Attention Span and Productivity

It is claimed that the Internet has reduced our collective attention span. For example, people used to lose themselves in a novel for hours; now, they are inclined to flick through "pages" on the Internet. This has led to a condition which has been called reading insecurity, ie a subjective experience of thinking that you are not getting as much from reading as you used to and a suspicion that the ability to concentrate and absorb has atrophied.

. Many studies (Katy Waldman, 2015) suggest that people read the Internet differently than they read print. We skim and scan for information we want on the Internet rather than starting at the beginning and ploughing through to the end. Our eyes jump around, magnetised to links - which imply authority and importance. If need be, we will scroll. We read faster and lighter engaging in skim reading and hopping from one source to another

. The difference between these modes of reading have caused a debate around "orality and literacy".

. It is much harder to concentrate when you read online, eg e-mails, social media, etc.. It has been suggested (Katy Waldman, 2015) that people's comprehension suffers when they read online because of the barrage of extraneous stimuli interrupting the transfer of information from sensory to working memory, and from working to long-term memory.

People also report being more impatient when they read online

. It has been suggested that the "deep reading brain" is becoming redundant and therefore in danger of disappearing if we don't learn how to handle online distractions.

. We are becoming more e-dependent and reading more electronically as it is more convenient, more accessibility, cost-effective, user-friendly, etc

. With traditional reading methods, we read more slowly when we like a text as our brains enter a state of arousal that resembles hypnosis, ie a trance; it is claimed that this reading requires deeper engagement.

Some research (Daniel Willingham, 2015) shows that attention span is not shrinking with the digital age. In fact, attention span is divided into 2 elements, ie

i) how much we can keep in our mind (this is measured by asking people to repeat increasingly long strings of digits in reverse order)
ii) how well we can we maintain focus (asking people to monitor visual stimuli for occasional subtle changes)

Over a 50 year period there has been little change. On the other hand, there are 2 systems of attention and associated thought, ie

i) directed outwards like when you are scrolling through e-mails or playing a video game ii) directed inwards like when you daydream, plan the future or reflect on the past

Both systems of attention cannot be working at the same time.

Most digital activities involve outwardly-directed attention and there are some fears that we could be losing our ability to daydream. Daydreaming is associated with greater creativity.

The downsides of inwardly-directed thought are

- daydreaming can distract us when we need to be focused

- reflection can turn ugly, eg fixating on some past insult or error

Crisis of Attention

"...our growing inability to concentrate could be part of the global productivity puzzle..."
Patrick Cummins, 2017

Research shows that we are distracted nearly 50% of the time. Factors like office noise, e-mails, smart phone notifications, etc are distractions claiming our attention.

Work by the Bank of England shows

"...How the drop in productivity growth across advanced economies over the past decade is neatly timed with a tenfold increase in the rise of smart phone would expect the ability to pay attention to be a key input in productivity..."
Dan Nixon as quoted by Patrick Cummins, 2017

Need to remember that correlation is not necessarily causation.

Some activities around social media that could explain the drop in productivity.

- cyber stacking (the average American spends many hours of their work day on social media; for millennials it is nearly 2 hours; online shopping jumps between 2 and 6 pm)

- encourages distractive mind (consumer technology is designed to be as addictive as possible and habit forming, eg scrolling news feeds, etc.)

Some ways to handle

- promote single tasking rather than multitasking

- only view e-mails at set times per day

- work on mindfulness (a way to help retrain the mind to now and the task at hand)

Some researchers state that we are still in a transitional phase and are anticipating significant productivity improvement through technology like AI.

At the same time
"...Most agree on the need to cultivate our distinctively human skills in order to differentiate ourselves from machines...... one such human skill is the ability to empathise. Being able to pay attention (to tasks, to people) is a critical input in the cultivation of empathy..."
Dan Nixon as quoted by Patrick Cummins, 2017


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