Are Human Attention Spans Shrinking?

A recent article in Time Magazine suggests that humans now have an attention span that is less than that of a goldfish. Apparently, the easily-distracted goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds, and according to a study by Microsoft, us humans can only pay attention for eight seconds. That is 33% less than the 12 second attention span that was measured back in 2000.

But is it really true that our attention spans are shrinking? Has the human brain de-evolved that much over the past couple of decades?

Distractibility, as you can imagine, can be quite a valuable trait. When our ancestors were gardening, or hunting, or socializing, the opportunity to pay attention to shifts in the environment had to be quite useful, enabling their survival. A deer might be considered to be distractible – it grazes peacefully in a field until movement or sound catches its attention.

I don’t believe that there is anything wrong with our attention span (which would not be fixable). I believe that there is something wrong with our distractibility (which can be fixed). It is our external environment that has changed. Social media companies, websites, news outlets pay a great deal of attention to – what we pay attention to. They employ scientists and engineers to study how our brains work – and our attention is now a commodity that a multitude of platforms compete (and pay) for.

If you study what you pay attention to, it will likely be something that is either fear-inducing, threatening, novel, interesting or aligned with your goals. The key is to be able to distinguish between the two and take action to focus your brain. How can you do this?

Practice Focusing Your Attention

There is part of what captures our attention in our environment that we cannot control. This might include processing what is happening as you are driving, what other people are saying, or the proverbial flashing lights of a police car or whatever else we might stumble upon. Paying attention to these cues is important in life and helps us learn how to live and thrive in our environment.

What also can capture your attention is your executive control. This represents the ability to privilege information processing based on our goals and what is important to us. The good news is that we can control this.

To further develop your capability to focus your attention on your goals, a neuroscientist named Amishi Jha recommends practicing mindfulness through meditation. Think about it:

  • Engaging in meditation usually begins with an objective (such as focusing on the breath, prayer or thinking about something specific)
  • The mind inevitably wanders to the thoughts that pop up in your mind (what you will eat, what worries you, an upcoming deadline or your to-do list)
  • While meditating, the “practice” is to gently refocus the mind on back towards your objective

Jha states that 12 minutes per day of meditation can make a meaningful difference. Her military clients claim this practice is like a mental push-up to train your mind to focus, notice and redirect. And it is this ability that will keep you from being distracted by the inevitable “flashy things” that society has to offer you. It will ensure that you do not always remain in response mode, but that you can also proactively shape your life towards those things that matter to you most.

gold fish

Transition Designs helps executives develop and execute an effective strategy to align their resources, accomplish their goals and achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.

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