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Blog // Adaptability
September 24, 2020

Attention Span

We feel like our attention spans are shrinking. The news seems to back this up. Fixing the problem might mean rethinking what an attention span is.

It’s a recurrent complaint – people’s attention spans are shrinking. Neil Postman wrote about it in the 1980s, suggesting that human attention had peaked at some point soon after the Enlightenment and was quickly fading, thanks to the corrosive effects of TV.

By the mid-2000s it had become conventional wisdom to blame the Internet for shortening our attention span. Since then the lure of social media has inspired stronger and stronger calls to consider the effect of the Internet on our attention, such as Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier, and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport.

Curious to know what you might think about this, I ran a snap poll on Twitter. The results were stark. More than 80% of respondents felt their attention span was getting shorter.

Understanding Attention Span

All these stories share a common understanding of what an attention span is. It’s a function of time. Our attention span is how long we can work on a task without our focus being lost to some distraction.

Span is a fascinating word, though. It’s used in numerous ways. Span can measure time, including the duration of our concentration, of course. Or how long we live. Span can also refer to distance: the length of a bridge, or the width of a plane’s wings.

Span can even be used to explain relationships. Take the term “span of influence”, used in business to describe how many people report, directly and indirectly, to a manager or leader in an organisation.

What if we try to consider all these uses of the word, to help understand how our attention span works? To do that we can borrow from a very old concept – the Quadrivium.

Attention In Time

The Quadrivium was a set of four subjects, which in medieval times formed the basis of study at the schools that would lead to what we now know as universities.

Inspired by the thinking of Pythagoras in ancient Greece, the Quadrivium took on their final form thanks to Boethius in sixth-century Rome. There are still echoes of the Quadrivium throughout liberal arts education today.

The Quadrivium was focused on the study of numbers. First was arithmetic, which is simply numbers, or quantities. Next was geometry: numbers in space, or quantities at rest. Music is numbers in time, or the relations between quantities. Finally there’s astronomy, which is numbers in time and space, or quantities that are inherently moving.

What the Quadrivium reminds me of is that in any act of measuring something we can consider other ways it could be measured. There’s often more than one way to think about relationships between a thing and that thing’s moment in time and space.

A concept like an attention span can be more than just a number in time. It’s also a relationship that exists in both time and space.

Attention In Space

So, if our common understanding of attention is a number in time (for example, how many seconds you can keep reading this article before checking your social media feed), then what might attention as a number in space mean?

Well, if this article is one amongst a sea of other open tabs in your browser, then that might be one way to look at it. Or perhaps it’s one e-mail in an inbox full of other ideas.

The number of things you try to give your attention to is just as important as how long you try to pay attention.

Attention Doesn’t Have To Be Infinite

When people suggest our attention span is getting shorter, blaming TV, the Internet, social media, or something else, it always begs the question – how long does our attention span need to be?

If you can’t read even one page of a book without reaching for your phone, then obviously there’s a problem. But must you be able to read the entire book at one sitting? At some point, wouldn’t it be natural for your attention to shift? Perhaps it’s time to go to the bathroom, or walk the dog, or feed yourself?

Attention is task-dependent. The bridge span must be wide enough to safely cross the river, the aeroplane’s wings wide enough to keep it in the air.

Your attention span must be wide enough and long enough. It need not be infinite.

“People who feel like they have enough time know how to linger in moments that deserve their attention; they can stretch the present when the present is worth being stretched”

– Laura Vanderkam

Attention – The Final Frontier

What we’re doing is moving away from the idea that attention is a fixed attribute, like liquid in a bottle, or a single muscle you can work out. Attention is how we react to the challenge of focussing or concentrating in a specific moment and in a given environment.

Attention is a system.

Our mind isn’t directly wired to the things we try to concentrate on. Attention happens (or it doesn’t) within a system. What’s happening inside your body is only one part of that system.

So going back to the question of whether or not our attention span is getting shorter, it might be better to reframe the question and ask: how has our attention system changed?

Growing Your Attention System

A 2017 study showed that just having your smartphone around, even if you’re not looking at it, can reduce your ability to pay attention.Having our smartphones with us all day can lead to a kind of mental weariness that hampers our decision-making and even our well-being.

Building our attention system necessitates taking control of the environment within which we want to pay attention. This starts with minimizing distraction.

Trying to concentrate in an environment full of devices screaming for our attention through notifications and red “message waiting” icons is a battle we cannot win. The distraction economy was already too big for us back when I wrote about it in 2010. It’s only grown bigger, smarter, and harder to beat since then. Your devices, and all the apps in them, are designed by smart people who are paid lots of money, to eat up your attention.

If you can’t pay attention to that book because you keep reaching for your phone, then put away your phone.

Engineering A Bigger Attention Span

Any system that works has been designed. Sometimes that design is beautiful and elegant. But it doesn’t have to be.

Designing a system requires choices. What is the problem? How can it be solved? And what steps are required to make solving the problem a reliable process?

The steps to improving our attention system require us to adopt a somewhat countercultural frame of mind. There are at least three choices to be made.

The Attention Mindset

First, we need to stop filling the silence. We must become comfortable once again with the ambiguity of not knowing what this moment means.

Humans developed the ability to pay attention as a way to decide what information matters from among a variety of sources. But if you pay attention only to a small set of sources of information (say, what appears on your screen), you’ll struggle to pay attention when faced with another source of information, such as a book.

The best way we can start to do this is to avoid the urge to fill silence, by which I mean a moment that seems empty of information, by reaching for a device like a phone or a computer screen, or a specific, highly stimulating app on either of those.

We struggle to accept silence because we’ve grown to fear boredom. We have to break down this resistance, maybe even welcoming boredom into our lives again as part of an ebb and flow of attention.

We so easily retreat to places in the distraction economy, such as social media, because there’s an almost guaranteed pay-off. Gazing at a tree for a few minutes might give us a glimpse of a bird or a squirrel, but a scroll through Instagram will give us a funny animal meme almost instantly.

But that’s not a given. It doesn’t have to be your default. And if you’re still reading this there’s a pretty good chance you don’t want it be.

Attention Span And Making Memories

I don’t hate memes, or social media, or screen entertainment. Often I enjoy them very much. But the odds I will remember that cat meme in a few years are close to zero. Conversely, I can vividly remember moments spent watching wildlife many years later.

This mindset shift, embracing the silence and empty moments, not fearing boredom, not going into some default mode that always looks for fun, does take some getting used to. It’s not the way most people are living now. But, then again, most people seem to be struggling with their attention span.

Once you make these kinds of adjustments, it will become easier for you to build an attention system that lets you concentrate, with more focus, for longer periods of time. Your attention span hasn’t gone. It’s waiting for you to give it space again.

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