“Pay attention, please!” As a teacher and parent, I’ve said these words so many times. But I’ve come to realize that this simple request is actually asking a lot of people in our modern society. It seems that attention can only be earned, not demanded. (And I use the word “earned” here in the loosest-possible sense.)
We live in a society of “microwave mentality.” We give our attention to something for just a few minutes, or even seconds, and then we’re on to the next shiny object or squirrel that catches our eye. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve scrolled through an online feed, my eyes skimming over everything and nothing all at the same time. Or when I’ve tried to focus on a conversation in a social setting, but couldn’t keep from thinking what I’m going to say next, or who I’d rather be talking to, or what I have going on later that day or week. Or how many times I’ve read something, only to not remember a single thing about it five minutes later. These are all symptoms of the microwave mentality. (Read about the drawbacks of multitasking here.)
Why is it so hard to maintain focus on something? I think the shift has happened gradually over time, so it’s impossible to delineate just one cause. I find it interesting to think about what people were capable of one or two centuries ago. People used to memorize long poems and tracts of text routinely. It was more necessary then, because they couldn’t pull out their phones and run Google searches if they ever wanted to access certain information. If I’ve learned anything from Jane Austen, it’s that people used to have long conversations where they really discussed topics in-depth, using an extensive vocabulary. In church, they could sit through not only meetings that were hours long, but an address by the same speaker, that was two or three hours! I can’t even imagine an audience of today being able to summon that degree of focus. At the present time, addresses in church usually range from ten to twenty minutes. And that’s too bad, because the speaker can’t fully delve into and expound upon a topic in that limited amount of time.
And now we have our modern technology-overridden society. Here’s some crazy stats. In 2013, the average person’s attention span was eight seconds. In 2000 it had been 12 seconds! (statisticbrain.com) Another source (BrandonGaille.com) is even more bleak, stating that the average attention span (in 2008) was only five seconds. That’s a decrease of more than 50% in only 15 years or so! If this rate of decline keeps up–scary. Here’s more from these sites:
- The average office worker checks their email inbox 30 (thirty!) times an hour (and that’s average)!
- Average length of time watching a single internet video: 2.7 minutes
- 17% of web page views last less than 4 seconds
- Only 4% of web page views last more than 10 minutes
- 9.5% of children are diagnosed with ADHD
- 25% of people forget names of or major details about close friends and relatives
I can think of one blessing from this lowering of attention span: Infomercials are now a thing of the past! But how does this collective loss of prolonged focus hurt us as a society? For one, it’s becoming more crucial that things appear important, rather than really be important. Anything that has dazzle and fanfare will initially catch people’s interest, while things that really do have substance and value will never even be noticed, much less tried. Thus, most of the effort goes into the outside appearance of things and people. This is why so much superficiality exists in our culture. All that is not gold sure seems to glitter more than the real stuff.
It goes without saying that productivity is also hampered by this. After all, how much can an office worker accomplish when checking his or her email every 90 seconds?!? Every time you switch between tasks, it costs your brain time and energy. According to Psychology Today:
Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity. Task switching involves several parts of your brain: Brain scans during task switching show activity in four major areas: the pre-frontal cortex is involved in shifting and focusing your attention, and selecting which task to do when. The posterior parietal lobe activates rules for each task you switch to, the anterior cingulate gyrus monitors errors, and the pre-motor cortex is preparing for you to move in some way.
I believe that the microwave mentality is also hurting marriages and other important relationships. People have been trained to see novelty as the primary motivating force in their lives. Novelty isn’t a bad thing in itself, but is detrimental when it becomes sought after in every aspect of life, interminably. As we mature, novelty is usually eventually traded in for more permanent virtues, security for one (which may seem boring when compared to novelty, but is much more satisfying and meaningful). The relationships that bring us the most joy and ultimate satisfaction are those that are truly committed and have stood the test of time. People who are continually drawn to seek new relationships while neglecting preceding ones will never understand the deep sense of trust and security that comes from remaining committed to an endeared spouse for life. While they may seem happy, this kind of pleasure is fleeting and by its very nature will ultimately bring dissatisfaction, loneliness and misery. In an attempt to distract themselves from these feelings, they only seek for more thrills and novelty, parading it before everyone else in order to receive external validation for their choices. (Now, I understand that everyone’s situation is different, and some people haven’t necessarily chosen certain aspects of their lives. My only point is that when novelty is sought after above all else, nothing but superficiality can ultimately come of it.)
So what can be done about this? Is there hope? The answer is always a resounding, “Yes!” Your brain may have been unintentionally programmed one way, but it can be intentionally reprogrammed, if you want it enough to do the work. Meditation is a great tool to practice. When you focus inward, your mind forms and reinforces new connections that improve the way you turn your focus outward. Vision boards are another great tool, teaching you to focus intently on what you want so that your brain can make it happen for you. Subscribe to this blog if you don’t want to miss upcoming posts on how to put these wonderful tools to work in your life.
Kudos to the few of you who made it to the end of this post! How long did it take to read this? Five minutes or so, less if skimming quickly? Give yourself a pat on the back for your ability to focus!