The simple truth about technology and human attention spans…

With all due respect to the goldfish.

“You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish”, Time magazine declared in 2015, citing a study by Microsoft Canada.

In the words of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, “The true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.” According to the study, the average human attention span is now 8 seconds! If that’s true and you’re still reading this… Congrats! You have an exceptional mind. ;)

It took the folks at BBC some time and effort to find out that the statistic about average human attention span in Microsoft’s study was from another source. A lot of digging later, they couldn’t find any record of research to back up the “8 seconds” statement. So, we’re still better than goldfish at paying attention to things, probably.

The human brain is amazing but it’s not perfect

While psychologists and neuroscientists continue to work on understanding our brains better, there is a lot of evidence to show that we’re naturally curious and easily distracted. Here is what we know so far of how our minds multitask and how we pay attention:

The American Psychological Association conducted multiple studies to understand how we multitask, and found that multitasking or subtle “switching” of tasks takes a toll on productivity.

Psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University opine that the human mind is a wanderer and their study shows that wandering minds are unhappy ones.

The Distracted Mind | Image Credit: Amazon

The Distracted Mind, an award-winning book written by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, and published by the MIT Press, is an eye opener.

The authors — a cognitive neuroscientist and a psychologist respectively — do a great job of explaining why our brains aren’t built for multitasking.

According to them, the human brain is limited in its ability to pay attention and we don’t really multitask but rather switch rapidly between tasks.

Is technology to blame for our short attention spans?

Unsurprisingly, it is easy to blame technology for our short attention spans, dwindling or otherwise. At first, we blamed cellular phones for distractions, then the internet boom, and later social media became our brains’ nemesis. On a personal note, my smartphone is a never-ending source of distraction.

In The Distracted Mind, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen share a few words of wisdom about technology and its impact on human cognitive ability:

We have come to believe that the human brain is a master navigator of the river of information that rages steadily all around us. And yet we often feel challenged when trying to fulfill even fairly simple goals. This is the result of interference — both distraction from irrelevant information and interruptions by our attempts to simultaneously pursue multiple goals. Many of you may now be glancing accusingly at your mobile phone. But before we place any blame on this potential culprit, it is critical to understand that our sensitivity to interference was not born out of technology. Rather, it is a fundamental vulnerability of our brain.
“What was I thinking?” | Photo by Smit Patel on Unsplash

Eric Barker, author of the book Barking Up The Wrong Tree, wrote an article titled This Is How To Increase Your Attention Span: 5 Secrets From Neuroscience, and he explains it best.

First off, stop blaming technology. It’s not your phone’s fault; it’s your brain’s fault. Tech just makes it worse. Our brains are designed to always be seeking new information. In fact, the same system in your grey matter that keeps you on the lookout for food and water actually rewards you for discovering novel information.
Okay, fine — but if your brain is so good at seeking out new info, why is it so terrible at follow through? Because the information-seeking part is way stronger than the “cognitive control” part that allows you to complete tasks. From an evolutionary standpoint, realizing there was a lion behind you was far more important than sticking to whatever task you were busy with before Simba showed up.

In other words, the human brain was designed to maximize our chances of survival in the wild. And while we’ve evolved in terms of knowledge, culture, civilization, and the arts, our bodies and our minds haven’t. Our brains are constantly on the lookout for information — relevant, irrelevant and everything in between. Short attention spans are normal, and we can work to improve our focus.

Technology is an enabler. What we use it for is what matters. It can make us more or less productive, based on how we use it. For every distraction that the internet throws at us (memes, click-bait news, funny Reddit threads, YouTube videos, social media and so on), it also provides us tools to cut the noise. Here are 3 amazing tools I use to shut the door on distractions and get things done:

Freedom

Freedom works on Macs, PCs, iPhones, and iPads | Image Credit : Freedom

Freedom helps you block distracting websites and apps for a specific time duration so you can focus and get things done. It works on Macs, PCs, iPhones, and iPads, and is used by over 500,000 people to be more productive.

Calm

Calm offers unique meditation experiences | Image Credit: Calm

Picked for both Apple’s App of the Year and Google Play’s Editors’ Choice collections, Calm is a beautiful app that helps you meditate to relieve anxiety and overcome stress. It also helps you sleep better, and improve your focus so you’re always at your best.

Pocket

Save pages to Pocket from any browser! | Image Credit: Pocket

Pocket lets you save articles to read later. The service has been around for ages, and works perfectly across devices. So the next time you find an interesting article halfway through a task, you can save it to Pocket, and finish the task. It also supports offline reading!

Of course, there are many more apps and services that can help you block out the world when you need to. And if you constantly unlock your smartphone or computer to check email, the number of “Likes” on an Instagram post or how much a Bitcoin is worth, the folks at Inc. wrote an informative piece on how to disrupt your brain’s distraction habit.

Bonus: The amazing folks at Fast Company published a list of low-tech activities that improve your focus and help you control your wandering mind. Here are 8 quick ways to improve your attention span.

Go ahead and give these tools and tips a try to improve your focus. Need we mention that your productivity is going to go through the roof? And if you come across a helpful tool, please share in the comments below. Cheers!


Authored by Kesava Mandiga, a happy single-tasker always on the hunt for tools that cut the noise and make life easier. Also, a content marketer at Flock.


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