On Attention Span

There’s a super power that everyone has, but only a select few utilise; being attentive. Especially in today’s world of short-form articles, click bait news, quick-fix video games and 10s clips, on a daily basis your ability to stay attentive is under constant attack.

This is a particular problem for our youth and as one of them I feel extremely passionate about this issue. Never before in history has been dopamine-chasing vegetables so subliminally encouraged by our enviroment. Whenever something pushes our limits and makes us uncomfortable, even in the most minor of ways — out comes the phone. A quick scroll. Open a few apps for no more then 20s each. Nothing comes out of it but it’s easy and you might see something new. And when you do, you usually just send a quick under-20 word reply.

Then it’s back to the real world for ten minutes more before you retreat again. This is a process teenagers are extremely guilty of but also something applicable to a lot of adults.

The issue isn’t with instant communication — it’s an inherent issue of mobile technology. And out of it has rised a world literally designed to capatalise on our short attention spans. Hell, when you design a website or app you have to actually account for human goldfish attention spans.

Why This Matters

The reason this is such a gigantic issue is specifically because of our youth. You’re not taught — purposefully or subliminally — to hold your attention for real periods of time. While this isn’t such an issue for jobs at KFC or McDonalds, it certainly is for white collar jobs where every task is different and the work is mentally taxing. Top performers in this industry work in huge blocks of time, not in 10 minute increments. A few weeks ago during my work I became extremely aware of this behaviour in myself. Whenever code challenged me too much, I slipped into a brief period of app checking. Every. Single. Time.

The Good News

Thankfully, it’s a simple fix. The main culprit will usually be your iPhone. By becoming aware of this behaviour and the detrimental effects of it, you can resist the urge to go on your phone. A good rule of thumb is if you’re on your phone for more then two hours in a day, you’re wasting time(phone calls don’t count). The first day of going under the 2hr mark can actually be extremley uncomfortable depending on how addicted you are (and it is an addiction). However, after the first day it becomes easier.

Once you’re under the 2hr mark for phone usage, you can start to work on the specific ability of being attentive. When you ask someone a question, do not wander off in your head. Just give them your full attention for the entire duration of them talking, plus an extra second or two. When you write a long email or blog post, don’t do ANYTHING else until the content is finished. If you’re developing a program and a series of bugs have come up, squash them all with no pause in between.

If it sounds like I’m encouraging you to do more work; you’re half right. I’m asking you to do the same amount of work in a smaller amount of time by removing all the bullshit periods of ‘micro rests’ that find there way into the day that can quickly add up to hours of your day. And if this thought makes you feel particularly uncomfortable — or worse, make you want to tell me I’m wrong — take a moment to think about it because almost no one realises they’re doing it until someone points it out.

Summary

  • Don’t multitask. Do one thing until it’s finished and resist the urge to do absolutely anything else.
  • Spend less then 2hrs a day on your phone. I suggest Moment, an iOS app, that tracks time spent with the screen on.
  • Aim to be ‘picking’ up your phone less then 60 times a day. This means the average interaction length on your phone will still be a short 2mins, but means you won’t be getting your phone out for any other reason then to accomplish a task.
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