Interest span vs attention span

Interest span vs attention span

You now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, according to a 2015 study by Microsoft Corp. It’s not typical for people to lose their concentration after a mere eight seconds, compared to a goldfish’s nine. This is less than in the past, and it’s the digitized life that’s taking the blame.

And that blame isn’t unfounded. We’re not wrong to point to our devices as a driving factor behind this trend, which I’m not alone in finding disturbing.

(It’s tempting to think that 8-second finding means the end of the world is upon us, but I was surprised to learn that in the year 2000, before we all had computers in our pockets and high-speed internet, that number was not measured in hours, or even minutes. It was just 12 seconds even then.)

But recently I listened to an interesting interview that questioned the assumption that we’re losing our ability to concentrate. I downloaded a few episodes of the Beautiful Writers podcast on the recommendation of a friend (and not a writing friend, either!).

They have great stuff in their archives, and one of my favorites was an interview with Story author Robert McKee. McKee’s work is gospel to many authors—both his book and his notorious Story Conference. And when he has something to say about how he sees people reading and writing effectively today, everyone in the know sits up and pays attention.

In the interview, the podcast hosts asked McKee a question about how writers should write differently in light of how things have changed in the last twenty years—attention spans are down, perhaps people are reading less, bestselling books are shorter.

They wanted McKee to weigh in on how writers should change, but he wasn’t buying the premise. There’s nothing wrong with our attention spans, he said (and I’m paraphrasing here). We are perfectly able to pay attention to what we want to—do you think you can binge a Netflix series in a weekend if you can’t pay attention?

It’s not our attention span that causes us to zone out when we’re bored; it’s our interest span. We don’t lose focus when we care about what we’re watching, or reading, or listening to. And, interestingly, the thing that’s most likely to hook us, to get us to care, is empathy.

(It’s important to note he was talking about reading books and watching movies, not finishing your work assignment or listen to your spouse’s recap of their day without having to restrain yourself to check your phone.)

I’ve been tossing McKee’s question around in my mind since I listened, and minding my own habits: when am I tempted to zone out? When do I get distracted, and what do I do when I am? Do I truly not struggle (much) to pay attention to the things I care deeply about?

I don’t wholeheartedly agree with his assessment, but I love the way he frames it, especially to artists. (Don’t complain that people CAN’T pay attention to your stuff anymore! Create stuff that makes them WANT to pay attention.)

Attention span vs. interest span: is this a real thing? How is your attention span these days? What about your interest span? Tell us all about it in comments!

P.S. McKee also said the truly fabulous great art being made right now, and in the near future: long-form television. Hmm.  

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  1. Kandace says:

    I think I mostly agree with McKee’s comment. As a philosopher, I both read and ponder deeply for hours. I can also get completely lost in a great book. I read “11/21/63” my first book ever by Stephen King (which was FANTASTIC btw) on my Kindle, and when I saw a print version I was shocked at how thick it was. Time flew by when I was reading. On the other hand, now that I’m in my 50s, I don’t like to waste time on things that aren’t meaningful to me. I would agree that I have a lack of interest rather than attention in that case. Life is short and I simply don’t want to bother with things that don’t capture my interest when I don’t have to and there are so many more wonderful things out there to explore and learn.
    As far as younger persons, I have twin sons that are almost 26. One was diagnosed with ADD in 7th grade. (And he says it was the best day of his life to that point because he had thought something horrible was “wrong” with him.) I have adult ADD. Both boys can be absorbed for hours in an online game or a great book – they enjoy both. They, along with their older sister, were on drumline from 4th grade through college and could practice that, or their guitars, banjo, harmonica, flute, trumpet, trombone, etc. for hours on end. I don’t think it’s that the internet or games that create the perception the younger generation have a short attention span. They are absolutely inundated with information every second and they’re afraid they will miss something important if they aren’t checking it all – not just their phones either – so they give things a cursory once-over and then dig deeper if it seems important or relevant and if not, they too move on. In that case, I wonder if it’s not simply that those older pass judgement on them because they don’t “pay attention” to things the way we did pre-internet & cell phones.

    • I loved your response to this question! I was always fearful of letting my kids have too much screen time but eventually when they hit their teens I quit being the time keeper. I agree that “they are inundated with information” and their fear of missing out causes them to skim. My email inbox is always full. I just managed to get my unread emails under 100 so *I* feel the pressure to always be working on whittling it down. When I find myself with a minute or two I open my email. I might as well try and read one more…

  2. I do think he brought up a good point that we pay attention to what we are interested in. We can pay attention for long periods of time if interested. Our attention span will not always match our interest span. They will fluctuate back and forth. And sometimes something we thought we were interested in, we will realize we are not interested and quit paying attention. I see both attention span and interest span playing out in me and my children.

  3. June says:

    I agree with McKee to a certain extent. As a homeschooler who leans towards Unschooling right now, I see my kids fully absorbed in what they are interested in. When they wanted free IHOP pancakes, and the wait was 45 minutes, my 7, 5, and 3 year old sat quietly for 45 minutes without any form of entertainment. I think we have less attention span for subjects we are not interested in, whereas in the past, minds were trained to study things just because they were deemed valuable and worthy of study (the “classics”). I personally have little interest in reading other than what directly relates to my current passions – parenting, homeschooling, and blogging. For those things, I have a very focused, long attention span. I am prone to distraction with my phone. I think it can be overcome though. Perhaps the attention span is shortened by the flood of information the Internet provides? There is simply so much you could read and learn, that decision fatigue related to what to read and learn makes our attention span shorter.

  4. Athena says:

    I think McKee is on to something there. While we can stay focused if we are interested we also have so many choices at our very fingertips if we do lose interest. I think hat contributes to the perception we have short attention spans. Because we can quickly shift to something else should our interest wane, it looks like we can’t focus.

  5. Jennifer N. says:

    I wonder what contribution mental exhaustion caused by just the sheer volume of information we consume daily adds to this lack of focus, as well. I have to think that the more “stuff” we have bouncing around in our head, the harder it is to stay focused on things we don’t find very interesting. Unfortunately, we have to be able to maintain focus on stuff we don’t care about, too.

    • YES! I call it “death by 1000 inconsequential tasks (or pieces of information you’re supposed to remember).” If you have school age children, just the volume of things you have to remember stemming from them is out of control. The endless forms that have to be turned in, the scheduling, the birthday parties, the random things at school (“wear a green shirt on Thursday because it’s Earth Day” or whatever).
      Then add whatever is going on in your own life on top of that. And trying to keep up with the news. And maybe some hobbies if you can fit those in.
      I’ve found I just have to cut some stuff because my brain can’t hold it all and I want to focus on a couple things that are important to me (reading and my book blog, for example). For example, I don’t care if my child shows up to school in the wrong color shirt for Earth Day. If he can remember on his own, great, but it’s not something I’m going to track and remind him about.

  6. Glenna Denman says:

    Interesting points. While there are short best selling books, there are also many very long ones. Don’t tell Amor Towles or Kristin Hannah to write shorter books, they are doing just fine with their extended story lines, thank you. But the idea of attention span vs. interest span, is a good comparison. Thank you for discussing it.

    • Jennifer N. says:

      Also, I don’t know that shorter bestsellers is really a sign of a shorter attention span. My attention span manages all lengths of books ;-). That could just be the way writing styles are trending right now. I think this one is correlation, not causation.

  7. Guest says:

    I agree with him. I’ve been reading about essentialism, mindfulness and minimalism for several years now and one of the things I’ve started doing is asking myself why I’m reaching for my phone/iPad, computer. One of my (pitiful but true) realizations was that it’s on ME to cultivate a life that I want to engage in rather than only reading about the lives of others.

  8. Annette Silveira says:

    I completely agree with McKee as well. I sometimes find myself in the middle of a very long article, for example, and I’m understanding everything but I’ve just stopped caring about the ending.

  9. Christine says:

    The world is constantly changing. Things required of my great-grandfather aren’t even a blip on my radar. The workforce my son is looking to enter requires things that were not even an Elective when I was in school. We are not the first adult generation to worry and wonder if the new and changing things are hurtful to our children but we can be assured they aren’t going away and change will continue. I think less time looking to see if the sky is falling and more time embracing the positives of our changing world/managing the negatives, learning, growing……And I agree with the statement we can almost always focus on what we like and enjoy. The current world just offers a ton of quick fix outs if we are bored, overwhelmed or disinterested in the task at hand. Like reading blogs instead of reviewing reports. Back to work.

  10. Jocelyn says:

    I’m distracted by the other books I could be reading. And as much as I am crazy about my kindle I keep getting distracted by the urge to look up information about what I am reading – word definitions, maps (a map can easily add an hour to my book), wiki articles etc. It might take hours just to get through a chapter. It’s just too much fun though!

  11. Kaitlyn says:

    This was an interesting read! I had read about the goldfish vs human attention span just the other day actually! I can say that my attention/interest span is different for when I need to vs want to. No matter how you look at it I suppose.


  12. Sarah Christy says:

    Interesting, to ponder, I am retired so theoretically all my time “is my own.” I live with a tension of what is important for me to focus on vs what is an indulgent waste of time. I have no patience for things I do not find interesting or applicable to my life. There are so many options that interest has more sway than it did a generation ago. If I don’t like anything I have available to read on my Kindle that sounds interesting…I can download an “interesting” read in a few minutes.

  13. Jaclyn Mann says:

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately with my students (I teach high school English) and my own life. I’ve been trying to weed out things that demand my “interest” so that I will focus more on the things that matter. Great questions to ponder this weekend.

  14. Debi Morton says:

    I think he’s definitely got a point, but I don’t think it’s a terribly original one. Just one example I have seen is the difference in how teaching reading is taught by teachers who are good and creative at it versus others who are not so much. I’ve been observing this as my eight grandchildren go to various schools. If they are sent home, and told to read 10 minutes from the same book the whole class is reading, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to do it. But tell them to read 15 minutes of whatever book they have
    chosen, and most of them will usually do their reading assignments willingly. They don’t whine that it’s boring when they have selected the book!
    And as they’ve continued to mature, those are the children I’ve seen grow into avid readers. So I think those teachers understand McKee’s point; they just may not state it as beautifully.

  15. Linda Theriault says:

    I have adhd as do several members of my family so staying focused on anything is something I am too familiar with. The difference for me now is that with digital media and social media I can seek out and fuel myself with things that truly interest me. Books, movies, articles….all immediately accessible. If something does not capture my attention I no longer have to struggle with it. I can abandon it and move on to the next thing. In many ways this serves me well but I sometimes give up on things that I might have liked if I had given it more of a chance.

  16. Eva says:

    I think McKee is on to something there. While we can stay focused if we are interested we also have so many choices at our very fingertips if we do lose interest. I think hat contributes to the perception we have short attention spans. Because we can quickly shift to something else should our interest wane, it looks like we can’t focus.

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