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Your attention is a finite resource—don’t waste it

“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” concludes poet Mary Oliver in the title essay of her collection, Upstream. Indeed, if you’re falling in love this must be true. But when it comes to daily life and all the things that hold or disrupt our attention—kids, work, social media, and the onslaught of global news—devotion might not always be the first word that comes to mind.

These days, amid claims that our attention spans are shrinking, it may feel like we each have less attention to give. LookBookHQ reports that each minute that ticks by results in 204 million emails, 16 million text messages, and 350,000 new tweets sent. Every 60 seconds, 86,805 hours of video are streamed by Netflix subscribers. The list goes on, amounting to streams of content and communication that cause us to unlock our smartphones 80-110 times per day. Every 11 minutes, the average in-office worker is interrupted.

It’s amazing that we get anything done.

This “attention economy” we now inhabit is especially bad news for marketers, but we all feel the pain. We train ourselves to be ready for interruption, and we build relationships with our smartphones that are so strong that we physically feel phantom vibrations.

We train ourselves to be ready for interruption, and we build relationships with our smartphones that are so strong that we physically feel phantom vibrations.

As the attention we have left to give dwindles, we fill in our “down time”—much of it seemingly innocuous, standing in line somewhere—by compulsively checking our phones for new updates or to catch up on articles, videos, and podcasts. Some might say our attention is splintered; others might argue that it’s pretty focused—on our devices and digital lives.

Busting the goldfish myth

It has been widely reported that the human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013—less than the average 9 second attention span of a goldfish. Yet, as the BBC reported, the statistic cited wasn’t a result of respectable research—the Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada study—but was instead pulled from an unsubstantiated source.

Moreover, there is no scientific evidence that goldfish have short attention spans.

What the study did reveal is that our brains have begun to adapt to today’s digital landscape. We don’t suffer from a depletion of attention so much as a shift in the number of things we’re trying to focus on at any given time. We move more frequently to what feels new, The study found, for example, that while it’s harder for us to focus on a single task, especially in non-digital environments, we’re “becoming better at doing more with less via shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory.”

Not entirely bad news.

Smartphones outfox Disney executives

Our brains are malleable when it comes to attention. Research says that what we focus on actually wires our neurons. For example, consciously shifting our attention to positive outcomes instead of negative ones can help us navigate life with a more positive mindset. At the same time, it can be hard to spot our own patterns, just like it’s tough to call out our own habits, quirks, or weaknesses. Harvard Business Review writer Kare Anderson recommends learning about our own attention patterns by examining someone else’s and then identifying the differences. It’s easier to understand what you don’t do after seeing what someone else does.

In 2012, Disney executives brought Anderson and a cultural anthropologist down to Florida to observe which features of the theme parks and hotels most captured infant and toddler’s attention. Amid all the sensory stimulation—the lights, rides, costumed characters, snacks, and toys—Anderson and her counterpart walked away with a surprising revelation. The children were most enthralled with their parents’ cell phones. There was nothing at Disney that could compete. Even more surprising? The phones were only so interesting to children because they held their parents’ attention, the one thing that children crave the most.

Attention fuels relationships

Anderson wrote about her observations in a resulting article, “What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life,” and stated plainly: “Giving undivided attention is the first and most basic ingredient in any relationship. It is impossible to communicate, much less bond, with someone who can’t or won’t focus on you.”

This is where our relationship with our devices and smartphones can be devastating. The more attention we place on the digital landscape, the less attention we’re giving to each other, and even to ourselves, in the flesh. Sociologist, clinical psychologist, and MIT professor Sherry Turkle has spent 30-plus years studying the psychology of people’s relationships with technology, and she’s worried about our lack of solitude and conversation.

The more attention we place on the digital landscape, the less attention we’re giving to each other, and even to ourselves, in the flesh.

In her book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, she asserts that relationships depend on conversation, and great conversation depends on how much attention you can give others, as well as on your own capacity for self-reflection.

“Studies of conversation both in the laboratory and in natural settings show that when two people are talking, the mere presence of a phone on a table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted. They don’t feel as invested in each other. Even a silent phone disconnects us,” Turkle says.

Turkle’s book is a dense tome filled with observation, research, and anecdotes. She notes how “downtime” used to mean relaxing with friends, offline, but today often means spending personal time getting caught up on email and organizing our digital affairs—probably with our earbuds in.

Seven minutes to spare

The problem isn’t just that we avoid human interactions by emailing or texting—it’s also the way we flee from conversation in real time. I saw Turkle speak after her book was published, back in 2015. She cited Pew Research in which 89 percent of Americans reported taking out their phone during their last social interaction; 82 percent admitted that the quality of their conversation suffered as a result.

By turning our attention so easily away from one another, we give our conversations the chance to flail or fall flat—basically, to end before they’ve even begun. That’s because, according to Turkle, it takes seven minutes to determine whether a conversation is going to be interesting, and to take in body language and allow for a lull or two. It’s in the lulls that things get interesting—she claims "the boring bits" are some of the best parts of conversation. “You can’t always tell, in a conversation, when the interesting bit is going to come,” Turkle says. “It’s like dancing: slow, slow, quick-quick, slow. You know? It seems boring, but all of a sudden there’s something, and whoa.”

Today, however, seven minutes can feel like a long time to give someone. It’s a long time to even give ourselves. Turkle also shared that people get uncomfortable being alone with their thoughts at the six-minute mark. It sounds a little crazy, but she cited a study in which people chose to give themselves an electric shock over spending 6-15 minutes alone, with their attention turned inward.

“We struggle to pay attention to ourselves, and what suffers is our ability to pay attention to others,” she said.

Attention at work

Our inability to pay attention to ourselves and others affects both our personal and professional spheres. Certainly, leaders set the example for their teams. Employees pay attention to how their bosses dress, deal with others, make decisions, and whether they work and send email after hours.

Turkle also reported that some formerly relationship-based fields—law, accounting, consulting, and banking—have seen dips in productivity and even bookings in recent years. That’s because when the service is something repeatable, it’s the personal relationships formed between a firm and its clients that differentiate the service. Turkle cites a law firm in which young lawyers were avoiding face-to-face meetings in order to be more productive. But in reality, the lawyers who spent more time with their clients in person, in meetings, or going out for social lunches, performed better. While face-to-face interactions are less predictable—they take longer and they can be awkward—they also open up room for new ideas and conversation.

In some ways, being social and attuned to others IRL is a very simple recipe for success, but it might need to be culturally and workplace supported. Google, for example, wanted to know the optimal amount of time for employees to stand in line at the cafeteria, aiming for the right balance between mixing and mingling without wasting time. The result was three to four minutes. And the best size for a cafeteria table, to encourage people to sit down to join an in-progress conversation, was one with room for 10-12 people. While workplaces can proactively design for more of these less formal conversations, as employees, we have to intentionally put our phones down for them to be successful.

Allocate wisely

Interesting facts, sure, but it all comes down to choosing what and who you take in—and whether you reach for your phone next time you’re waiting in line for lunch or a coffee. Instead, maybe strike up a conversation with the person next to you. Or, maybe let your attention slide to the world around you, and allow your thoughts to roam.

In her essay, Oliver recounts a long walk in nature in which she pays careful attention to each flower or plant she encounters. She also notes her reactions to each. This level of attention allows her to quietly witness the leaves changing color, shedding their fall and winter coats, details that are all too easy to miss.

So, as we head into a new year, consider where you spend the lion’s share of your attention. Ask yourself what you gain, and what you miss, and whether there are opportunities to direct your attention in service of accomplishing goals, building or deepening relationships, or even cultivating a little devotion.

Suzanne Barnecut loves reading and writing stories of all kinds and duration. She is a frequent contributor to Relate, and creates brand content and tells customer stories for Zendesk. In her spare time, she can be found writing fiction, reading The New Yorker, and consuming (too many) pastries from San Francisco’s bakeries. Find her on Twitter at: @elisesuz.