Will You Please Pay Attention?

Boy is this something that I can relate to. I read an article yesterday that involved the study of an individual’s attention span. It focused on adults and was meant for those individuals in a more fast paced work environment. The study actually measured two things. The first being how short it seems an adult attention span can become, and is, and the ways that we can expand an already short attention span. It did not really touch on the reasons as to why we have short attention spans, but that is why I am here.

Before I go on, did you know that a gold fish (those cute little nine cent buggers that you see at Walmart all the time) have an attention span of four seconds. And by four seconds I mean that every four seconds their entire brain is erased and they start over. Imagine that for a second. Imagine living in a world where every four seconds your entire life and everything that you have learned has been deleted and is now obsolete. What can you possibly learn in four seconds besides the ability to breathe and to notice your immediate surroundings. It blows my mind away to think that these little fish live in a world where they have no idea what happens five seconds ago. (That brings up another good point. A good friend of mine, Mr. Tyler Burgardt, suggested a movie to me once called Single White Male. This movie is about a guy that wake up on the subway in New York City (please correct me if the city is wrong) and has no idea who he is. He does not know where he lives, what he does for living, if he has family or not; nothing. Now that would be a crazy way to wake up, huh? You would be given a fresh start. I just feel bad for his girlfriend.)

So why do we have such short attention spans? What makes your attention stray from a book, a TV show, movie, or conversation? Why are we always looking around when we are in a discussion and what keeps us moving along unable to work on only one task and not have some sort of mental or lyrical stimulation elsewhere?

I have a few theories. The first is that we live in a different time than our predecessors. First off, we live in an obsessive technological world and we are surrounded by new media and all of it’s pure young glory. Just think about it for a moment. Ten years ago did you have a cell phone? Did you have MySpace, Facebook, the weather in Japan, your FedEx tracking information, a level, a calculator, and an iPod in your hand; on your phone? Did you have wireless Internet every where you went? Did you have the ability to talk to your aunt who lives in Ireland on the Internet and be able to not only see her, but see her in HD as you talk and it not cost you a penny? Did you have the ability to browse for any ounce of data that you wanted in a matter of seconds thanks to the hands of Google?

We are changing and we are changing fast. And those that are taking heed to that are the younger generation. There are people out there that can design and code websites before they hit their tenth birthday. My mother has issues when turning on a computer but that’s OK. The older generation, our parents, grandparents, etc. do not have nor want the skill set that is not only required for daily living, but almost required to function. What excites me about that is five years from now. Ten years from now even. Where will we be then? What will our phones and lap tops look like?

But what does that have to do with a person’s attention span? Everything, that’s what. I read article after article on why the iPhone is a terrible device and one that should be thrown in the trash for it’s wasteful application development and it’s flashy interface. People say that playing Copter for three hours a day is a waste of time. To some, sure, but what about when your father was playing Pong when he was growing up? Same thing, you know.

But they are trying to place the blame of the newest gadgets on why our attention span is so low instead of basking on that fact and using it to our utter advantage. Why do we not try to learn from that? Try to develop tools that can provide a more productive day in the work place? Let me give you an example of how I use these tools to my advantage.

There is not too many days that go by that when I leave work (after a meager eight to ten hours) that I do not go straight home and sit on the couch. Once on the couch, I turn on my TV and flip on a movie. While watching the movie I have my lap top open working on multiple things at once (thanks to spaces and Expose) and I can knock out twice as much work rather than working on one thing at a time. Now, while this movie is on and I am writing, typing, coding, designing, etc. I have my phone sitting right there. With my wireless (not really wireless as they are my headphones) device I can talk on the phone. While talking on the phone I can send text messages. So I have a TV, phone call, text message, and multiple applications taking my attention from whomever may be in the room or the math book laying open on my table.

Can you see why my attention span is so short? It makes sense that I have a short attention span. Do I have ADD? Maybe; but I don’t think so. If I am working on multiple things at once then I am working 80 hours a week than 40. Sure, I could go to work and work nine to five and go home. But would I get anything done? Absolutely not. There are two quotes that I want to leave you with. One if from my boss and the other one is from an unknown source. (I actually know the source, but I would rather not say unless you ask me who said it.) They both relate to time, attention that is paid to a task, and what the possible consequences or reward might be from the detail in the work.

“When I was young, single, and working full time I would come into the office a couple hours early and stay a couple hours late. Adding that extra time onto my daily schedule gave me added experience and added productivity. In the five years that I did this I worked twice as many hours. So the guy sitting next to me, who worked forty hours a week, has five years experience. I, on the other hand, have ten. I lost nothing, gained everything, and it cost me nothing but my time that would be spent doing something unproductive anyway.” R.M.

“I am a designer. I work countless hours for nothing more than a meaningless thank you. I work all night and have lost the meaning of a good night’s sleep. But I am a designer. I communicate. I communicate my message to the end user who has no idea who I am. I am a designer. But at the end of the day, if I have been able to communicate any single message to anyone that has seen my work, then I have to consider myself a success. I am a designer.” – *Unknown