Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation. Joel 1:3
Research on the next generation indicates a shortened attention span. The goldfish, pictured above, has an attention span of 9 seconds. The millennials, on the other hand, have an attention span of 8 seconds – one second less than a goldfish.
And Gen Z? Well, they have an attention span of only 6 seconds. Contrast that with the attention span of a teenager in 2000: it was 12 seconds. This means that they can pay attention to something for 12 seconds before being distracted.
Parents, teachers and employers all say this is a problem. When I meet with the younger generation, I often use the goldfish illustration as an insight of what makes them different. I have never had any one – millennial or Gen Z – deny that they have a short attention span.
Some of the degradation of attention span can be traced to the digital culture. The next generation have grown up with mobile phones in their hands and are used to multi-tasking – often switching from one app to another.
They might be texting a friend and then quickly switch to Facebook, Instagram or whatever the latest popular social websites are for their friends. It is non-stop. They might even stop long enough to Google the answer to a question.
The average person checks their phone 150 times a day, sometimes every 6 or 7 minutes. Hard to stay focused with that distraction.
They might do a lot of reading, but it is superficial – often just headlines, posts to social media or text messages. But they don’t read at depth, and the reason, according to Tim Elmore, is not intelligence. “It is attention span.”
It might be useful to describe the two kinds of attention spans. The first is called Transient Attention which is a reaction to a stimulus that has temporarily distracted attention. There is no real research on how long this span is, but children pay attention to lots of different things during the day.
That brings us to Selective Sustained Attention, also known as focused attention. It is the level of attention required to produce consistent results on a task over time. Studies show that the average college student only has a 5-minute attention span– at best – where they can actually remain “on-task” without disruption.
Adam Gazzeley, a neuroscientist, has written an interesting book titled “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.” Based on neuroscience, he writes that the brain is designed to always be seeking out new information. Yet it also is “programmed” to continue to find food and water (i.e. staying on task).
Trouble is, the design for finding new information is stronger than the cognitive part that lets you complete tasks. As Gazzeley notes, the digital world has only made it worse. Ignoring small distractions or stimuli is an active, not a passive, task for the brain to perform.
In effect, your brain uses scarce resources to filter out distractions around you. I had to laugh at this insight. My wife has always accused me of not listening when, in fact, I have zoned out while concentrating on a task.
What’s the cure? Here are suggestions for improvement:
- Learning from unique or interesting situations. The next generation learns best by collaboration. Make it interesting to them and let them actively participate.
- Use stories and images from real life. The next generation is a visual generation, much more so than prior generations. Pictures grab their attention.
- Stop multi-tasking. Your brain pays a penalty for doing several things at once. If you think you are good at multitasking, then you probably are the worst at it. Feeling good about it and efficiency are two different things.
- Exercise more. Studies show that cognitive attention is increased by just one session of exercise. Oh…and get your sleep, too.
- Reduce outside interference. Work in a boring environment. I, for one, find that I work better in environments where I am not as likely to be distracted. This might mean (gasp) turning your phone off.
- Hydrate more – even a 2% drop in hydration affects your attention span. Drink tea (although I prefer coffee).
- Listen to classical music – even symphonies. Peak brain activity occurs in the silence
- Chew gum (who knew?). Studies show it can increase alertness.
- Meditate more – several suggested this method of mental training of your attention based on study at UC Santa Barbara.
Everyone can improve their focus and attention span, but the next generation of digital natives are particularly vulnerable. Anything a parent or mentor can do to help them will be an improvement.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: Think of your next generation as gold fish. They may need some aid in developing longer attention spans so they can think creatively.
FURTHER READING: The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzeley.
How to Increase Your Attention Span, from Gazzeley’s blog.
Five Tips to Increase Attention Span in Young Adults by Tim Elmore
8 Quick Ways to Improve your Attention Span – Fast Company
WORSHIP: Listen to Chris Tomlin sing I Will Follow
MentorLink:For more information about MentorLink, go to www.mentorlink.org.
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