In case you haven’t noticed, we residents of the First World are experiencing a critical shortage of a vital natural resource.
Our attention spans—which are a necessary resource for functioning as productive, healthy humans—keep getting shorter and shorter. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, the average human’s attention span is 8.25 seconds compared to 9 seconds for a goldfish. Just five years ago, humans could easily concentrate for 12 seconds.
When we don’t pay attention, we can miss important details, make errors and be less empathetic to others, as I’ve learned in my applied neuroscience program.
For humans, attention is a complex phenomenon, and more fragile and limited than many of us assume.
In its basic form, attention is the ability to focus on particular inputs while inhibiting urges to consider distractions. Yet, we can become easily distracted by both external and internal stimuli.
On the external front, technology, with its abundance of information so easily accessible, is often viewed as the villain robbing us of our attention spans.
That’s unfair. Yes, the number of distractions related to technology keeps increasing exponentially. Just consider the volume of email messages, texts and meeting alerts you receive each day.
However, we need to hold our brains responsible. Specifically, we need to recognize the limitations of how our brain works in regard to attention. The brain has to work hard to focus and pay attention.
Our brain is sensitive, especially to our internal chatter and external things that we consider novel. For example, we can get aroused when we hear, see or feel the beeps, alerts and vibrations that come across our electronic devices.
We also can distract ourselves with our own random thoughts, especially depending on what we’re doing and how we’re feeling.
Resisting these sensations takes effort, which tires us and makes us less likely to be able to pay attention, which contributes to a vicious cycle.
How to deal with this dilemma?
We need to recognize that shortening attention spans affect us as both takers and givers of attention.
When we’re takers, we can’t begin to influence others and request individuals to take action until we get their attention. And once we have others’ attention, we easily can lose it, especially if we’re not being respectful or providing them something of value.
And we need to give attention in order to follow directions, achieve goals and learn.
As both takers and givers, we need to start viewing attention as a limited natural resource that deserves protection—and even hoarding at times.
Yes, compared to some other natural resources, attention is renewable.
However, we can’t expect to have unlimited reserves of attention at our disposal that we can waste at our whim whenever we think we need ourselves and others to focus on something important. Not everything that beeps, buzzes or vibrates deserves immediate attention—or any attention.
Here are some recent examples of bad behavior by those who are trying to get people’s attention. Rather than waste others’ time, they should be respectful and take actions to help people, as explained here.
- Treble blasts. Sending reminders by email, text and phone, often all within minutes of each other. Instead, ask people for their preferences and personalize how you communicate with them. Do they even want to receive a reminder? And if so, what’s their preferred channel or channels. This way, those who want the snooze-button approach can get one or multiple reminders while those who take responsibility for follow through and dislike countless pokes and prods can be left alone to concentrate on what matters to them.
- Missed messages. Distributing generic information that’s useless, and often not interesting. Instead, make sure the content you send is relevant to the individuals receiving it and they can easily act on it. This means making sure the messages are not all about you, but instead about topics that appeal to your targeted recipients and can improve their quality of life. It’s fine to include some human interest details so we know you’re a human and not a robot, but do you really have to divulge so much personal minutia?
- Mismatched missives. Requesting people to take action by a certain day and date, but the day and date don’t match. This creates unneeded confusion and unnecessary cognitive load as someone puzzles whether Monday, June 16, 2015 is Monday, June 15 or Tuesday, June 16. Instead, proofread all dates against a calendar. Even better, send people electronic meeting invites. That way, all the accurate, pertinent information automatically populates their electronic calendar. Granted, this may not work for your elderly parent or grandparent, but within a work context, in 2015 people should be using electronic calendars.
As for when you’re on the receiving end and need to pay attention, try to focus on one thing at a time. If you’re finding that harder and harder to do, educate yourself on how you pay attention. Think mindfulness, not science ed.
Professor David Levy, one of the most provocative speakers at Overloaded 2012, views excessive information as a form of pollution. He now teaches Information and Contemplation at the University of Washington to help students learn to control their distractions and pay better attention. This article in The Chronicle of Higher Education describes the class and provides some helpful tips for coping, as well as a useful reading list.
The dilemma of how to pay attention to relevant stimuli while inhibiting the irrelevant stuff is not going away. So the sooner we can deal with it as both givers and receivers the better.
Hope you’re still paying attention! Are you?