December 18, 2014

Seeking Depth: How our Dwindling Attention Spans are Hurting Us.

Benson Kua/Flickr

If you are paying attention, you’ve probably noticed a trend.

Although, you probably aren’t paying attention. Most of us aren’t. At least not for very long.

If you’ve gotten even this far, you’re doing better than most.

Blame it on an ADD epidemic, or microwave popcorn instant gratification, or our culture’s myriad external electronic distractions. Blame it on whatever you want, but our attention spans are shrinking.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average American attention span—the amount of concentrated time that an individual can be focused on a task without becoming distracted—was about 12 seconds back in the year 2000. (Not even long enough to wait for that microwave popcorn.)

By 2013, the average had shrunk to about eight seconds. (Definitely not long enough for microwave popcorn.)

Eight seconds! Not bad, unless you think about the attention span of your average goldfish…which is nine seconds. This means the average American has an attention span shorter than the average goldfish. (As horribly sad as this is…I promise I didn’t make it up.)

In order to cater to the dwindling focus of the general population, publishers are pumping out shorter books, news broadcasts have shortened stories into quickly digestible soundbites, and we’ve morphed the written English language into irritating text speak.

And because we can’t focus our attention long enough to complete a sneeze (let alone enjoy hot freshly popped popcorn), we hop around from interest to interest, from conversation to conversation, and from relationship to relationship without attaining any depth.

Depth of experience takes time and focus, thoughtfulness and intent, and we just don’t have the attention span for that sort of thing.

It’s super easy to achieve a wide range of information, conveniently packaged in tight little soundbites or news stories of less than 500 words. But there is no depth of understanding. One cannot even break ground on understanding the dynamics of the Fort Hood shooting, or the crisis in Crimea, or the dangers of voting in Afghan elections. Sure, you might get the basic who, what, when and where…but it takes a little more invested time to get to the whys. And we just don’t seem to have time to invest.

We are too busy being distracted by celebrity twerking and cute cat videos…all in 30 second sound bites.

And we want more than our news stories in quick, abbreviated watered-down form. In an effort to “find ourselves,” we often hop from experience to experience, without reflection or growth. Trying something new is exciting. It’s packed with potential and possibilities. There’s a thrill in learning or trying something new.

Yet sticking with something long term, digging deep into understanding and mastery, is fulfilling in ways many of us never get to experience. You see, once the thrill and excitement fade into sameness, our goldfish attention spans want to seek out something else fun and adventurous. And while there’s definitely nothing wrong with fun and adventure, it’s the fun and adventure of starting that often keeps us from staying (whether in relationships or careers or hobbies or whatever).

Starting something is full of movement, nuances of newness, but eventually we hit a dip—it’s where boredom and drudgery often kick in. It can feel like you’ve hit a rut. It’s not so exciting anymore. It’s where a lot of people lose interest or feel like they need to move on. Our attention spans run out, and we feel a need to swim on over to the next glittery exciting thing to keep our attention for the next eight seconds.

But the dip is where real growth happens.

It’s where we dig into deeper meaning and develop and we become people of character. It takes discipline and self-control and commitment to stick with something that has become lackluster and mundane. But if you can make it through the dip, you can achieve something that is, in many ways, far more fulfilling than the fleeting excitement of the new.

Mastery is achieved by going deeper, not wider.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers, claims it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at anything. That takes an awful lot of commitment and hard work. If we spent eight hours a day dedicated to that thing, it would still take us 24 years to achieve a level of mastery.

It’s kind of hard for your average American to hold that kind of focus, especially when there are so many electronic distractions and news story sound bites and funny cat videos to distract us. But when you put in not just effort, but effort over time, you become one of the elite. By putting that much time into anything, you will pass your peers. They will have lost interest long before…swimming off with the rest of the goldfish.

In our personal relationships, we can be just as distracted. Our electronic devices, with constant connections via Facebook and Snapchat and text message, allow us to have more “friends” and more connections to other people. With all of this electronic connection, we have wider circles of friends. And yet, our relationships lack depth.

It’s easy to feel lonely when most of our human contact is filtered through an electronic screen and our interactions are limited to the 140 characters of a tweet. Sure, these interactions cater to our dwindling attention spans, but real depth of connection happens over time.

Relationships mellow like fine wine (I know that’s cheesy, but cheese goes really well with wine). Shared experiences and making it through tough times create deep and lasting bonds between people and deeper, more fulfilling relationships. Slogging through the unexciting dips in a relationship when you just want to walk away takes discipline and self-control and commitment (there are those words again).

Do you think that sweet old couple holding hands in the park, who know each other better than they know themselves, never got bored or frustrated with their relationship? A deep understanding of another person takes at least as long as mastering a skill…that’s years of effort and commitment.

Depth does not happen overnight. It’s a process of ripening, of blooming, of evolving, which cannot be rushed or compressed into fast flashy soundbites.

There’s nothing wrong with exploration, or the thrill seeking adventure of “carpe diem” (or YOLO depending on your generation)—unless it comes at the expense of deeper, meaningful, fulfilling relationships and experiences. Or without the cultivation of integrity, endurance and dedication, of loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, all of which elude the average goldfish.

Searching for fulfillment in the wideness of the world has its place, but so does development of art and skill, so does commitment to hard work and loved ones.

Seek meaning. Seek the profound. Seek substance. Seek depth.


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Author: Alice Jones Webb

Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Benson Kua/Flickr

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