You are here! Great, what a journey, simply an amazing achievement. You have navigated all the way here to our blog; deliberately chosen to click on this particular post, and now, in addition, begun to read it. You have now completed the third sentence. Here comes the fourth. I want to say it again – simply amazing! But what is so amazing about that? What is this dude talking about? Maybe he is a bit crazy, or stupid (or both)? At least odd. But please hold on. If you lend me your attention for a little longer, I will try to explain why I think that you have accomplished something so amazing. To do that, I would like to start with a simple question. Okay, are you ready? The question is: “How long do you think our attention span is, when we are sitting in front of our screens?”
What did you think? 20 minutes? 1 hour? 5 minutes? 10 seconds? I have no idea which numbers your mind generated. However, I can tell you that when I thought about this question, I did not think it was easy to estimate a good answer. I mean, it is common to now and then hear lines like: “People’s attention span is getting worse and worse” – but it is actually quite hard to get a good sense of what to think of this. We lack the substance, we don’t have any concrete numbers.
Before presenting the answer, I would like to give you a push in the right direction with the help of another, related question. Imagine the following: you are at school, or at work, doing the whatever task you are supposed to do. Let’s say you are concentrating, doing hard, focused, efficiently executed work. The concentration is intense; condense on the surface of your forehead is gradually forming small crystal pearls. Like snakes, they slowly meanders down the alley of your face. When they eventually leaves the surface from the tip of your chin, it adds that little extra taste of salt to the cup of coffee which is standing in front of you (yummie). After one hour of intense focus, you finally take a well deserved break. You are thinking: “Yeboiii, me are the best, I worked sooo efficiently!” – and you give yourself a pat on the shoulder. The question is then: in reality, how efficiently did you work on that task you actually were supposed to do?
In average, we only work 3 minutes on one task; before switching to something else (this is from 2004, who knows what the number is today). About 40 percent of our productive working time is spent on – trying to multitask. For instance: we check our mails 74 times per day, and every time a mail is checked, it takes over one minute – even up to nine – before resuming our original task. That means – at the very least – one hour per day, is spent on something else than our main task. Keep in mind, that is only considering interruptions from emails (I’m sure you can imagine all the other million sources of distraction). In the end, we end up with the tiny amount of slightly more than 1 hour of uninterrupted productive working time per day. Maybe this helped you to get a little bit better grasp of the situation – our attention is volatile.
With the above facts in mind, now try again to estimate an answer to the original question. Here it comes again: “How long is our attention span in front of the screen?” The answer is 40 seconds. Yes, that’s right, 40 seconds – less than a single minute! And to be honest, this is not the scary part. The environment today continuously disrupts our focus; time after time our attention is sidetracked. It seems like our minds are being schooled into being interrupted. The drills seem to be so efficient, our brains now – expects us to be interrupted. Our minds are interrupted with such frequencies that even when the external sources are removed, our minds keep disrupting themselves. Let’s simulate our brain in a calm, peaceful working session: “I’m working so well. Oh yeah, I’m really feeling the flow! Wait, this is so calm, where are all the distractions? I need to interrupt myself. Oh, I know! I should try google Justin Biebers mom” – and there you go for the next 20 minutes. In fact, 50 percent of all the disruptions of our attention are internal disruptions. We do not even need distraction anymore to be distracted. That, is in my opinion, scary.
We have concluded that our attention is volatile, and it seems like increasingly so. To explain this we need to introduce one of the contributors to the problem. Say Hello there, to the one often referred to as: “The attention economy”. In the world today, there are billions of people across the globe. However, at any given moment, each one of us can only direct our attention to one event at a given time – one single thing. That means, the human attention can be seen as a finite resource. Yes, I use the word resource, because, today, that is exactly what our attention is – in the eyes of the companies. Our attention is being hijacked and used to gather data to: profile our daily life and behavior, target advertisement, and to influence political opinions (to name a few cases). Everything to increase the profit of the companies. Attention is today the fundamental resource in most business models. Companies like Google or Facebook uses various methods to turn our attention into economical return.
In the ocean of The attention economy there are many sharks – all hungry, competing for your attention. No one is safe, but still, almost none of us are even aware of this happening… ~
So, What’s The Gist!?
Our attention is extremely volatile, and although we might feel that we are focused and efficient – many times, we are not.
Our minds are being trained to be interrupted – we interrupt ourselves, even without any reason to.
Our attention is a finite resource – which the companies today are competing for to maximize economical growth.
Hopefully, you can now, with this knowledge in mind, understand why I earlier claimed your accomplishments to be so amazing. Now, by reaching all the way here, it means that you must have either dodged (or been hit… but still survived) all the disruption bullets that have been aimed at your attention (both internally and externally). What an adventure. You have finally reached the end. I say it one last time, simply amazing!
This post is an introduction to a series of posts about The attention economy and the information society – how it works and how it affects us. This is a very important but complex topic. Our plan is not to explain the whole ecosystem (since we don’t even know what we are talking about) – but to present some aspects of it. In other words, we will try to give you some Gists. I hope you enjoyed this and are ready for more. Thanks!
Written by: Anton
Want to learn more?
All fact about attention are based on the work of Gloria Mark; Professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine. She have done a ton of research within the area of attention, check it out if you are interested.
The facts can be found in this podcast episode:
Which for instance refers to these articles:
-  “Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness”: Managing Multiple Working Spheres
-  No Task Left Behind: Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work
NOTE: In the post I generalize these facts to all people. But of course, that is not entirely correct. The facts are based on studies of a limited set of people from a handful of domains of working areas.