DIANE PHILLIPS: Where, oh where, has my attention span gone?


Diane Phillips


Where, oh where, did our attention spans go? I lost mine somewhere between the cell phone, Kindle, Surface and life. Hopefully, I did not put in the laundry with the week’s linens or sock it away in a drawer like I did one time with $100 bill that would have come in so handy had I remembered it when needed instead of years later by accident when I didn’t.

Losing the ability to focus on a single task or image and trying to understand how that will increase our restlessness going forward must be a secret fear among many of us. Will we resemble the stroke victim whose concentration levels are affected simply because we have allowed ourselves to be diverted with such ease? Will we become ourselves because we get bored so quickly by what is in front of us and turn our attention to what we think could be in front of us next that would be better than what is there at the moment?

There is a growing body of work about attention span, particularly as it applies to distracted drivers, but also as it affects students. Every teacher wants to know what he or she is in for. It’s not like you can justify keeping a student after school or making them clean the bathroom because they looked from side to side seven times while swinging their leg at great pace while you are trying to explain the theory of everything.

On a personal level, I am interested in, fascinated with and obsessed by what grabs our attention and clings to it like a newborn to a mother’s tata.

Attention spans that used to allow us to accomplish entire works at one go are shrivelling. We seem to live in a world of chunks of mini-second segments. We look at this, our eyes dart to that. We click on social media and before it even loads, we impatiently move on to the next feed.

Even if you debunk the theory that was popular a few years ago that we humans now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish – goldfish, nine, humans eight seconds – it is hard to deny it’s difficult to concentrate as long as we used to. And are our periods of concentration drawing shorter and shorter?

Sure, we can talk about the distractions. Not that you much care, but as a side note, I am distracted by the difference in the words used to define an interest in focusing attention - interested, fascinated and obsessed and wondering if some of the difference in the depth of those words is not defined by the superseding prepositions – interested in, fascinated with and obsessed by.

But back to how hard it is to focus on a single subject in an environment that still considers hyperactivity a condition which needs to be treated medically.

So what is attention span? The most common definition is the amount of dedicated time a person spends on a task without being distracted.

The first part is easy, concentrated time to complete. The second part “without being distracted” is the challenge. Our ancestors who farmed or fished did not have the choices we have. They checked the weather by looking at the sky, maybe tapping the barometer. They did not feel compelled to log in for the full hour-by-hour weather report, comparing predictions on wunderground.com, weatherchannel.com, windfinder.com, AccuWeather.com, intellicast.com, weatherbug.com or any of a thousand other .coms that provide weather information. Oh, and then there’s the banner ads, news and countless distractions that can easily take you so far afield you find yourself wondering if you shouldn’t just book that trip to Cat Island or Alaska while the rates are really good because they might go up tomorrow. Then you go to an airline website or Expedia or Kayak or one of another dozen sites that promise to let you know if the rates are really better today or you should wait. Then you remember what you were looking for in the first place - checking the weather because you were going fishing.

Or think of this. When there was just one radio programme and US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt held his fireside chats, the entire family gathered around the brown Zenith machine with the large knobs. Ears and minds were glued to the sound of the voice his spoke and there had better not be another sound in the room. Only then did the avid, fully engage listener know whether it had been a good or bad week or whether they were buying into FDR’s New Deal or not.

They hung on to every word and that became the dinner table topic and wherever else they could carry it. Why? Because that radio news, think of it as the precursor to talk radio, was their single source of information.

Some 40 years later in the 80s another American President Ronald Reagan embraced the power of a radio audience and held national Saturday radio chats.

Decades apart, both politicians knew they could capture attention because they were dealing with an undistracted audience. Listeners did not have dozens of news stations, hundreds of TV shows, and thousands of sources to choose from. They did not have to decide as we do which to turn to before deciding there could be something better on another station or another site and going to that.

Now, clicking from station to station isn’t even enough variety. We do that while reading breaking news on our smart phone or yesterday’s in-depth coverage in the newspaper and wondering what else we can do at the same time like e-mail using our right hand, flip the newspaper page with our left elbow and keep our eyes glued to Facebook’s news feed.

If it is any consolation, there is one writer by the name of Shaun Buck who doesn’t buy all the distracted living theories. A contributor to Entrepreneur, Buck stands pretty much alone though his argument that we are not functionally distracted by our distractions is articulately stated. I appreciate his phrasing but I’m not buying it.

What is fascinating is that even when presented with all the saturation of choices we have, with material flashing at us continually at dizzying speeds, human beings are such an incredibly adaptable species we are able to make the number of decisions we do a day. One estimate places it at 35,000. Other research says that we make the wrong decision about one in 4.5 times. We don’t know if that means we regret it or we just make a left turn when a right turn would have been shorter and we did not stop to consider whether or not we regretted it because we have already moved on to something else.

So if we have all these choices right down to whether we want to watch Netflix, Hulu or YouTube videos, if we want to shop without speaking to another human being at Amazon or Walmart or we prefer Instagram to Pinterest, what do we do to improve our ability to focus on one task at one time?

It’s what they used to call stopping to smell the roses but if we did that now, we would probably find ourselves online wondering where the expression came from which would entice us to learn a little more about roses which we could do on an 800–flowers site and while we are there, we might just as well send flowers to someone we had been meaning to send flowers to forever.

So what do we do to ground ourselves again? Here’s what another site says are eight easy things to do: meditate, exercise, stay hydrated, ask questions, listen to music, drink tea, take notes by hand, chew gum. That is about the weirdest list I have ever read in my life. I’d say if you want to focus, just live in the moment, one moment at a time. And, by the way, if you find my attention span, can you return it?


Porcupine 4 years, 4 months ago

Ms. Phillips, What you are describing is only the tip of the iceberg. Only this morning, I sent out to many of my friends, the following link to a documentary. The implications of what is discussed, I believe, is one of the most important discussions we need to have as a society. I am sure that you will find this extremely enlightening, and sobering.



Sign in to comment