Dude, where’s my attention span?

Am I the only one who feels like my attention span is becoming shorter than a matchstick? I used to be able to read an article in one sitting, but now I get a few sentences in before mindlessly reaching for my phone. Once I’m in the distraction vortex, I’m in deep; it can sometimes take hours before I pull myself out of it and remember, with umbrage, what I am supposed to be doing. 

Alexa, play “I Knew You Were Trouble” 

If you’ve made it this far through this blog, congratulations – perhaps you’re a little better off than me (what’s your secret?). If you’ve already opened another tab on your screen, then you better listen up, pal! A recent international study suggests that our entanglement with the internet is physically changing our brains, leaving us with shorter attention spans and poorer memories. Our smartphones and laptops issue an endless stream of prompts and notifications, creating a constant state of divided attention. This seems to impair our ability to maintain focus, preventing us from completing a single task. 

Photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash
Photo by Rob Hampson on Unsplash

Alarmingly, this doesn’t just affect us while we’re on online – people in the study who regularly spent time flicking between short activities on the internet were found to have less grey matter in parts of the brain associated with concentration! Research has also shown that our penchant to try and multitask on the internet is making us worse at tuning out distractions. 

Siri, you’re stressing me out

Indeed, we’re succumbing to a state of constant interruption. A 2018 UK study cites that people check their smartphones an average of every 12 minutes throughout the day. Being perpetually “switched on” means we are always alert and scanning our environment, but rarely give our full attention to anything. Over time, this mental state leads to a build up of stress hormones, creating a sense of addiction, which is temporarily relieved every time we check our phones.

Technology clearly plays a big part in our weakening ability to concentrate, but really, it’s exacerbating an already existing mechanism of our psychology. We are hardwired to be constantly on the lookout for new information, and, simply put, less good at completing a task at hand. Let’s look at it from an evolutionary perspective: it’s more important that you notice a man-eating tiger approaching, rather than continue whatever it is you’re doing in that moment. We’ve endured as a species by being ever-receptive to any stimuli we encounter – both useful and clickbait alike. And yet, this survival mechanism is doing little to help me survive my masters degree…  

Okay Google: How do I fix this?

So what’s the solution? There is a wealth of wisdom and techniques to help improve your focus and lengthen your attention span. The general theme is to unplug, step away from the omnipresent vice of technology, practice mindfulness, and slowly retrain your brain to concentrate for longer stints at a time. Some of my top picks are engaging in meditation, taking yourself into nature, and reading for pleasure. I also recommend using site blocker apps such as Self Control or Freedom to help keep you disciplined in designated work times. The less distractions, the better chance you have of reseizing control of your wandering mind.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

13 Responses to “Dude, where’s my attention span?”

  1. Matt says:

    I came for the title, I stayed for the personal attacks on my ability to focus while studying.

    Love your work – this was a lot of fun to read, and it’s always reassuring to hear that we’re growing psychologically weaker as a society 😀

  2. Aashwiny says:

    It’s a very important and relatable topic. A small distraction like checking the notification for a few minutes when revising ends up nearly to an hour. Thank you for sharing and definitely gonna reduce that behavior!

  3. Eilish Roberts says:

    Hi Gabriela – honestly same! It’s such a struggle!

  4. Eilish Roberts says:

    Hi Cara – thanks for the feedback! 😀

  5. Eilish Roberts says:

    Hi Caroline – very interesting indeed! It would be nice to know there was an upside to the concentration degradation!

  6. Eilish Roberts says:

    Hi elarsson – glad it was relatable! I’m seriously considering a digital detox too…

  7. Eilish Roberts says:

    Hi Naushad – really glad you enjoyed the read! Cheers!

  8. Gabriela Eder says:

    Your article is really interesting and written super humorous. Shocking that we check our mobile phones every 12 minutes! I have to work on that if I want to finish my master’s degree in the near future. 🙂

  9. Cara Hull says:

    Thank you for the motivation. I found this to be an interesting read. I agree with the above comment, however, after just spending some time off all screens, I realise there must be truth to it.

  10. Zara Henderson says:

    This is all too relatable, and definitely an important reminder to go tech-free every now and then! Thanks for the interesting read!

  11. Caroline Norton-Smith says:

    Very interesting Eilish. I did my first undergrad before smartphones (showing my age) and have definitely noticed a change in my attention span this time around. I wonder what difference this will make in scientific advances in the future, do we have more great ideas because we have more information to link together, or will deep thinking and analysis be trickier? All food for thought.

  12. elarsson says:

    Reading this makes me want go on an instant digital detox because it hit so close to home!

  13. Naushad Talati says:

    You did a good job keeping my attention, well done. Thanks for pointing out practical, day to day ways to deal with these attention deficiency problems that don’t unrealistically suggest that people swear off social media or technology.