your mind wanders rather than focusing on what’s being said. Keep your attention on proceedings by taking notes. And, rather than using a device, go old-school and make handwritten notes.
Studies show that using a pen and paper to make notes will improve your ability to listen and pay attention. Much more effective than having the distractions of a device in front of you.
Challenge Your Brain
Much has been written about the benefits of brain training. Regularly challenging your mind is a great way to strengthen your cognitive abilities and give your attention span a boost.
Whether you pick up a copy of War and Peace that you’ve never been able to finish, take up a new hobby, learn to play chess, or do a daily cryptic crossword, you’ll teach your brain to channel your focus into one particular task at a time.
Are You Still Paying Attention?
Your attention span may be shrinking, but if you’ve made it to the end of this post, there’s hope for you yet. It’s important that we change our working habits to boost our concentration levels. After all, who wants to be outdone by a goldfish when it comes to attention span?