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.