Short attention sp… oh look! A bird!

A long while ago, a friend sent me a link to a long article about how the way we use the Internet may contribute to decreasing our attention spans. We’re forever darting in and out of Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, news sites, YouTube, livejournal, you name it. Studies indicated that people were losing the ability to focus for more than a few minutes.

Still with me?

The ironic and tragic thing is that the article was so long, I dipped out half way through reading to check on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and only remembered to go back to the article a week later.

As that embarrassing incident shows, it may well be that my habits with regard to the Internet are in fact retraining my brain to have a shorter attention span. Let’s face it, I’m easily distracted as it is. (I have a novel to write. Oh look, the dishes need doing. No really, write the novel. Hello kitty, would you like a cuddle. No, seriously, write the damned book.)

Reduced concentration spans are a problem, though. For a start, you need some ability for sustained research and analysis if you are going to think through problem. Or develop a plot for a novel. Or think up coherent arguments for issues you believe in.

This weekend, the issue of how constant connectivity seems to affect my concentratoin span was highlighted for me. Tim and I had one of our irregular ‘tech detox’ breaks.  In this instance, I had won an overnight stay at the Rydges Hotel in Carlton, so off we went for just a little break away from home. No computers. No phones. I had my Kindle, because I was reading Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series on it, but it is not web enabled outside of a wireless connection, so it didn’t count.

We took a few books and we went to Carlton early for breakfast while we read the paper over a few hours, before we would be allowed to check in. ANd I noticed that if Tim was placing an order at the counter or left the table for a minute, my instinct was to reach for the phone.

Seriously. Couldn’t  I be alone with a thought for five second without needing to distract myself?

As the day wore on, the itchy-trigger-finger reaction slowed and disappeared. In those quiet moments I instead looked around – at the rain outside, at the people inside. I reflected a little on the articles I read and then discussed salient points with Tim on his return.

At the hotel, we set up camp with our books and a cup of tea and read. I finished three books I had been part way through and started a new one. No stopping to tell the world every half-arsed thought in my head, or to read what everyone else thought of the dismal weather. It was nice.

I read a lot, so obviously I haven’t completely lost the capacity to concentrate for more than 90 seconds, but it was surprisingly relaxing to abandon short-term thinking for the day, in favour of focus and savouring the quiet moments.

And if you’re still reading at the end of this blog, thank you, and I hope I haven’t kept you away from your status updates for too long. πŸ˜€

  • Must admit it took me an hour to read. Checked twitter at half way πŸ™‚

    • I’ll admit to dipping into Twitter in between writing the first draft and editing it. Is it possible that there will be no more innovation from the human race, because we will effectively be living so assiduously in the NOW of updates and Angry Birds that we’ll never have a coherent long term thought again?

  • Very true, this. I know I sometimes have a horrible time concentrating on ANYTHING. I love that you did the tech free thing, it is good. I think we as a human race need to do that sort of thing a lot. It would help a lot of people I think.

    • Sometimes we need to give ourselves a bit of space from distraction. It’s important to have nothing to do but think about things from time to time.

  • Dragonsally

    You did distract me from my pizza, and watching Supernatural!

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  • lol

    NOT a very long article! 553 words is not long! But a very enjoyable post, thanks Narrelle. I long ago found myself deliberately booking weekends in places without reception if I wanted to be able to truly unwind.

    It’s easy to say: if something is really good, it will hold my attention, but I don’t think that’s true. If something is bizarre or shocking, it has a better chance. I’m fully aware that my browsing habits at online newspapers influences the type of stories they publish. If I click on stories like “moose stuck up a tree” instead of “Syrian protests” or “neutrinos in depth” then sooner or later there will be no coverage of world politics or in-depth science articles.

    But damn, some days it is tempting to click on the moose.

    • Well, I guess it’s longer than a status update. πŸ™‚ I agree that sometimes the moose wins. I find so many news articles that wallow in hideous news without bothering to provide context or balance, it just gets depressing. I tend to read through a range of articles in that case, and Tim and I deconstruct the things we read on a regular basis.

      I agree that getting to places without reception (or in our case, not taking devices that need reception) are a terrific way to unwind. We found on our return home on Sunday, a little tension crept back into the air. At home you can see the work waiting for you tomorrow. You are aware of the chores that need to be done, the phone sitting just on the desk, that to do list lurking by the computer.

      At the hotel, we were physically removed from all of those things. It was much easier to let them go without the reminders lurking in the periphery of our vision, and to bring sustained concentration to our reading and our discussions about what we were reading.

      Of course, now I’m home and back to my usual habits of checking the email every half hour. Apparently, I have learned nothing.

  • That is very ironic: a long article about attention span. I don’t think that’s it’s a new thing but I do think our culture sustains this short-attention span way of life. It’s good and bad. If something can hold my attention for a sustained period of time then I know it’s good. Thanks for sharing!

    – Ermisenda

    • Thanks for your comment! I can be totally engulfed by things that are really good. I read the whole trilogy of The Hunger Games in only five days, and now I’ve read Collins’ 5-book Gregor the Overlander series in about a week and a half as well. πŸ™‚

      But I like to make time for things that aren’t so immediately rewarding, too. Some things take longer to get into, or more intellectual engagement, and be utterly worth it. But you have to make the time to work through the challenging elements.