Blaming our attention spans for our apparent inability to focus shows an under-appreciation for how we have adapted to information overload. The real problem lies somewhere else.
Information is addictive. We tend to believe that we can make better and faster decisions by being able to see, hear or read everything that matters to us as soon as possible. As a result, we hook ourselves on to various informational drip feeds, so that we can get instantaneous updates on the latest news, trends and intelligence on how our friends (and enemies) are living their lives. This accumulates gradually over time, until we eventually find ourselves facing an avalanche of information every day.
Similar to typical withdrawal symptoms, we become uncomfortable and restless once we are deprived of our daily fix. Apps serving different poisons are lined up in our phones, offering enticing alternatives to whatever we are doing, whether it is a boring business conference, a meeting that is dragging on forever, or even a stale conversation. We zone out, look at our phones and get distracted.
Very often, this has been perceived to be a result of our inability to focus for an extended period of time. Studies show that we now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, with many proclaiming how shorter attention spans will lead to poorer performance in school or work, communication issues in relationships and ultimately, less fulfilled lives.
Shorter attention spans are a necessity
Let’s take a step back and consider if we are misdiagnosing the issue. Attention spans are undeniably shrinking, but that might actually be beneficial to us. We have a fixed number of hours in a day to consume massive amounts of content. As the amount of content continues to grow, our time becomes an incredibly precious commodity. We cannot afford to waste time on something that does not bring us the greatest utility. The opportunity cost is simply too high.
Our brains have therefore responded in the only way possible, by constantly weighing the current task at hand with an impressive number of alternatives that we could be spending our time on. What we see as shorter attention spans might actually be how our brains are coping with the proliferation of choice — a distracted mind is simply one that is trying to measure the pros and cons of committing more time to what it is currently doing.
Let’s also reconsider whether shorter attention spans have really cost us our ability to focus. The same person who finds it hard to be mentally present when he or she is with friends might face no difficulty whatsoever binge-watching his or her favourite Netflix series for hours at a time. When we are fully engaged with the matter at hand, such as a book that we enjoy writing or a particularly intriguing conversation, all the other distractions simply melt away.
Perhaps we have not actually lost our ability to focus — we simply need a bit of help figuring out what to focus on.
Short-term gratification is the real issue
If our shortened attention spans are an evolutionary trait that allows us to choose the best task to focus on, then theoretically this means that we should be consistently attending to the most meaningful and urgent task on our plates. We all know, however, that that is rarely the case.
The biggest obstacle we face in our efforts to focus on the right thing is our inclination towards short-term gratification, a problem that we have been wrestling with since the beginning of time (see the Stanford marshmallow experiment in the 1960s). Modern-day distractions are able to capitalize on this weakness to great effect. Social media, for example, is engineered to provide us with bursts of dopamine, which keeps us coming back for more. A funny meme from a friend is also likelier to provide more entertainment value to us right now compared to the paper or report that we need to slog through. As a result, our brains automatically de-prioritise any other task which does not provide a similarly quick pay-off.
Overcoming our need for short-term gratification allows us to focus on the things that truly matter to us. We can reduce the clutter in our heads by managing external factors, such as keeping our phones away when we need to focus on work, or by setting deadlines and daily to-do lists.
The most effective way, however, might simply be to associate a powerful emotion to our long-term goals. The next time you find your mind wandering when you need to stay focused, don’t just chalk it down to a shorter attention span. Remind yourself of the reasons why you want to succeed so badly and the things that you hold dear. Slowly but surely, our minds can be trained to focus on a longer time horizon, not because we deny ourselves of short-term distractions, but because we know the best is yet to come.