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Boost your focus: reclaim your attention in a digital world

Boost your focus: reclaim your attention in a digital world

In May 2015, a Time magazine headline captured global attention: ‘You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish!’

The article’s opening paragraph continued:

‘The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the effects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.’[1] Between 2000 and 2015, the average adult’s attention span dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds.

The ‘goldfish effect’ made news worldwide, but the real story is more complex. First, goldfish can remember things for up to five months.[2] Second, our attention span is not smaller; it's fuller.  A 2019 University of Denmark study found our collective attention span is overtaxed.[3] The accelerating volume and speed of content exhaust attention more quickly than in the past. We’re processing more information—ads, content, articles, group chats, emails, news—and that information constantly changes.

No wonder we can't keep up. In a world awash with information, sensationalism, clickbait, disconnection, and division, density and proximity are two main threats to maintaining a healthy sense of perspective. Overcoming these powerful forces requires space.

Give yourself some space

‘We must have some room to breathe. We need freedom to think and permission to heal. Our relationships are being starved to death by velocity. No one has the time to listen, let alone love.’

Richard A. Swenson

The Time article was wrong about goldfish, but some of its advice on overcoming attention deficits is useful. Under the heading ‘5 Horrible Habits You Need to Stop Right Now’, readers are advised not to email first thing in the morning or last thing at night, not to agree to meetings or calls without a clear agenda and end time, to schedule set times for batch processing emails, avoid letting people ‘ramble’ in conversations, and to try to have smartphone-free time during the week.

These productivity-style hacks all have one thing in common: their attempt to create some space. Perspective needs physical, mental, and temporal space.

Physical space

Have you ever walked from the living room to the kitchen to get something, only to reach the kitchen and forget what you went there for? This is the ‘doorway effect’ – our brain resets in different physical environments. The same is true in the other direction – we are programmed to think and feel a certain way in certain environments.

If you want to think differently, get out of the same old environment. Take your problem for a walk. Have important conversations in suitable venues. Let your mind wander, without guilt, on planes, in the shower, and in the garden. Listen to your inner voice.

Mental space

Information density is crowding our capacity for contemplation. Engaging our internal sorting hat becomes difficult when we have too much information to process. Be mindful of your information diet – garbage in means garbage out. If your limited attention is devoted to social media trolls, constituent complaints, or clickbait news, your thoughts and perspective will reflect that.

Creating mental space requires intention about your attention. Be aware of the sources of your information and carve out moments in your day and week for contemplation.

Temporal space

Thinking takes time, and this time will not appear organically. Block out space for yourself, create a buffer around big tasks and meetings, and leave an afternoon a week free to let your clever, exhausted brain wander. 

Make this space by throwing out some of your administrative junk—remove unnecessary meetings, ignore irrelevant emails, and leave instant messages on read. Create time and space for talking to people, building relationships, reading, and looking out the window.

What's your best tip for creating space in your world? I'd love to hear about it. 

Til next week,

A

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[1]         McSpadden, K. (2015). ‘You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish’. Time. https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish.

[2]         SPCA. ‘Debunking Goldfish Myths’. Retrieved 16 May from https://www.spca.nz/advice-and-welfare/article/debunking-goldfish-myths.

[3]         Lorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B. M., Hövel, P., & Lehmann, S. (2019). ‘Accelerating Dynamics of Collective Attention’. Nature Communications, 10(1), 1759. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w.

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