How You’ve Lost Your Attention Span and How to Get it Back

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I lost my attention span.  I bet yours is gone too, and it’s hurting your business more than you realize.  I will prove it to you. But all hope is not lost.  I will show you how to get it back.


Last year, 18 years after I stepped out of my last official class in grad school, I decided to go back to school.  Well kind of.  I signed up for the CPCU designation.  This is an insurance designation that consists of 8 self study courses; followed up by an exam at an approved testing center.  It really is graduate level work.

How hard could it be?  I’ve been in the insurance industry all my professional career, and was always an excellent student.

I’ll never forget sitting down the first night to that large text book.  I opened up to Chapter 1, with highlighter and pen in hand.  I had a study guide nearby that guided me through the chapters with questions to reinforce the material.

I started reading, and my brain interrupted.  “Hey, I wonder what the weather will be tomorrow.” 

I pick up my phone, open the weather app, glance at the weather, then the weather of my hometown, then the weather of my in-laws, then the weather in Paris, then the weather in Ireland.

“Oh no, I have to start studying again!!”

Skim page 2.  Answer a question about insurance company financing.

“Hmm, financing, money, how much money did the most recent super-hero movie make?  What new movies are coming out this week? I bet YouTube has trailers.”

Pick up phone, go to YouTube, watch 15 minutes of movie trailers.

“What am I doing, I have to study!”

Page 3.

“Wonder what’s going on with my friends?”

Pick up phone, go to Facebook, thirty minutes later and I am in full self-flagellation mode.

“I can’t belief myself I can focus.”

Go to home computer, google “how to focus”

An hour later, I start yawning, realize it’s bedtime and kick myself for spending two hours studying but only getting 3 pages in.  Something had to change.

Why I think it happened?

You can probably guess.  I think it’s a combination of spending some much time trying to multi-task, and the pinging of our digital world.

Even writing this post, I got interrupted, but it set me down a path where I ended up back on my computer surfing the Starbucks website entering starcodes (long story).

Multi-tasking is a myth (even for women).

Psychologists and brain researchers have learned that humans can’t multi-task.1

It may feel like it but what you are really doing is switching your attention from one task to the next.  You are only doing it very quickly.   You are splitting your attention and giving neither task full focus.

For some tasks this may be fine, such as folding laundry and watching TV, but to most meaningful activities require much more concentration.  To really learn to excel at a task, full attention is required.

Digital devices have rewired the brain.

Especially social media.  Social media captures attention like a drug.  Sparks of information enter the brain, and before you have time to settle into boredom with an item, another sliver of tasty information appears.  It’s like a never-ending buffet for attention.  The visual stimulation plus the fear of missing out grabs your mind and holds on.  This isn’t hyperbole, even though it sounds like I’m describing the mind of an addict looking for his next fix.

Be attentive to the next time you pick up your phone when it pings you with a visual or auditory alert.  You don’t just look at the one item, you will search for more, and keep searching until something stops you.  You lose a sense of time.

Think about the times you’ve got caught in a loop of YouTube videos.  You watch one after another after another, then you look at your clock.  What seemed like 10-15 minutes may have been 30 minutes to an hour.

It’s almost like you can’t help yourself.

Former Facebook executive Sean Parker has recently said, “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,”2

On top of the brain candy aspect of digital media, there is the fear of missing out.  Believe it or not, this has been identified as such a problem, there is an actual acronymn for it–FOMO.  Sadly, there is a wikipedia page that describes this condition.

Researcher define it as  “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” 3

It’s not just other’s experiences that capture our minds, but information that if you knew it would change your life.  And if you don’t know it, your life may be poorer for it.

Why it matters in business?

1. Time Management

We only have so much attention to give each day.  It is easy to drift into meaningless activities that rob us from achieving our goals.  Your goal may be to set X appointments before the day is done, and you need energy and attention to complete that task.

2. Focus on Your Customer

If you are selling, you must focus deeply on the customer.  Your mind can’t wander when you are looking for ways to help and sell your product.  Focusing on the other person helps with memory, and will uncover needs they have for your product.

3. Problem Solving

You need time and attention and creativity for most business problems.  This could be crafting a product for your customer or creating a new marketing strategy.  It could be thinking through a presentation you need to deliver.  Or how to handle staffing and employee issues.

4. Brainstorming

You need to brainstorm to constantly improve, but it’s hard when you can’t focus.  There are times you need to carve out a slice of time just to think about your business.  What are your goals?  Where are you succeeding?  Where are you failing?  Working out these questions takes time and focus and mental energy that can’t be drained away by a distracting lifestyle.

What did I do to get it back?

First, I set my phone far away from me when I studied.  And when it had to be close because of expected calls, I turned it over and out of sight, so I couldn’t see any visual notifications.  The buzzer was off and only the ringer on for important calls.

Second, I went on a social media fast.  I fasted from Facebook for 30 days.  For the first couple days, it was painful, and made me realize I was addicted.  I can’t tell you how many times, I caught myself opening a tab on the browser beginning to type, f…a…c…, then I came to my senses and stopped.  Eventually it got easier and I forgot.  I really believe my brain changed, and attention started returning.

Third, I started working in concentrated blocks of time.  This began with studying, but then I used the method for regular work.  I would work for 20 mins, stop, walk around, go to the bathroom, get a drink then come back to the task at hand.  I wouldn’t let myself go longer than a 10 minute break, and I avoided surfing the web.

Fourth, I set daily goals.  These are big life changing goals, but small manageable tasks that will eventually help me hit those big items.  Write 500 words per day.  Create a list of prospect.  Craft a marketing email for a new promotion. Submit an expense report.  Nothing big, but bigger than my normal to-do lists.  The rule of thumb here are items that take longer than 15 minutes.  Those are the items that get lost in my attention.  I can crank through those quick two-minute email tasks all day long, but don’t ever accomplish any of the big stuff that will really make a difference long-term.

Attention and focus is a fight, and thinking of it in terms of a battle has changed my approach and added a little bit of success.

  1. The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done Book by Dave Crenshaw.
  3. Przybylski, Andrew K.; Murayama, Kou; DeHaan, Cody R.; Gladwell, Valerie (July 2013). “Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out”. Computers in Human Behavior. 29: 1841–1848.

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