Over the years that I have been doing Future’s Ramblings many of you have passed along your comment on the articles; if you liked them, were exposed to new avenues of thought , or had a spark of inspiration that came as a result of reading them. Not all of the comments are rosy. My personal favorites are those that are quick to point out grammatical errors and typos, advise me to get a technical advisor and ever so gently remind me – over and over and over again – that Sony did not make the IPod.

One of the most frequent comments I get is about the length of the articles and the fact that they ramble so much! (hey maybe that’s why I call it Ramblings) After all, how can a busy executive be expected to read such a long diatribe off a blackberry in the airport? Well I want you to know that I do appreciate your comments both good and bad, and have taken many of your suggestions on board – I now use spell check. Just to show you how much I care I have also put my normal defensiveness aside to seriously considered the length of the articles. My conclusion is that its near impossible to cover a topic with any detail in much less and that you all must have seriously short attention spans.

Fortunately, I do have a soft side which I got in touch with, so upon further reflection decided my stance was a bit harsh. Consequently, this months Ramblings is dedicated to learning more about our ability to pay attention with the hope of understanding why some of you just can’t do it. My research began with an online quiz from Psychology Today that consisted of a series of questions. Here are a few examples:

 How often are you late for work or an appointment?
 How often do you find yourself daydreaming at work?
 Do you lose your patience easily?
 How often do you interrupt people during a conversation?

Well I must say it came as a shock, A SHOCK I SAY, to learn that I have a rather short attention span. The website advises this might make me disorganized, miss deadlines, and pay my bills late. They offer that it could be due to fatigue, the side effect of medication or a personal problem and suggests I visit a psychologist to asses whether ADD might be a factor. Well what do they know, that’s not a reputable magazine anyway. Not like Who Weekly and their excellent quizzes on How sexy are you? or Determine if you need a daily moisturiser.

It appears the US government is as shocked as I am about my inability to pay attention, which is why they have funded an effort to counteract what some medical professionals have termed “epidemic-level shortness in the attention spans of American citizens”. This was done in response to a study that determined Americans, compared to other nations, and themselves a few days or weeks earlier, suffer from dramatically short attention spans.

Psychologist in America think this may be due to the overabundance of irrelevant and distracting information. Thank goodness there is none of that here! Even though the irrelevant and distracting information comes from multiple sources the television is a major contributer. In America 90% of children under the age of two and 40% of infants under three months old watch television regularly. Studies link television watching to not doing your homework, being bored in school, not going to college and shortened attention spans.

Another reason given for our short attention spans is the time we spend web browsing. Apparently too much browsing can leave you with the attention span of approximately nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. The positive side to that is that every time a goldfish swims by the little castle in the fishtank he thinks it’s a new thing so has high job/life satisfaction. According to Ted Selker an expert in body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things, if we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” This does not seem to be the case with people who read news articles on line, apparently 77% of online readers finish an entire article where their print reading counterparts measure in at only 62%.

Having a short attention span, or making people think you do, is not completely bad. Last week articles appeared in the paper commenting on the Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd’s lack of concern for Peter Costello and the other Government backbencher’s yahooing. Everyone wondered why Rudd was unfazed by the yelling and heckling going on around him and questioned whether he was in fact paying attention. Rudd appeared to be tidying up papers and writing a speech while there was utter mayhem happening around him. This lasted about six months and then Rudd finally lost his cool and yelled at the Prime Minister. So good news he wasn’t sleeping on the job or wearing ear plugs – a good move considering he wants to be the next Prime Minister.

You don’t need to have a long attention span to lead a country. Doug Hannah, a friend of G. W. Bush’s since childhood, has found that an attention problem runs in the Bush family: “They have an attention span of about an hour.” When he and George were boys, he remembers, “Mr. Bush would pick us up to take us to the movies and leave after an hour and 20 minutes…. At ball games George would sometimes want to leave in the fifth inning.” “Even today,” writes Gail Sheehy in the October Vanity Fair, “nothing engages Bush’s attention for more than an hour, an hour max? more like 10 or 15 minutes.

Generally we don’t think about what we are doing between 80 and 90% of the time and for the most part this is harmless. Many of the common tasks we do through out the day do not require our full attention. The problem is when we are distracted from things we should be paying attention to. This can have catastrophic consequences, at the least you may miss your exit on the freeway, but in extreme cases you might end up like the guy that went to work and forgot his 10 month old son in the back seat. It was in California and it was very hot, unfortunately the child died.

Main stream psychology hasn’t paid much attention to distractability, but now some scientists are beginning to see positive aspects of mind wandering and link this to basic operations of the brain. Since mind wandering taps into the same part of the brain that we engage when we are doing nothing, it serves the purpose of calming us. We can then apply idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems which is a perfect situation for creative thought.

As we move into an age where creativity and innovation will take centre stage it is worthwhile for us to consider how we can better tap into our natural tendency to day dream. We also need to acknowledge that, as interesting as we think we are, when we make presentations to clients they will most likely zone out part way through. This can be quite a challenge because we don’t want to dilute our message to the point that it loses meaning, nor do we want to make it so complicated that the average person can’t see it through to the end.

This is particularly prevalent in Futures. It is not uncommon for us to do months worth of work and have only three minutes at a companies board meeting to present it. In this kind of situation it is critical to make our point quickly and effectively. Since you know all of us you will understand what a challenge this is, we have the gift of the gab and getting us to stop talking is no small feat.

As with most things, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to solving it. So please have some patience, I for one am trying to muzzle myself. You could help too by improving your concentration by purchasing one of those new electronic games they have been marketing to senior citizens to keep their minds active. If that doesn’t work go get yourself a prescription for Ritalin.

Sources

Online Readers Have Longer Attention Spans: Study
By Humphrey Cheung
Trendwatch
April 2, 2007

“Short Attention Spans Serve Purpose”
By Malcolm Ritter
Discovery Channel News
March 19, 2007

“The Empire Strikes Back”
By Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 12, 2007

“Nine in 10 US Babies Watch TV”
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 8, 2007

“Are We turning into Digital Goldfish?”
BBC News
February 22 2002

Bush Watch
RealClearPolitics.com
March 16, 2007

“Effort Underway to Improve Short Attention Spans of Americans”
By Ion Zwitter
Avant News EditorWashington, D.C.
January 19, 2007

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