Your goldfish can now beat you at a staring contest

 A recent study shows that we can no longer hold our attention as long as a goldfish. Our inattention has far-reaching implications at home and at work.

A recent study shows that we can no longer hold our attention as long as a goldfish. Our inattention has far-reaching implications at home and at work.

The scales of attention have just tipped in favour of your goldfish.

Somewhat alarmingly, Canadians are losing their ability to keep their attention on any one thing, as we are continually distracted by shiny objects, like our phones and computers for instance.

In 2013, Microsoft commissioned a study of 2,000 Canadians to find out what is happening to our ability to focus.

In 2000, we could hold our attention for 12 seconds – while not overly impressive, we managed.

The Microsoft-commissioned study found that our attention span had dropped to eight seconds. A goldfish can hold its attention for nine seconds.

At the time of the study, smart phones had been around for seven years, and social media use was skyrocketing. These are two of the reasons researchers believe our attention span is waning.

Our lack of attention staying power has far reaching effects for us at home and at work.

On the personal note, we are not as able to sustain meaningful conversation as we once were. We mentally drift, often missing what’s being discussed. This happens with in conversation with our spouses, our children, our friends and our boss.

It’s said jokingly, but it’s true, that a man hears his wife say: “You’re not listening to me,” and he thinks, “That’s a strange way to start a conversation."

 This clip from a video shows a California sailor so fixated on his phone that he completely missed a close encounter from a humpback whale. The person who took the video described it as a larger commentary on our general state of distraction.

This clip from a video shows a California sailor so fixated on his phone that he completely missed a close encounter from a humpback whale. The person who took the video described it as a larger commentary on our general state of distraction.

A photograph went viral in 2013 of a man on a sailboat watching his cell phone, while a humpback whale emerged right beside the craft. The man who shot the video of that event told news channels that the texting sailor never saw the whale.

Our inattention is leading us to miss out on much of our life.

Wife says: “You’re not listening to me.” 

Husband thinks: “That’s a strange way to start a conversation.”

Our failure to communicate effectively is endemic, and costs us dearly both at home and at work.

It’s generally accepted that workplace distraction is costing U.S. firms about $600 billion annually.

In fact, 2010 research by New York-based Basex,  a collaborative business environments firm, showed interruptions now consume 28 per cent of a knowledge worker’s day, amounting to 28 billion person hours in the U.S. alone.

(Canadian numbers weren’t readily available at the writing of this column)

Basex estimates the annual cost of workplace interruptions was $588 billion in the U.S. alone.

“It would therefore be an understatement to say that attention management – the area of management science dealing with interruptions – merits immediate attention,” the report says.

“It would therefore be an understatement to say that attention management – the area of management science dealing with interruptions – merits immediate attention.” 

– Basex study

 

Distraction is also the source of workplace injury.

Firms are working at several approaches to reducing the incidence of decreased focus.

One approach is to ban the use of cell phones in the workplace. While unpopular at first, employees eventually get used to the rule and become more focused while on the job.

Another is to implement wellness programs. Some of those could include “microbreaks,” encouraging staff to get up and take a brief walk periodically through the day.

The science examining the problem and potential solutions is relatively young. But early indications are the problem is growing, making the search for solutions more pressing.

Kevin Diakiw