The Benefits of a Short Attention Span

Chronic distraction has its upsides.

Illustration: woman looking at phone
Luci Gutiérrez

Our supposedly shrinking attention spans are a hot topic these days—as you may have seen on TV or heard on a podcast or read on Twitter or glimpsed on your watch or else just intuited from the antsy melancholy of those few unbearable minutes each morning between when you open your eyes and when you first reach for your phone.

Emblematic of the genre is a 2015 Microsoft report that claimed the average human attention span had shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013 (even shorter than the nine seconds of focus maintained by the notoriously distractible goldfish), presumably on its way to zero. [1]

Yes, this sort of alarmism is as old as the hills. An 1897 article in The American Electrician worried that a growing dependence on the telephone would turn us all into “transparent heaps of jelly.” But while the notion of addiction to our smartphones (the most usual suspects in the current attention crisis) is contested, numerous studies have found that compulsive phone use can lead to separation anxiety, chronic fear of missing out, and a painful thumb condition known as de Quervain’s tenosynovitis—signs worrying enough that we can’t rule out the eventual jellification of humanity. [2]

Curiously, our bond with our phones persists even when they are doing literally nothing. Researchers in Paris observed that 37 percent of women and 30 percent of men walking by themselves held in their hand a smartphone they weren’t using. (Pairs of men and women held phones as they walked only 18 percent of the time, suggesting that we can still capture each other’s attention on occasion.) [3]

Yet blaming smartphones for our distractibility feels too easy—human attention has always been fleeting. A study conducted several years before the first iPhone was unveiled found that workers spent an average of just two minutes using a particular tool or document before switching to another. [4] Moreover, interruptions may have a silver lining. Many workers who were insulated from distraction by website-blocking software became more aware of time’s passage and were able to work for longer stretches—but also reported higher stress levels as a result of their sustained focus. [5]

For those seeking to exercise greater control over their attention span, science has some suggestions. A 2016 study found that mindfulness meditation led to short-term improvements in attention and focus, and that the benefits were disproportionately large among heavy multimedia multitaskers. [6] And research published earlier this year suggests that the long-term attentional benefits of regular mindfulness practice may be even more substantial than previously thought. [7]

Ultimately, it’s worth asking: How long do we really want our attention span to be? A little mindfulness can be grounding, while too much sustained focus can dial up our stress levels. What’s lacking these days, then, may not be attention so much as moderation in the face of countless stimuli that are simultaneously diverting and engrossing. In the end, it seems like our only hope as a people, as a civilization, really, is to … to, um—sorry. Lost my train of thought.

The Studies

[1] Alyson Gausby, “Attention Spans” (Microsoft Canada, Spring 2015)

[2] Gutiérrez et al., “Cell-Phone Addiction” (Frontiers in Psychiatry, Oct. 2016)

[3] Schaposnik and Unwin, “The Phone Walkers” (Behaviour, April 2018)

[4] González and Mark, “ ‘Constant, Constant, Multi-tasking Craziness’ ” (Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems, April 2004)

[5] Mark et al., “Effects of Individual Differences in Blocking Workplace Distractions” (Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems, April 2018)

[6] Gorman and Green, “Short-Term Mindfulness Intervention Reduces the Negative Attentional Effects Associated With Heavy Media Multitasking” (Scientific Reports, April 2016)

[7] Zanesco et al., “Cognitive Aging and Long-Term Maintenance of Attentional Improvements Following Meditation Training” (Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, Sept. 2018)

This article appears in the December 2018 print edition with the headline “Attention, Please.”