As I See It: Focus
August 7, 2023 Victor Rozek
I heard a startling statistic the other day: The average American worker is only able to concentrate for three minutes at a stretch without interruptions – most of them self-inflicted. That seemed hyperbolic at first, and equally exaggerated when the stat floated through my brain later that same evening. Surely, that can’t be true; and it certainly didn’t apply to me.
At least that’s what I thought until I realized while I was pondering the demise of the American attention span, I was also watching a Netflix series on TV while simultaneously gorging on YouTube news clips playing on my laptop. Needless to say, neither the series nor the news clips left any lasting impression; my attention was split, my focus was gone.
Social media is designed to capture our attention, which it does very successfully. Some people handle their phones an astonishing 2,500 times a day. The constant pings are a pebble in the shoe of consciousness, and if not immediately responded to, the damned thing pings again.
But even when the phone doesn’t ping, the uncomfortable silence makes us check our mobile devices regularly, anxious that we may have missed something, and further stressed to discover we haven’t.
The incessant notifications and the daily dump of useless and irrelevant data, clogs the pores of consciousness. One theory suggests that because we now have more and better choices for entertainment, we are actually less willing to spend time consuming inferior products. But that theory doesn’t begin to explain why we have an addictive need for constant entertainment, nor why we waste inordinate amounts of time searching in vain for those “better” choices.
In the workplace, as in private life, the inability to focus prevents goals from being achieved and problems from being solved. Split attention results in more mistakes being made, less being accomplished, and an increase in fatigue since it takes more energy to bounce back and forth between tasks.
The notion of “multitasking” was first applied to computers which have multiple processors and are thus able to perform multiple tasks. We, however, have but one processor and it is either paying attention to this or that, but not both things at once. Inefficiency is one unintended consequence of excessive social media consumption, isolation is another. According to a study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, people with higher usage of social media and technology feel socially isolated. As Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, “There’s no there there.” A picture of someone’s latest culinary triumph is not the same as an invitation to dinner. A video of a puppy frolicking is not the same as having a pet. A heart emoji is not the same as affection. It’s all one step removed, like eating the menu instead of the meal. And it creates an insatiable hunger because you can never get enough of what you don’t really want.
Even couples are not immune to feelings of isolation as intimacy has been usurped by the ubiquitous smart phone. Many harbor the secret suspicion that their partner has more of a relationship with their phone than they do with them.
But the effects may be harshest on younger segments of the population who may not have yet developed the internal resources necessary to manage the siren call of technology. Another 2020 study found that there is an increase in depression, self-harm, and suicide among American young adults due to the increase in technology use.
The quest for distraction has bled into all aspects of public life. We can see it clearly in the way urgent issues have been displaced by marginal ones. Science has warned for decades that the planet is heating and the consequences will be dire. We’re told that in the future we may consider this to be a cool summer by comparison. We see the world literally burning up before our eyes but we’re barely addressing that problem because we’re too distracted with the imaginary threat posed by drag queens reading stories to kids, and trying to convince people that slavery was really just a misunderstood jobs program.
And our flagging focus is getting worse.
I initially thought the three minute attention span claim was overstated, but it turns out it may be wildly optimistic. The Microsoft Canada study tracked declining attention spans in 2,000 young adults. Their brain activity – or lack thereof – was monitored with the help of electroencephalograms. The troubling, if not down-right terrifying results revealed that since the turn of the century, the average attention span dropped from a scant 12 seconds to a meager 8 seconds, leading to the conclusion that humans have a shorter attention span than goldfish! Well, yeah, but goldfish are known for their steely-eyed concentration and ability to shut out the myriad of distractions to be found in a goldfish bowl. Nonetheless, it’s sobering to imagine a world run by people with 8 second attention spans. Or by goldfish for that matter.
It seems that desperate times call for desperate measures. In an effort to our escape addiction to technology, at least one out-of-the-box solution has emerged but, paradoxically, it requires you to put your devices in a box. There are now lock boxes for laptops and phones. Some of these devices have timers and you can banish your digital tormentor for as many minutes or hours as you can stand to be separated. Think of it as a portable jail for your smartphone. And you’re the warden.
In the interest of full disclosure: I am not immune to the gravitational pull of technology. I’ve noticed, for example, that it takes me longer to write an article than it did just a few years ago. I do it in dribs and drabs; a paragraph here, and another there. A bit of research interrupted by a video or a quick check of the weather. And if the weather is cooperative, I’ll want to go for a hike. Or, I’ll notice the outdoor plants need watering. Or the phone pings, or I check to see why it isn’t pinging; or a thousand other things. My discipline is frayed. My attention wanders as effortlessly as a dandelion puffball on the breeze.
As so, dear reader, If you happen to trip over my focus, I’d appreciate it if you would be so kind as to return it to IT Jungle.