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Short Attention Spans

I once came across some of my old grade school report cards. In those days the teacher wrote a detailed assessment, in longhand, of each child’s good traits along with those that needed improvement. My mother would send them back with her own mini-essay and a promise to work on the issues.

Penmanship was always a recurring theme on these early performance reviews. My teachers could not have known that cursive writing would soon be disappearing altogether, and I would spend most of my professional life in front of a keyboard. Another issue was short attention span, which my mother dutifully signed up to fix. To this day, I’m not sure what she actually did to improve this, but I do know that it didn’t work.

It would be easy to say that these days I am not alone with this problem, and to point the finger at the smartphones we all carry. It’s not that simple.

Researchers with long enough attention spans to study the data have concluded that workers typically spend an average of approximately two minutes with a document before switching to another – and this started long before the first iPhone was introduced. As I can attest from my own experience, we humans have always been rather easily distracted. The more important question is how our new digital culture with its increased media consumption is affecting us.

Consumer Researcher Alyson Gausby - whose resume includes Microsoft, AOL and Twitter - has uncovered some non-intuitive truths about digital interruptions. As we become more accustomed to the increased flow of information, our brains are adapting to better process it and commit it to memory. Once we’ve “got it”, there’s no reason not to move on and seek the next pleasurable dose of new stuff.

From the remote wilderness to the crowded streets of the big city, our survival odds have always been improved by our ability to rapidly shift focus to what’s important. These same inherited skills have moved online, where advertisers now use pop-ups and side bars to lure us with the latest shiny objects. The more we train our brains, the better we get at discarding the trivial and leaping ahead to the salient. We are abandoning our marathon running skills in favor of becoming sprinters.

The iGenie is out of the bottle, and no one is suggesting that we try and put it back, even if we could. Fortunately, we humans are unique among all species in our ability to direct our attention at will. Psychologist William James noted in 1890 that “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgement, character, and will... an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

It may very well be that the Digital Revolution is the education Dr. James was talking about.

Mindfulness - the basic human ability to be fully present and not overly reactive to what’s going on around us – has proven benefits. On the other hand, too much sustained focus has been shown to drive up our stress levels. It comes down to this - how long do we really want our attention span to be? Or to put it another way, how hard are we willing to train with our digital devices?

If only my Mom could have given me an iPhone when I was growing up…

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to LoveMyTool, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.


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