The Human Attention Span in the Digital Age — What does it mean for the workplace?

Maybe you’ve noticed (like me) that reading books, listening to a whole album, or just trying to learn a new skill that doesn’t require a screen is substantially more difficult than it used to be. And half way through, you just say “Screw it!” and start checking Reddit or search on Google over and over. As more people are adopting a digital lifestyle — meaning they are consuming more media, are multi-screeners, social media enthusiasts, and are early adopters of technology — the human attention span in this age is dwindling and changing, no surprise there. But what does this mean for the productivity of a workplace? This problem isn’t going away, so how can we adjust? And is it all bad?

[What information consumes is] the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” — Herbert Simon, Nobel winner, Economics 1978

What is Attention?

An official definition of attention is the allocation of mental resources to visual or conceptual objects. Attention ‘enables us to act, reason and communicate, in physical or virtual environments’ (1) and allows us to pursue goals. And apparently, the average human attention span was recorded as a mere 8 seconds in 2013. Eight freakin’ seconds.

According to the Microsoft Attention Spans Report (2015) from Microsoft Canada, there are three types of attention: Sustained, Selective, and Alternating. Sustained meaning the ability to maintain focus during repetitive activities; Selective meaning the ability to maintain response in the face of distracting or competing stimuli; and Alternating meaning the ability to shift attention between tasks demanding cognitive skills (2). Obviously, all three types of attention are needed throughout a workday.

Significance for the workplace

How many times have you been in a meeting when eyes start to wander off to the screens of laptops to answer emails or work on something that apparently is thought to be more important? The same devices used to get things done — PC, tablet, smartphone — are also the gatekeepers of an infinite number of distractions. Not only are there more distractions than ever, tasks are now usually interrupted and returned to, switching between content and sometimes devices.

These constant interruptions have been proven to not only diminish attention spans, but also “drive stress by burning up mental and emotional resources and trigger mistakes”. And according to Gloria Mark, professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, 44% of interruptions are self-inflicted, with things such a instant messaging (3).

So now we have the additional issue of work-life balance. Having these constant emails, texts, and messages, etc. — these noisemakers — can be overwhelming and the feeling of being totally disconnected from work can be difficult to achieve. And this is because of technology’s addictive nature and the need to respond.

But your brain isn’t inexhaustible! Constantly switching between checking email, reading reports, and having discussions with colleagues takes its toll. This comes from technology’s ‘ability to destroy impulse control’ (3) — therefore the need to constantly check Facebook or Twitter, even when you know you have a task at hand or you’re at home on the couch after being at the office all day. Don’t reach for your phone with every “blip!” you hear. Your mind needs time to recuperate — let it.

BUT FEAR NOT!

Multi-screeners

It’s pretty clear that digital lifestyles are diminishing the ability to remain focused on a single task, but there is at least one positive thing to come out of this ever-growing addictive technological behavior. From the same Microsoft Canada report, it was also discovered that the ability to multitask has significantly improved. In fact, 67% of Canadians in the sample reported that multitasking is the only way they can get things done and multi-screen behavior is the driving force behind this. So although the need to feel constantly connected to everything can compromise attention, the result is better multitaskers. And this particularly true when it comes to Millennials.

Do I have your attention now?

Now congratulate yourself for making it through this blog post!

But seriously, what are we to do with all of these distractions? How can we make sure to stay productive at work and present in social settings?

According to Larry Rosen, Ph.D., research psychologist, and author of “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming its Hold on Us, we need to set a schedule instead of responding immediately to an alert or notification. For example, at work set aside 1–2 minutes to check emails, texts, and social media. Then turn your attention to the task at hand for 15 minutes and block everything else out — no other sound or visual stimuli. I tried this myself, and at first it’s hard! — but after the third attempt, I already was getting used to the schedule.

And of course, get a hobby! Try something new in which you need to focus on a target, like learning a new language or musical instrument, playing tennis, or going on a run. Something that allows you to decompress, and it’s totally up to you. Just so long as you separate yourself from work and the noisemakers ;)

Digital devices and all that goes with them are here to stay. Don’t get overwhelmed with the information overload. All it takes to be productive and stay focused is a little rewiring of the brain.


Originally published at www.duuoo.io.

1. Roda, C. (2011) “Human Attention in Digital Environments”. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2011.

2. Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada (Spring 2015) “Microsoft Attention Spans Report”.

3. Robinson, J. (September 2014) “Pay Attention!”. Entrepreneur.com, Inc.