Are you paying attention?

You or the goldfish?

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I recently listened to a a16z podcast entitled “Addiction vs Popularity in the Age of Virality”. In the discussion, the oft-mentioned ‘goldfish vs human’ attention span quip came up. In this case the comment was:

“Goldfish have an attention span of 9 seconds. The average teenager has an attention span of 8 seconds.”

Let’s dig into this statement.

Why do we compare the attention span of a goldfish to that of a human being in the first place? Could it be because it’s easier to get hold of goldfish and study them in laboratory conditions than the typical human being?

Does the goldfish pay attention in the same way that a person does?

What else is the goldfish consciously and subconsciously thinking about when the experiment is taking place?

I’m pretty sure it’s not about composing the next smart comment to tweet, although I could well be wrong…

According to a recent BBC article on this very subject, published papers on the attention span of goldfish go back to the early 1900’s, well before the age of the TV, Email, Facebook, Twitter etc.

Going back to the statement, human beings can choose how to spend their attention. Think of it as resource that diminishes during the waking day.

We can be focussed on one particular task but at the same time, be spending some of our cognitive capacity elsewhere, intention or unintentionally. In other words, a task doesn’t necessarily occupy our total attention.

Does a goldfish have the same capacity?

Some people are ‘morning people’, others get their best work done late at night.

Does the same apply to a goldfish?

In the a16z podcast, the speakers discuss the various sources that vie for our attention. There are some interesting points about what constitutes a hit TV series or a best-selling book, the concept of ‘the end of the ending’ with various methods to continue the audience engagement. The point is that the companies are all trying to maximise their grip on the audience’s attention.

With this in mind, what can we do to counteract the pull on our cognitive capacity and increase the likelihood of being able to focus attention?

Let’s get the obvious out of the way:

  • Turn off your phone and/or put it out of reach
  • Turn off your email and disconnect from any instant messaging applications you have running on your laptop/desktop
  • Use a ‘blocking’ application that prevents you from using a web-browser for a period of time

Now let’s look at some methods for focussing the mind.

The Promodoro technique

A simple concept and method to try. The premise is that rather than trying to concentrate for long periods of time, you focus for a short, more manageable period such as 25 minutes, with a distinct break (where you can get your dopamine hit from looking at email), before diving into the next focus period.

Entering a flow state

The Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow state’ in his paper ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’. The ‘flow state’ is described as

‘the concentration of mental capacity on a task or focal point to the point where other things, such as pain, or sense of body, problems, etc. ‘disappear’.’

Csikszentmihalyi describes a series of attributes that are required in order to enter a state of flow. These include two key elements:

  • Great inner clarity — knowing what needs to be done and how well we’re doing
  • Knowing that the activity is doable — that our skills are adequate to the task

He also notes that ‘thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes’.

Given this, can we ‘tune’ our work such that we increase the chances of being able to enter that flow state and therefore increase the periods of time that we’re able to concentrate?

White noise

Some people are able to focus only when in a totally quiet environment. Others prefer to listen to music. Some like a location such as a coffee shop.

In a busy office, with conference calls and colleague’s chatter all around, it can be far from ideal and the ‘quiet rooms’ are often booked up with people camping in them all day.

Even though you may not be part of the office chatter, your brain is passively listening and that draws from your cognitive capacity.

My personal choice to deal with this, is an application called ‘Noisli’. Even when I’m working from home with no one else around, some of noisescapes that this application generates, are able to help me focus and on good days, get into Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state pretty quickly.

The next time you hear the ‘attention span’ quip, think about it. Is the analogy meaningful or just a lazy comparison that easy to throw into the conversation?

One final thought — can a goldfish experience flow states?

If you enjoyed this article, share it with your friends.

Joel Obstfeld is a Curious Integrator @ Cisco, who believes that ‘engineering’ and ‘empathy’ are words that can be in the same sentence. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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