This is one of my all-time favourite TED Talks – Tim Urban perfectly captured the process of procrastinating, particularly the distractions influencing us during any task, be it a really insignificant or remarkably important one. (Some of us might have trouble staying focused throughout this 15-minute video, I’m quite certain about that.)
A study by Microsoft’s Customer Insights team in Canada in 2015 confidently announced that the average human’s attention span is now eight seconds – shorter than that of a goldfish (nine seconds), having dwindled from 12 seconds in 2000, decreasing by approximately 30% over the course of 15 years.
There are certain reasons for scientists to be skeptical about these results – first, the study is non-peer-reviewed. Second, as a BBC’s journalist pointed out, the source of the statistics cited (Statistic Brain) seemed rather vague and “sketchy”, and could not be contacted at all. Furthermore, a prominent loophole is the base value of the comparison: “It turns out that there is no evidence that goldfish – or fish in general – have particularly short attention spans or memories, despite what popular culture suggests.”
Nevertheless, I noticed that I had never, ironically, paid attention to the way I pay attention. Curious, I carried out a little attention span test on myself: note down the process of writing this blog post, including all the time I got distracted and by what. I will then look into the record to identify patterns in my attention span.
3:30 pm – I sit down in front of my computer and open up a blank WordPress page, a few other tabs for research, and some background music.
4:02 pm – I have written up to this point, and my browser window is looking rather clean and neat – no distractions so far.
4:46 pm – I now realise I’m 15 minutes deep into Reddit’s r/aww thread on my phone. It started out with a Facebook message from one of my friends back home, and, well, one thing led to another. I struggle a little to get back to writing, and already am feeling the urge to give up this post until “tomorrow”.
4:55 pm – I got back to the previous part and added some academic insights from further online research. The tabs are pretty much still the same now.
5:05 pm – I checked my phone, again. And this time it was to reply to my Mom’s texts checking up on me.
5:15 pm – I have been trying to look up some peer-reviewed research on attention-span, but most of what I can find seems too particular in terms of age group or certain psychological/intellectual conditions (ADHD, dyslexic, etc.)
5:19 pm – I have gathered all the information I need, and now I will wrap the post up with some observations.
During the past two hours, I had a little app called Checky running on my smart phone to keep count of the times I check it – while writing this post only, I have looked at my phone nineteen times. And I was not even conscious of all the time I did.
I was confident that by keeping my browser window clean from distractions, I could manage to stay focused for a long time. However, as it turned out, it is my phone that is the major distraction.
Overall, although my (and probably your) attention span is not as short as eight seconds, as suggested by the aforementioned research, it is still quite concerning. I have been trying out several tips – applying the Pomodoro technique (alternating between 45-minute working slots and 15-minute breaks), and setting my phone to automatically go into silent mode from 8pm to 7am every weekday (I also set alarm exceptions for my SO’s, my family’s, and my closest friends’ numbers, in case of emergency).
The truth is, it takes time and a whoooole lot of willpower to actually follow through with disciplining yourself. But with consistent practice, it is just a matter of time!
Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada 2015, Attention spans, research report.