The Age of Distraction

I’m attending a corporate training course for managers for these two weeks. One interesting fact that I learned was about just how distracted we really are these days.

A lecturer (for our communications module) shared with us that, when she first came to Singapore ten years ago, she was informed by a colleague at the National Institute of Education that the average college student’s attention span was a mere 20 minutes. Now, it’s apparently as short as 5 minutes.

When I heard that, my mind was blown: that’s a drop of 75%!

I’m sure this is possibly not helped by all the extra distractions, especially now that we’re in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, and other apps demanding our time. From my personal experience during the course, when the lecture gets boring, suddenly my emails become interesting. And I switch my attention to that. Before switching my attention back to the lecture again. And that’s not counting for the times when my Whatsapp notifications got my interest.Don’t we all do this? Yes: we switch our attentions from our Whatsapps to our wives, from our memos to our colleagues.

The cost of all this switching, though, is that our minds are increasingly “trained” to have shorter attention spans, and this is impeding our ability to focus and get deep work (a new concept I’m reading about from Cal Newport’s book) done. The Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass spoke about it here.

And let’s be honest: our corporate cultures aren’t helping. Most companies and knowledge workers these days have an unspoken expectation that (a) knowledge workers should be constantly connected via Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp etc., and (b) that they should quickly respond. The end result, though, is a churn of never-ending emails and messages, which often impede rather than enhance quality work. So it was with some interest that I read about Leslie Perlow’s research with BCG, about how forcing BCG consultants to disconnect seemed to have a beneficial impact on their work.

I’ve two thoughts from my readings thus far (still finishing Newport’s book):

  1. In the wider context of the Age of Distraction, it’s even more important to be able to consistently unplug (from all the noise) and to train one’s attention to be in the present. The ability to meditate thus could become an even more important skill in this day and age.
  2. It takes some time for the mind to settle into any task (hence, the major cost of multitasking is that some of the “residue” from the previous task interferes with your current task; Newport’s book reports that it takes around 10 mins to settle into a new task). I think this applies to meditation, and it means that one should ideally train to be able to sit for at least 10 mins (in order to experience one’s mind settling on the meditation object).

I’ll update further after I’ve finished the book.




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