We have all heard the expression ‘You’ve got the attention span of a goldfish.’  Sometimes it changes to butterfly but either way, it means you are easily distracted and have difficulty concentrating on one task.

Since the advent of the worldwide web and the plethora of social media options available to us, it has long been believed that our collective attention spans are shrinking. We have all seen online news articles that give us an estimation of how long it will take us to read whereas when we consumed our news from hardcopy papers or books, we simply accepted it took as long as it took. Well, now those suspicions have been confirmed – we really cannot keep our minds on the matter in hand for the requisite amount of time.

A recently published study from researchers at the Technical University of Denmark suggests the collective global attention span is narrowing due to the amount of information that is presented to the public.   The findings, published in Nature Communications, indicate “people now have more things to focus on — but often focus on things for short periods of time.”

Professor Sune Lehmann, who was involved in the study, stated in a press release,  “It seems that the allocated attention time in our collective minds has a certain size but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.”

Gloria Mark, Chancellor’s professor in the Department of Informatics at University of California, Irvine, has collected and collated information on the subject of the disappearing attention span.  In her recently-released book entitled ‘Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance Happiness and Productivity’, she examines how this affects the workplace, stating that 20 years ago, people averaged 2.5 minutes of focused attention when they were working online or doing something involving screens, before switching to a different screen. By 2012, that time span had shrunk to 75 seconds. And by 2021, it had compacted to a mere 47 seconds. In a Wall Street Journal article, she says these statistics weren’t just guesstimated. “We used sophisticated computer logging techniques to measure attention spans and heart rate monitors and wearable devices to measure stress.’’  Email is a particularly big distraction, and her research shows people check theirs about seventy-seven times a day.’  After each interruption — and most are self-imposed — Mark told CNN it takes about 25 minutes to get back on track.

“If we look at work in terms of switching projects, as opposed to the micro view of switching screens, we find people spend about ten minutes in any work project before being interrupted — internally or by someone else — and then switch to another work project. And then you go back and pick up the original interrupted project! This is not to say people are spending that time daydreaming. She goes on to explain that “It’s not like you’re interrupted, and you do nothing. For over 25 minutes, you are working on other things. However, there is also a switch cost. (This) is the time it takes you to reorient back to your work: ‘Where was I? What was I thinking of?’ That additional effort can also lead to errors and stress.”

This is often regarded as multitasking, considered a highly prized skill for coping with the demands of the information age, but Mark disagrees. “With the exception of a few rare individuals, there is no such thing as multitasking. Unless one of the tasks is automatic, like chewing gum or walking, you cannot do two effortful things at the same time. For example, you cannot read email and be in a video meeting. When you focus on one thing, you lose the other. You’re actually switching your attention very quickly between the two:  And when you switch your attention fast, it’s correlated with stress:  Blood pressure rises:  Heart rate speeds up. Psychological measures of stress also show negative outcomes, such as more fatigue and mistakes and less productivity: The more people multitask, the more errors they make.”

Her research indicates that much of the blame can be attributed to email correspondence. “We cut off email for some workers in an organization for one workweek,” she said. “Using heart rate monitors, we found that they became significantly less stressed and were able to focus significantly longer.

And the cost is not limited to productivity. Studies also show the interruptions and lack of focus also raise anxiety and stress, while lowering productivity. Because whilst trying to switch attention back and forth, the brain’s thought train is interrupted, leading to errors and missed deadlines. And it is not hard to imagine how this would be amplified amongst those working from home where the distractions are multifarious, and it takes a strong will to keep focused on a single work function.

It is an internationally recognised phenomenon. The India business publication Mint Report that: “There is a constant desire for fresh, engaging content and people are paying more attention to shorter content formats for bite-sized entertainment and information.’’

Young people are amongst the worst affected. Many members of Gen Y & Z grew up never reading a book cover to cover and receiving all their news and the bulk of their information in bite-sized online flashes or via social media. They are, at least, beginning to recognise the problem. A recent headline on a student column in the American River College Current Read, “TikTok is shrinking our attention span with every swipe.” The accompanying article said the short videos “make it very easy for people to lose interest in longer activities” and “those who use the app for over 90 minutes can narrow their collective attention span over time.”

Such studies can highlight problems without necessarily providing solutions. But one place to start would be a ban on such sites as Tik-Tok in the workplace; and if you have instituted a communal WhatsApp work group, you’re part of the problem in the first place.  We cannot live without our computers, but we can and should wean ourselves away from all forms of social media, during working hours at least. In the words of the old Roger Miller song ‘No phone, no pool, no pets.’!