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What Happened to Our Attention Span?

Have you seen it? Have you paid any attention to this perhaps not so new but surely growing trend; I’m talking about all the “8 Things”, “3 Never Leave Home Without” headlines that scream from everywhere these days. I started to really notice it last year when it seemed like we moved from Top Ten lists at the end of the year and beginning of the New Year to bulleted, listed suggestions all year. To add to this I also read the average attention span of an adult has dropped from 12 minutes to 5 minutes. Seriously? Turns out the news isn’t all bad but for a Thriver it is worth paying attention to this growing trend (pun intended!)

Part of what is causing us problems to start with is our relationship with technology. We’ll talk about how to take a break from it in a bit further on in this newsletter but for now let’s look at the impact. Moving from reading an article or report to checking our e-mail, chatting on some sort of messaging system and then firing off a text message while noticing the news crawl at the bottom of some screen isn’t much of a method for attentive focus. According to author Maggie Jackson who wrote, “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” there is much to be said from an evolutionary point of view to paying attention to the environment around you. OK, that’s logical but now? Does it still help us? Likely not. And for a Thriver here is heck of a scary statistic: the cost of managing interruptions in the workplace costs the U.S. economy $588 billion per year.

In a 2008 article published in the Journal “Child Development” by Daniel Anderson he cited work indicating that at least some portion of our capacity to stay focused dates back to the environment in which we were raised. To put his findings very plainly children, under three, who played with a toy engaged with that toy 25% less time when there was a TV on in the background. The more chaotic our early home life and more interruptions we were subjected to as youngsters the harder it is to learn the skill for those without an underlying biological problem such as attention deficit disorder.

What does all this mean for us? It means we’re finding it harder to remember new names and people we’re introduced to, pulling ourselves back on task is trickier, and we’ve come to believe that nearly everything should be in our hands instantly to name a few side effects. A simple interruption cannot only cost us time to remember where we were on a task but it can also have the effect of losing insights and awareness into the task at hand. Since so much of being a Thriving, highly engaged professional involves awareness just a few minutes lost a day to distractions can be a real issue!

This does not mean we’re doomed to losing more and more time each month and year however. There are a few methods for addressing the ever-shortening attention span and as a regular reader to this newsletter none of them will come as a surprise to you! Have you already guessed it? Indeed, regular exercise! A study out of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign done by Arthur Kramer show that a brisk walk for sedentary adults over the age of 58 has the impact of improving their focus and ignore distractions more readily. Research out of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center shows the same impact when the exercise is focused on mental focus such as completing crossword puzzles.

A variety of studies done in the mid-2000’s including one done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that meditation has the same impact of helping us refocus after a distraction as well as ignoring the distraction to begin with.

So, let me ask you a question ~ this article is just over 650 words ~ how many times in the course of reading it did you find yourself distracted or your attention moved away to check your e-mail or glance at your Twitter account? How did that feel?

I’d love to hear from you and know what your experience of attention and the breaking of your attention or re-growth of it is!

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