"You have the attention span of a goldfish." A common saying in the British language. But this common phrase has made since its way into headlines as fact: The human attention span shorter than a goldfish - at a mere 8 seconds.
In our tech-driven age of notifications and multi-tasking, concerns about dwindling attention spans are everywhere. But how much of this is truth, and how much is tall tale?
1️⃣ Attention span isn’t a blanket state of mind. It’s different for different tasks.
2️⃣ Selective attention is shortening. But sustained attention is subjective.
3️⃣ ’Skimming culture’ is evolving in line with increased information overload
4️⃣ Professionals are getting better at grabbing attention
5️⃣ Attention span feels shorter due to technology distracting us
Is our attention span really that short?
First, the goldfish myth: some sources claim that the average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish—supposedly just 8 seconds. But let's pump the brakes on that. “Attention span” isn’t a blanket state-of-mind. There are different types of attention. Such as sustained attention (like when you watch a movie), selective attention (like scrolling social media) and the ability to stay focused (like whilst you’re working). And the attention you give to tasks are very must dependent on what it is and what it means to you.
A more nuanced study by Microsoft indicates that while our selective attention might have shortened, our sustained attention can range from minutes to hours depending on the task. So in truth, it’s actually quite hard to attribute a specific time to the human attention span.
"How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation," Dr Gemma Briggs.
Is our attention span actually declining?
There’s a popular narrative that our collective attention span is on a rapid decline, primarily because of our digital lifestyle. And there is some truth here. The barrage of information from social media, emails, and apps has fostered a 'skimming' culture, potentially making deep focus more elusive.
It's not that our brains are deteriorating. Rather, the world around us has evolved. We’re in an era of information overload, and our brains have adapted to filter and prioritise content swiftly. Some also suggest that evidence of ever-shorter shot lengths in films shows attention spans are dwindling. But the academic behind that research says all it shows is that film-makers have got better at trying to grab our attention.
We are served an overwhelming amount of information and stimulation, so our perceived shorter attention spans are an adaption to filter through what we do want to consume. We've become efficient at processing vast amounts of information, albeit in shorter bursts.
So why can’t you find focus for long periods of time?
Everything in the world is moving faster - we’re walking faster, reading faster and talking faster. We’re evolving to try and do more and share more. So comparing to the slower times before technology, it can feel like we’re not staying focused for long periods of time.
Instant gratification from social media
The digital world is constructed to reward immediacy. Social media thrives on instant gratification. Every ping from our devices triggers a dopamine hit. Over time, we've become conditioned to seek these quick, intermittent rewards, making longer, uninterrupted tasks seem less immediately gratifying and, by extension, more daunting.
The Illusion of multi-tasking
There's a modern-day badge of honour in claiming we can juggle numerous tasks simultaneously. However, neuroscience has a different tale to tell. Multi-tasking is a myth. What we're doing is rapid task-switching, which can exhaust our cognitive resources faster and make sinking into prolonged focus feel harder.
With so much to consume and process, our minds often flit from one thing to another, making deep dives into a single topic feel counterintuitive to our information grazing habits.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
The social web has amplified the sensation that we're perpetually out of the loop. This persistent FOMO can make it challenging to shut off external stimuli and immerse in prolonged tasks without the niggling worry that we're missing out on something 'essential'.
Our devices have been built to keep you on them as long as possible. And every app is trying to get you to spend more time on it to feed the engine. Getting a notification will steal your attention and then before you know it, you’re stuck doing something else.
Try these 5 ways to boost lengthen your attention span
If you're aiming to sharpen your focus and extent your attention span, here are some tips to help:
Mindful Moments: Try mindfulness or meditation. Even just 10 minutes a day can train your brain to focus better.
Block distractions: Use Freedom to block distracting apps so it’s easier for you to focus on one thing at a time
Tech Time-Out: Set aside specific periods daily when you're free from digital distractions and do regular digital detoxes.
Brain Food: Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts can boost brain function and potentially improve attention span.
Break It Down: Use the Pomodoro Technique—25 minutes of concentrated work followed by a 5-minute break. Rinse and repeat.
Our attention spans might be a tad different from past generations, but that's not necessarily a decline—it's evolution. And while the goldfish comparison makes for a catchy soundbite, remember: we humans have always been masters of adaptation. With a little effort and the right strategies, we can continue to fine-tune our focus in our ever-changing world.
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