What on earth happened to everyone’s attention spans?

Human attention span
Human attention span

Image source: https://marketoonist.com/2014/10/attentionspan.html

You know back when we were cavemen and cavewomen? We had to focus for prolonged periods of time. We went out on long stints hunting for food; we fended off attacks from predators; we protected our families from potential threats, like giant spiders. *shudder*

There was loads going on. And it all required our attention.

Somewhere between hanging out half-naked in caves to agonising over for the perfect filter for an Instagram post of our soy bean frappe-lappa-winnachino, something changed. (That’s a real coffee, by the way.)

In fact, it’s a popular ‘research stat’ (in air quotes) banded around online that our attention spans are now shorter than ever, at roughly 8 seconds long. Supposedly, that’s shorter than that of a goldfish – which is rumoured to be around 9 seconds.

Hmm. Are you convinced? I mean, for starters – oh wait, look at that pigeon! He’s fighting with that other pigeon! I wonder what they’re so mad about?

But seriously – could this really be true? Attention spans worse than a tiny, scaly, limbless animal that spends all day swimming in a tank? ‘Sure’, you say. Because attention spans have suffered over time due to our so-called obsession with smartphones and computer screens, right?

Sounds a bit like a convenient narrative with a clear source of blame…

The demise of the attention span

Explain to me then, how last Tuesday night I was able to commit six solid hours of attention to a Gilmore Girls marathon? My TV asked me if I was still watching on four separate occasions, and by gosh, I certainly was. (I wasn’t sold on the judgemental nature of the question, though.)

I do have a point, honestly. And it’s this – did you ever consider that our attention spans aren’t worse, but we’re choosing to make them shorter? We might be more distracted, yes. I mean, it’s now frighteningly easy to look into other people’s personal lives on social media, and as a result, constantly compare ourselves to them (Great work Mark Zuckerberg – I didn’t need another complex, but thanks).

It’s beside the point that it’s usually old classmates we lost actual touch with over a decade ago and would run across the street to avoid. So, why on earth do we commit time to rifling through their ‘Greece 2014’ holiday snaps? Is it that we’ve become totally accustomed to having all this information readily at our fingertips, we think it’s our right?

Anyway, coming back to my point (before I get distracted again), we have unlimited information, images and videos at our disposal. We converse with our friends over several different apps and different mediums. Most of us can’t even go to the bathroom without scrolling through our Instagram feed. But, in there somewhere, hidden by all the useless information we choose to process, I believe there’s a fully-functional attention span.

You’ve heard of selective memory? You know how your mother has no recollection of criticising your weight constantly throughout your teen years? In the same way, I think we’re operating with selective attention span.

Upsides of Short Attention Spans

Believe it or not, there’s a few. If you’re working with a selective short attention span, you can have better ideas. You’re quicker to adapt, finding it easier to change with the wind.

Also, you can’t be sold on things so easily, and you need to be really interested to give something your time and focus. Ultimately this means you don’t waste your time so much and you’re less influenced by persuasive people, such as sales people. That can only be a good thing, surely.

‘What does this mean for learning?’ 

…I’m glad you asked. Since we’re in the Learning industry, attention spans affect us massively. The amount people learn heavily relies on how long they want to focus for. So, how can we work this in our favour?

Well, as creators of learning content, we need to come up with condensing lessons into a format that doesn’t make people want to fall into a deep, deep sleep. Bear in mind, your learners have probably already spent around 12 years in a classroom setting. Imagine that for a second: 12 years. Several more if you continued your education (some people are in those settings for 20 years or more).

And since the majority of us don’t use trigonometry in our everyday lives – we’re naturally going to question whether everything we’re learning is something we need to know.

So – here at Litmos Heroes we’re using this knowledge to our advantage by being concise. Not exactly ground-breaking when you think about it. And trust us – this works in every area of your life. Like when your grandma decides to recount every ‘buy one, get one half price’ deal she saw at the local supermarket, you feel like your brain is going to explode, don’t you? So, let’s just hold the excess information, shall we?

Next time you’re having dinner with your partner, stop for a second to consider whether they need to know about that work email chain circulating about John’s Gryffindor flask disappearing from the kitchen. Even you don’t care about that – so they definitely don’t.

We’re more ruthless than ever and we’re choosing what deserves our attention. So, instead of dragging out learning courses just to fill time, we’re going down the route of writing concise, pithy, digestible learning that people will want to pay attention to. Doesn’t hurt that our jokes are solid gold, too.*

Find out more about our short ’60 Second Skills’ course collection – helping you to make the most of those selective attention spans in your organisation!

*This is a lie – at best, they are Dad jokes.

Jasmine Ballard

Author Jasmine Ballard

Jasmine Ballard is a Script Writer at Litmos Heroes, writing engaging and concise learning content. She likes to get bad jokes in wherever she can, too. Her career history has been pretty mixed - working several crew roles in the TV industry, the PR industry, as an abseiling instructor, and in computer sales. She loves comedy and writes scripts in her spare time.

More posts by Jasmine Ballard