Your attention span is being robbed!

Remains of your attention span. Photo by Pablo Martinez on Unsplash

This is exactly why you can’t focus on reading anything longer than a mobile page length these days. Not even a blog post, let alone a book!

Your attention span is being robbed! You are being robbed of the ability to acquire useful info. You are being ROBBED of the experience of learning stuff!

Sounds scary, right? It should! Because, you know, it is!

The sad truth is that it’s not just YOU. It’s actually MYSELF as well. All that is being written is from first-hand experience.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

If you haven’t heard about it before, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is an amazing book by Neil Postman. It was written back in the 80s but everything that he claims is still relevant today!

Namely, he argues that introduction of TV as a medium has changed EVERYTHING. It destroyed people’s attention span and narrowed it to mere 30 seconds (which seems to be the length of average TV commercial back in the day).

What’s more, he proceeds to make a case that this has affected EVERY single area of our lives!

The sole purpose of TV, as he says, is NOT to spread information, but to ENTERTAIN, AMUSE and induce the feeling of pleasantness.

And that would be great if it remained isolated to TV shows and Movies. Instead, he proceeds, this infected and spread to everything – News, Religion, Education, etc.

I won’t go into too much depth of it because I’d really advise you to read the book. His reasoning is – everything that is being shown on TV is built around entertainment and short attention span. And, as such, you expect to be amused in every single area of your life.

The slow & painful death of written word

Look, I’d really think it was myself only. Hell, I’d even consider ascribing it to undiagnosed ADHD.

But no. It’s not just myself. It seems to be everyone (except YOU, of course!).

The perfect example was when I wrote an article that, when embedded on Slack, said “7 mins read”. Quite a short one, no?

Damn! A good friend of mine literally snapped at that moment.

“What the fuck man! Why the fuck are you writing such long shit? Do you really think I have 7 minutes to read a blog post? Damn!”.

To his defense, he was a father of a baby at the time and I can kind of understand it now.

But turns out it’s not just HIM. Many people proceeded to argue something along the same lines – whenever you see a “long” blog post, you’d usually avoid it; or read in-between the lines.

You know what? It made me think. And then I realized that even MYSELF, the author of a 7-mins-long-article actually avoid reading anything that is longer than … 1min?

RIP written word. You will be missed.

The slow & painful death of a Book

Honestly, if we can’t focus on a short blog post, why’d anyone in their right mindset think that books would be any different?

Books are MADE TO BE LONG! Their chapters are LONG. Detaily!

One of the longest I encountered so far was Stephen King’s The Stand. Kindle reports it at 50+ hours of read time. My friend would have burned me alive if I mentioned this one.

Books are on their death sentence, counting their last days before being executed.

Which brings me to a rather interesting topic. A book, that is. Fahrenheit 451. A classic, some would say.

I didn’t like it that much, but it really has an interesting plot; an argument if you will.

Allegedly, 451 Fahrenheit is a temperature at which the book burns. It’s made up of course, but it’s an interesting idea.

Namely, the plot is about a dystopian society where books are banned and burned. They are banned and burned because they are deemed to be detrimental for the society, and, as such, have to be demolished in the worst way possible (i.e. by being put on fire).

Interesting thing about genre dealing with these topics (1984 being a similar example) is that it’s all about government destroying everything that would allow society to EDUCATE and THINK. By limiting the wisdom, and by propagating “the right way”, society is put under control of totalitarian dictatorship.

Sounds scary. And that’s because IT IS scary!

Books are supposed to be source of INFORMATION. A source of WISDOM. They are LONG because they are supposed to express the author’s point if view. Their thinking process!

They are NOT made to be amusing, but to be EDUCATIONAL. INFORMATIONAL. Eye-opening.

And yet, we burn them without government asking us to do so.

RIP written word. RIP books.

The slow & painful death of Relationships

You thought it’s just about words, right? Haha!

You are being taught that EVERYTHING has to amuse you. Even your partner!

Don’t believe me? Just scroll through Instagram with #relationshipgoals hashtag. See for yourself.

Your partner, your friends and hell – everyone around you is supposed to amuse you. And if they don’t – scroll them off!

Speaking of scrolling …

Infinite Scroll as a Slot-machine lever

You ever played slot machines? Or a roulette? Hell, have you ever GAMBLED?

If you did – you’d know what I’m talking about. If not – well, you surely know people with gambling addiction.

Gambling is addictive because it’s FUN. Exciting. It makes you DREAM. It makes you WISH. It gives you HOPE and UNCERTAINTY. It’s a freaking cocktail that rapes your brain into producing all kinds of chemical compounds that make you mad, sad, glad, tad, … It’s AMUSING!

And on top of that – it has incredibly short feedback cycle!

Every spin of roulette or a slot machine takes from 5 to 15 secs max! Just enough time to build-up the excitement and then drown in happiness or furry. Rinse&repeat forever.

Honestly speaking – it’s engineering, psychology and business at it’s freaking best!

You know who else figured this out? People who invented Infinite Scroll!

It’s that damn feature that never existed before which lets you keep scrolling FOREVER. There’s no END OF PAGE. You can keep scrolling those images or videos forever and ever. And you always get served new and exciting content. It’s a damn slot machine lever!

(Interestingly enough, Aza Raskin inventor of Infinite Scroll apologized for creating it in the first place).

What TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, etc. got right

They figured out that in order to keep you amused, they have to provide you with a lever with extremely short feedback cycle. That plus infinite amount of carefully curated content being fed to you from the dungeons of recommendation engine machinery, working 24/7 to filter out anything but content that gets other people’s attention.

Not everyone got it right, though. LinkedIn’s web app on mobile phones got it completely wrong. No matter how much you keep reloading it serves you shit-content.

Congratulations! Your attention span is between 1 and 3 seconds now!

The typical time-frame that TikTok, Snapchat and others have to amuse you. If it’s not entertaining within first couple of seconds – you scroll away (thanks to the dark magic of infinite-scroll!).

Congrats! You became a carbon-based medium for filtering out shit-content and feeding the recommendation engine that refuels both you and others looking for amusement!

After all, maybe Douglas Adams had a point when he argued that planet Earth was made so that people could be a part of a huge machinery searching for an answer? The only part that he got wrong is that we are not searching for answer but feeding that gigantic Recommendation Engine. Feeding that huge slot machine that we anticipate will give us a jackpot every time now.

Except that jackpot never comes. And we keep pulling that lever.

How to fight back?

Honestly? I have no idea.

I mean, you probably can’t even sit on a beach without having your brain remind you that, you know, this needs SHARING.

Even though the beach is considered the temple of ultimate zen, calm and meditation. You. Have. To. Share. Your attention span is simply too short to actually enjoy that beach!

Hell, I MYSELF am guilty as charged! I’m addicted to Reddit, LinkedIn and, occasionally – Instagram.

Maybe something that I’ve learned in therapy COULD be entertained as a possibility. It’s a technique that I don’t even know HOW it’s called but it boils down to dedicating 45mins to grievance. As in – you dedicate 45mins per day when you can focus on grieving (e.g. over a failed relationship) and at any other time of the day you have to delay doing it until your 45-mins-of-grief time comes.

No idea if it COULD work, but it’s a possibility that I’m entertaining at the moment.

If you have ideas to share or techniques that you follow in order to strike back – please do let me know!

If not – well, maybe the written word has actually LOST this war?

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28 thoughts on “Your attention span is being robbed!

  1. Didn’t read but this seems like a great message. More people need to understand what technology is doing to them.

  2. I can’t even read a reddit comment if it doesn’t have a TLDR at the bottom, TLDR’s are like an escape hatch I can skip to when I get tired of the op’s post and just want the meat/gravy.

    I’m not sure though about the grievance thing, 45 minutes per day to focus on negative shit seems like it’d backfire, maybe instead you print out visual things to represent the stuff you’re grieving, put it in a bin, and on Sunday you just destroy the shit out of it, maybe tape it to a punching bag, or something. Symbolic of releasing it but, also if you do it with some kickboxing you can build up some addrenaline to fuel you through the Monday dulldrums.

    I’d recommend though also keeping a daily gratitude journal, do both and you might find your sunday bucket of negativity starts to run dry as you focus more on the postive.

  3. When you have such invasive and addictive technology, the argument for freewill really goes out the window.

    Are you hungry because of that external signal (KFC ad) or internal signal (actually hungry). Enough external signals and our wants and needs get confused/misaligned.

  4. Agree. I think the only way out of this situation is to stop using mobile phones at all, and go back to telephones-person a time. It will be hard at first, but at least you wont die while typing and driving…

  5. I’ve done this. I used the album “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots” by The Flaming Lips as a guide. I’d make the story behind the album be about some kind of conflict I’m struggling with, myself playing Yoshimi and the focus of the conflict or the main people involved playing the robots. In the interpretation i use, after the 4th track, Yoshimi remembers loving kindness and compassion is a way to heal through conflict. I’ve got some notes on this somewhere on github I can look up later, upon request (my time is also sensitive, as I care for a 4-year old full-time and we parent largely with anarchism and radical empowerment without much community support, yet). I did this as part of a regime of practices to recover from information addiction and ADHD. I have other techniques to share and would much rather have a phone call you turn into a “long” blog post like this one. Everything I did really helped in ways that stay with me and are part of how I process things by default now. Though being with a young person growing into the world without a screen or sometimes another person to share attention needs with, has had an effect on me, and I also went back into old ways during covid, so I’m slowly recovering & evolving practices I’ve let slip.

    Another one of those practices was to write down everything I was feeling compelled to share and then wait 24 hours before sharing. This does not mean immediately schedule for sharing in 24 hours. Do not post/share or schedule to post/share for the first 24 hours. For me, I was often writing down questions, ideas, observations, media to consume. At one point, I barely spoke for 3 weeks because I was writing so much and didn’t have much to contribute. I didn’t really review what I wrote, except for maybe once a week or four or more. Most of the questions eventually got answered.

    Recovering from all this can be done effectively if approached from a holistic perspective.

  6. “And then drown in happiness or furry” – is this a bug or a feature?
    As to my suggestions to increase attention span, breathing with Wim Hof method helps me personally. It satisfies the urge to do something remotely useful and occupies the mind enough to not think about distractions. Also the moment of clarity after I’m done is really something, I’d say this is a gateway drug to meditation.

    1. Actually I am doing the same and it works well. The breathing technique slows me down and I can think more clearly. However, it may not work everyone I guess.

  7. Authors seem to have forgotten the art of “get to the f***** point”—I’m too young have have lived in the Golden Era of Newspapers, but layout constraints meant a column only had a few inches to tell a story.

    Now I look up an online recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies, and as preface to the actual recipe there are 1000+ words of “the origin of Chocolate”, “why people like cookies”, and “follow me on YouTube”, etc. It’s a simple recipe!

  8. I think that’s part of the problem with today’s content, not much of it is worth reading. Everyone has an opinion, everyone thinks what they have to say is important, and most of it is just drivel. The TLDR is like an abstract to a research paper; if you don’t get your point across and it’s not intelligent (not that that is a requirement for most people), then that’s a sign that the content isn’t worth reading. Why waste mental energy processing and potentially trying to refute an ignoramus or someone who doesn’t know how to compose a thought.

  9. I’m writing this to let the author know that I read this post (all of it), and that I really liked it. Thank you.

    In my opinion, entertainment is not the only culprit for the short attention span “epidemic”. Multitasking and feeling pressure to do more things in a short amount of time is guilty also. People are taking care of the baby/talking on facetime/cooking the lasagna/watching the last episode of House of Dragons/doing report for work – all the same time because they would not feel productive if you did each of these things separately (because it would take more time).

    When it comes to information, I can say (from my own experience) that reading short posts feels the same as multitasking. It feels we’re absorbing more information reading 10 short posts instead of 2 long ones. If we insist and read the long posts, we feel we’re “wasting time” (even if we are really interested, the option to give up is always there, just like the spinning wheel you mentioned).

    I used to be different and used to read a lot. I want to “reverse” the short attention span… But, is that really a possibility in our times? I don’t know and I’m very skeptical, because of the ways things work “today”.

    *Ironically, your post came to me on my reading list on Feedly, the tool I use to “multitask” information and that has contributed a lot (negatively) to my short attention span.

  10. Thank you for the article. I generally have known before all these facts… But still it is so hard to avoid endless scrolling and consuming this shitty worthless content. It is a crime what they do, how they destroy our minds.

  11. Just meditate? Meditation is literally the practice of focussing on the now. When I feel my attention span shortening I add meditation back into my life for a few weeks / months.

    Just focus on your breathe for 10 mins. Keep bringing your attention back to your breath. Don’t control it, just watch it, for 10 mins.
    Congrats, you just practiced paying attention. Next time it will be easier.

  12. After reading this article about people’s attention spans getting shorter and shorter. I can agree with these claims being presented. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and a plethora of other social media and other media platforms are providing people with amusement rather than needed information that is more for self-pleasure. I get it, I am more of a sweet and simple get-to-the-point kind of individual. I have always preferred quality over quantitative amounts I do not always want to read a six-hundred-page dissertation in one sitting. I like short and simplistic reads. The more short and sweet, simplistic the content I am reading and absorbing. the easier it is for me to intake and digest the information. All in all this article makes very valid points.

    1. Maybe make you reflect about the problem and search your own solutions?
      Sorry, nothing personal, but this want for a ready solution embedded in your question is another symptom of the problem: we are now used to have everything ready, and don´t want to need to reason about anything anymore.

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