I’ve been seeing an increased number of articles about attention spans in my health and wellbeing current awareness alerts every morning. This got me thinking about information consumption in general, for instance, I’ve noticed that tech and information conferences are condensing sessions to create shorter events. In the meantime, popular short form social media apps are making even the concise TED Talks look overlong.
Does this proliferation of social media apps, increasingly compact events and other rapid interactions really mean that our attention spans are diminished/diminishing? (TL:DR no they aren’t!) However, as our worlds are tentatively reopening post-pandemic, check in with your attention span and see what has happened. And finally, what can we as library and information people do to help our end-users focus? Have I lost you already?
What is an attention span?
According to WebMD, "Your attention span is how long you can focus on something or spend on a task before you need a break or get distracted. While everyone gets distracted from time to time, those with short attention spans frequently have trouble focusing on tasks and conversations".
Debunking the attention span myths
First, let’s debunk some myths. One of the most cited reports on attention spans was published in 2015 by Microsoft. In their study, they stated that “we know human attention is dwindling” and compared the average person’s attention span (8 seconds) to a goldfish’s (9 seconds). This report with its cod science (sorry!) is problematic from start to finish.
Every critical thinker, when presented with a study that makes such dramatic claims, has to critically evaluate the author's methodology, motives, and conclusions. It turns out that those widely cited findings are nonsense and fully discredited.
In essence, it turns out that our attention spans are not getting smaller. Take this example: the "children’s book market has increased by more than 11% [in 2021], boosted by…a remarkable 61% growth in YA sales". If the market sector that is said to be most affected by technology is taking time to be inspired by TikTok to focus on books, I think future attention spans are safe!
Why don’t you take the attention span test?
Still don’t believe me, why don’t you test yourself? It is fair to say that we are all prone to wandering focus but take a moment to consider these questions:
- When did you last watch something on a streaming service? Talk and hashtags on Twitter show that we enjoy binge-watching shows with our families and loved ones. People even complain when a series ends too soon.
- Do you enjoy video games? Gamers can play for hours and interact with people all over the world. They enjoy related cosplay, conventions, and participating in the development of the stories.
- And books, magazines and long online articles? Lockdown highlighted the rise in book clubs but even prior to the pandemic, people met to discuss what they were reading. Everyone enjoys well structured, funny, interesting reading material.
- When did you last lose yourself in a project? People can spend hours on an activity such as gardening, cooking, cleaning, crafting, or anything else that makes us happy!
As with everything, it depends on you and your situation. Some people enjoy listening to a podcast or audiobook whilst doing something else. Others enjoy listening to music when they are studying because they feel that it helps them focus. Take time to explore what works for you.
How can we get reacquainted with our attention spans?
If you have trouble paying attention, you may need to make a conscious effort to address the problem. For starters, try to notice how long it takes before you get distracted or lose attention. You might need to be patient with yourself, especially post-pandemic when you might be at a low ebb and impatient with your attention span.
One article suggested that our attention spans and productivity was hindered by a feeling of Groundhog Day. As Ruth Kudzi explained, "everyone feels like they are replaying the same day over and over again at the moment. Lockdown life is currently monotonous and dull and this is going to impact our attention spans, mainly because we are all bored out of our minds and are constantly looking for a distraction".
We might be tempted to dive back into social events and life as "former normal" and for many, this could be the answer. The change is as good as a rest. However, as I was looking at ways of improving my focus, I found one mental health site with these recommendations for children who potentially have ADHD. I think these ideas are worth considering and adapting for our own adult life.
Monitor your "screen time"
How much time do you spend looking at a screen? Set daily time limits, after (home)work and chores are done but be adult about it. Whether you count chatting with your friends, reading your kindle, or listening to music as screen time is up to you. Just be aware and pay attention to what you are doing.
Relax the mind
So much has been said about mindfulness, relaxation, or deep breathing. Whatever you call it, take time to observe your behaviour. When you are doing something away from your screen, let yourself relax, enjoy and be in the moment.
Create a quiet space
Studies have shown that the greater number of technological devices used in the hour before bed was related to higher ratings of difficulties initiating sleep. It depends on what you consider a relaxing environment, for instance, one person’s white noise is another's recipe for a disturbed night. Personally, I enjoy falling asleep to audiobooks but sometimes I take the wrong device with me which means that I see email notifications on waking. There is a definite argument for removing screens from the bedroom!
Teach delayed gratification
We all want everything now - notifications, responses, downloads and even online deliveries. Lack of focus and reduced attention spans might be caused by impatience. Patience is essential in every part of life so the next time you feel frustrations rise, step away from the tech and try to focus on something else.
So if our attention spans are generally ok, why are we worried?
The misleading report from Microsoft was aimed at marketers and advertisers. It is crucial for brands to understand their audience so that they can create an effective content marketing strategy. If they don’t keep everything fresh and new, their target audience will get bored and quickly seek out - and find - other brands that offer them the content they prefer. No wonder companies think consumers have an attention span problem!
In our leisure time, we have endless choices over available apps, from games, music and video streaming, sources of news, communications, social media, fitness and health monitoring and so on. Then we log on to work and we are faced with productivity apps, video-conferencing, financial systems, and so much more. It has been suggested this overload is making it hard for us to focus.
The Slack report reports that fifty-six percent of app users reported that constantly switching between apps and tools makes it harder for them to get work done, and 68% say they spend at least 30 minutes a day just toggling between workplace apps. Interruptions are the cause of our lack of focus because we are trying to do more with our time.
What exactly does all this mean for us as library and information professionals?
How can we ensure that we keep our end-users attention?
As we have seen, we live in a world of too much. Too much information, too much work, too much choice, too many interruptions, too much time spent on things that are irrelevant. Thankfully, our end-users can rely on the library and information team to bring an element of order to some of the chaos. Is the answer to too much tech actually just to find the right kind of tech?
With a news monitoring and content aggregation platform like Vable, the team can create personalised automated alerts and curated newsletters which appeal directly to the end-user. By the time the end-user is glancing over a newsletter, they are consuming something which has been designed to grab their attention. The information person has:
- Discovered the interests of the end-user
- Identified relevant sources and created filters where required
- Created searches using a variety of Boolean search and filter functionality
- Curation of content if required, or automatically sent to recipients.
When the recipients briefly review and delete the newsletter or simply glance through an article summary, it is not necessarily because they are distracted or have a short attention span. Rather, it is because they know what is relevant and they can take what they need and move on - when they ask for a copy of that article in 3 months time, you can find it in their newsletter archive.
Technology is not the cause of reduced attention spans. They are the same as they’ve ever been. If we lose focus it can take it as a positive sign that we need to do something else - whether that is stepping away from a screen for fresh air, or even using a different app. If you feel overwhelmed by a fast paced tech/library conference, don’t worry if you switch your attention to something else. If it’s important, you can always check the recording and listen to the bit you need. And finally, disregard any ill-founded myths that catch your attention on the internet!
Help us to help you grab your end-user's attention!