We often like to think that if we just try hard enough, we could concentrate for hours at a time and get everything done. It gets frustrating when we struggle to focus on one task at a time, when the truth is that we’re constantly dividing our attention between all kinds of distractions, from phone calls to emails and from news feeds to other on-screen notifications.
1. Are Our Brains Are Working Differently?
Recent research on attention spans conducted by Microsoft, revealed that our average attention spans have fallen from 12 to 8 seconds over the last fifteen years. Microsoft delved deeper into their research on the different ways that we pay attention: sustained, selective and alternating. Sustained attention is focus on specific tasks, and selective attention is being aware of distractions around you but still being able to focus on priority tasks. Finally, alternating attention is the ability to switch between different tasks across platforms.
The summary of their research suggests that selective and alternating attention are becoming increasingly important skills in today’s world, as our attention spans adapt to working across different devices and using various online tools. This means that while we may still try to focus on doing one thing at a time, the truth is that the actual structure of our brains is changing. This is because, according to neuroscientific research, the brain actually changes in response to behaviour, for example having to learn how to use new technology.
2. Our Attention Spans and Productivity
While we might become frustrated with our inability to focus for longer periods of time due to increasing distractions, the truth is that some of us are naturally more inclined towards one kind of attention. Although we naturally adapt by necessity to perform in certain situations, the reality is that the world we live in is also forcing us to change the way we pay attention, and there will always be a need to prioritise different ways of focusing to complete certain tasks.
A teacher, for example, would by definition need to have more sustained attention, in order to deliver a lecture or class to students, dependent on the topic. Writers and artists may also need to focus their attention on a specific piece or project in order to be productive. However, those who work in online media or marketing would need to focus more on their selective and alternating attention to keep up with all the latest developments and be productive.
Making Our Shortening Attention Spans Practical
While we might not be able to avoid the drop in our attention spans, being aware of how our brains are changing in response to our environments can be helpful when it comes to managing our productivity. Depending on what we do for a living, we can also make the decision not to be ruled by our devices, and can ultimately choose what we want to engage with. Despite our changing skills in processing information on multiple screens, if we really want to concentrate, we can also choose to put the phone away and do our best to give sustained attention to a chosen task.