How Short is Your Attention Span? (Part 1 of 2)

How Short is Your Attention Span?

(Part 1 of 2)

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Last May, Microsoft performed a study on attention spans. They studied 2,000 Canadians, specifically focusing on digital lifestyles. Let’s cut right to the chase: attention spans dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds. To put that into perspective, the attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. Yes, we have a shorter attention span than the small creature your child wins at the county fair then kills off in a matter of days. (Now just keep reading to beat the average!)

How is it possible for my attention span to drop?

If you’re like me, you may be wondering how it’s possible you can go from an extremely focused individual who could read at lightning speed to someone who struggles to concentrate on one book for more than 20 minutes. Well, there’s actually such a thing as brain elasticity. Our brains have the cool ability to morph over time, based on circumstances and environmental factors. It’s that whole “survival” mode we just can’t seem to shake.

Isn’t “attention span” a little vague?

I’m glad you brought that up. Let’s break down what we mean by “attention span” (Here’s the part where you skip to the bottom if you don’t want to read the fascinating details). In 2001, Drs. McKay Moore Sohlberg and Catherine A. Meteer published Cognitive Rehabilitation and changed the way we understand cognition. According to their model of attention, we can break down “attention span” into three main parts: sustained, selective, and alternating. And the data’s a little different for each.

1.    Sustained attention

Sustained attention is really a prolonged focus, specifically maintaining prolonged focus during mind-numbing activities. An example is playing a video game or putting together a puzzle.

The numbers

In the study, 44% of the participants have to concentrate really hard to stay focused at work and school, 45% of them get distracted by daydreams or unrelated thoughts, and 37% of them don’t make good use of their time and have to stay late or work on weekends.

The culprits

•    Volume of media consumption
•    Social media usage
•    Multi-screening behavior
•    Adoption of technology

The demographics

•    Ages 18-34: 31% high sustained attention
•    Ages 35-54: 34% high sustained attention
•    Ages 55+: 35% high sustained attention
•    Male: 33% high sustained attention
•    Female: 31% high sustained attention

2.    Selective attention

Selective attention is similar to selective hearing, in that you’re choosing what to focus on in the face of other strong stimuli. An example would be listening to a friend talk in the middle of a loud, obnoxious party. (Psst, if you had a hard time reading above while watching the goldfish swim, your selective attention isn't great.)

The numbers

In the study, 54% of the participants say technology can sometimes make their lives worse, and 51% think it’s important to make time to switch off their electronic devices, but only 39% actually disconnect from technology a minimum of once per month.

The culprits

•    Secondary screens (think watching TV while looking at your phone) 
•    Unwanted ads
•    Too much content; disorganized content

The demographics

•    Ages 18-34: 34% high selective attention
•    Ages 35-54: 30% high selective attention
•    Ages 55+: 35% high selective attention
•    Male: 31% high selective attention
•    Female: 35% high selective attention

3.    Alternating attention

Alternating attention allows you to easily switch back and forth between tasks. For example, you use alternating attention when you’re reading a recipe and preparing a meal at the same time.

The numbers

In the study, 67% of the participants say multi-tasking is the only way they can get things done, and digital behaviors actually improved alternating attention by 8-10%. In fact, multi-screen environments even improved emotional connection and encoding to memory by 36%, probably due to a heightened neural state. 

The culprits

•    Multi-screening behavior
•    Volume of media consumption
•    Adoption of technology
•    Social media usage

The demographics

•    Ages 18-34: 36% high alternating attention
•    Ages 35-54: 28% high alternating attention
•    Ages 55+: 36% high alternating attention
•    Male: 33% high alternating attention
•    Female: 34% high alternating attention

Can’t we just blame all this on kids these days?

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Actually, no. If you missed the demographics above (or if you’re rejoining me after skipping the fun part), the bottom line is there’s no significant difference in age groups or gender. “Kids these days” don’t have short attention spans, everyone does. Yes, you can blame electronics for that, but it’s not just smartphones and videos games that are the problem—it’s TVs and computers, too. 

Is this good or bad?

Well, it’s not great news that our attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish—at least not unless you’re an ADHD drug rep—but the good news is our alternating attention has gotten better and snappier to compensate. As a marketer or business owner, this news just means you kind of have to change the way you think about reaching your audience.

How does having a short attention span affect marketing?

Stay tuned. We’ll discuss what all this means for you as a marketer in part two. If you read all the way to the end of this, good job! Your attention span might be longer than a goldfish’s! And if you want to learn even more about short attention spans, I suggest you take a look at Microsoft’s PDF detailing the findings from its 2015 study.


About the author

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I'm Autumn Nicholson, Director of Internet Marketing. I earned my Bachelor’s degree in English and took the first editing job I could find, at a marketing company in South Carolina. I joined Farmore Marketing in 2014 to put my internet marketing experience to good use—and to spend more time on the beach. I invest much of my time volunteering for nonprofits, reading, and binge-watching TV shows on Netflix. You can connect with me here:

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