A Short Attention Span + Mindfulness = Success at Work?

Last Updated:Sunday, May 28, 2023

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a shameless multitasker.

Admit it; you love flipping between tabs, going hard on one task and then diving out to do something else. You often find your mind wandering, then realize you've been looking at random stuff for 20 minutes.

But there’s no need for shame. All tech-savvy, multi-screen people share this kind of behavior, by and large.

Turns out having a short attention span might actually be good at work. Especially when it’s balanced out with mindfulness.

A contradiction, you say? Not necessarily.

Work-life in the short attention span era

Our brains have something called plasticity, a trait that allows us to adapt cognitively to new contexts and situations. We’re evolved to track and react to movement, whether that be in the dark, dangerous wilderness or inside our cheery open concept office.

These days, the movements our brains are tracking are super fast and super plentiful, concentrated in the screen-world where we spend so many of our waking hours.

Consequently, our short-term, 'transient' attention spans have moved down from a respectable 12 seconds in 2000 to a paltry 8 seconds by 2013. That’s according to 2015 research by Microsoft, at least (other sources suggest we can still manage a respectable 'selective sustained attention' for between 10 and 20 minutes). 

Microsoft's study also suggests that 52% of people aged 18 to 24 “check their phone every 30 minutes.” Meanwhile, a not insignificant 19% of online viewers ‘defect’ from online content within the first 10 seconds.  

Tech and media savvy people are most at risk of losing their attention. They’re likely to go in for intermittent, short bursts of high attention. While good at processing and encoding active information from digital media, they’re less able to retain and react to passive information (for example, listening to a podcast or watching a TV documentary).

If you are someone who likes to have their iPhone parked face-up next to their MacBook, paying attention for longer periods of time is even harder. That’s because your neurotransmitters release dopamine when you do something you find rewarding, and you’ll be getting those little dopamine kicks all day on a 2x basis.

In other words, those people (aka you, aka me, aka us) are ‘front-loaders’ – we really know how to pile on the information and knock it down.

In the long-term, this mentality makes us less able to sustain attention on expansive, long-form stimuli (athletes and those who do physical activity on a regular basis do better at this). On the other hand, it’s a very effective adaptation to our in-the-moment cognitive jumble.

Run a Google search for “short attention span technology” and witness an avalanche of articles decrying our teeny tiny attention spans, all deriving from this Microsoft canary-in-the-coalmine report. By the reckoning of some of the world’s online writers, we’re headed to Idiocracy within about one generation.

It’s enough to send you running for the nearest Luddite colony. Particularly if you have children and fear for their mental health, or children with ADHD and worry tech will make their condition worse. 

Studies on tech and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are, however, somewhat mixed. The disorder ADHD may be triggered by excessive smartphone and screen time, but tech also offers the possibility of assisting and accomodating individual learning styles.

Doom and gloom about technology warping our minds and making us dumb are not new. One may witness many moments of moral peril throughout recorded history, and particularly in the last century and a half of technological innovation.

This is worth thinking about because it gives us perspective on ‘how bad’ things actually are these days.

Attention span debates of today, and of yore

In times of yore, some innovations that now seem so rudimentary as to be unassailable were new and scary.

Mass literacy, and the reading and writing of books, for example, was once upon a time derided by some decidedly non-feeble minds, including Socrates.  

The main force of Socrates’ arguments, and others in the same camp, was the idea that oral skills, innate memory, and the tradition of recording history and conveying information would be lost.

The fear was people would just write everything down somewhere and then consult it later. So why would they bother to retain information?

If you’ve ever cobbled together a hack-and-slash undergrad presentation based mostly on Wikipedia articles you skimmed, you can kinda get what Socrates is peeved about.

Also, he didn’t like how the written word was “unable to defend itself” – to him it was a dead thing that couldn’t talk back or evolve over time. The staticness of writing, he suggested, encouraged a new mode of discourse that was less changeable, less responsive, and prone to misinterpretation and misuse.

Similarly, in the late 19th century, rapid technological growth and the explosion of mass print media provoked a big pushback, with critics decrying technology’s manipulative qualities and its role in the loss of concentration and individuality. Other, perhaps less brainy, anti-tech people thought the telephone would “induce deafness” some way or another.

And, 100 years before the iPhone, the idea of a wireless telegraph being responsible for people getting lost in junk information and ignoring each other was already being joked about in satirical comics.

As for the 20th century, for a good, hot fiveish-decades-long minute, the television filled the public imagination as the socially degenerative ‘idiot box.’

Long story short, it turns out TV wasn’t really ‘the’ problem after all, but rather was just one more crutch for people with problems to lean on.

The whole anti-TV thing was cute, but we’ve got bigger fish to fry these days.

The attention-span discussion, which shifted to video games for a while, then moved on over to internet and cell phones, has finally settled on the union of the two in the mobile internet (aka. the enabler of the contemporary screen-o-centric lifestyle we know and cherish).

The contemporary situation we live is radically different than previous eras, insofar as we now live two distinct, parallel lives at all times.

There’s the physical, material life of eating too much prosciutto and walking it off, but always looming above us is a floating digitized cloud wherein we publish said prosciutto binge, omitting the expanded belly bit.

The cloud offers infinite possibilities for anxiety and distractions and, paradoxically, time-saving and life-enhancing communications and services.

If you’re old enough to remember when ‘computers’ were a nerdy hobby, and internet connections were a novelty rather than a basic human necessity, you can appreciate just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve gone (and by all accounts, will continue to go).

In the workplace, this double-life status – the ability to get information on-the-fly and socialize in the background all day – is generating new debates about work efficiency and work-life balance.  

To block or not to block: worker attention spans and the benefits and consequences of distraction

Everyone at work looks at stuff that’s definitely not work. That’s just a fact of life.

Whether you’re at the office plonked down at your desk, or getting down-and-dirty on some coding at your coffee table, you’re likely to end up opening browser tabs to do stuff like: search for local antique dealers selling mid-century furniture, engage in random discussion on Facebook Messenger about your Grails on Grailed, absent-mindedly check prices for plane tickets, or lord knows what else.

Is this really such a bad thing to do?

According to the aforementioned research by Microsoft, 89% of information workers admitted to being distracted on a daily basis by online content – mainly social media – with an average of 30 minutes per day at work spent on not-work.

While we are indeed working a great deal of the time we’re ‘working’, it’s just not realistic to think you’ll be full-steam-ahead every minute of every day. Quantifying this common sense, “farmer-core” observation – the 2015 Microsoft report concludes that: “some users may incur costs when distractions are blocked, especially based on research that shows the need for replenishing mental resources, which work breaks can provide.”

This self-distraction is akin to the way some people doodle in the margins of notepads during meetings or talks to avoid losing their mind. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not listening – it’s more this small amount of anarchic energy is acting as a safety valve from over-concentration and associated fatigue.

If a worker’s phone notifications are turned off, they might be able to concentrate on their task longer. On the other hand, they might start to feel disconnected and demoralized by the fact they’re not accessible to outside communications.

Also, if the decision to ‘block’ is not theirs, but rather their employer’s, it may foster some detrimental annoyance or resentment about being ‘kept down’ by ‘the man.’

In other words, selectively blocking doesn’t solve the problem. It’s akin to plugging a hole in the dam with chewing gum.

It seems that the key to fixing our attention spans, and making us into better workers, doesn’t lie in external policing or self-deprivation.

Rather, it lies in making sure that our short attention spans are firing more often on target, and we’re leveraging cognitive overload with moments of quietude and slowness.

Thankfully, meditation and mindfulness apps are now a thing.

Mindfulness intervention

Yes, we can use our phones and laptops to find some measure of peace and contemplation. That may appear ironic to some and totally logical to others.

Mindfulness, as defined by psychology researchers, is “a state of nonjudgmental attentiveness to and awareness of moment-to-moment experiences.” A 10-day study indicates that it doesn’t take long to see the benefits of the practice: decreased stress, less emotional exhaustion and an overall improved sense of well-being were observed at the end of the time period.

According to other recent research, ‘heavy’ media multitaskers stand to enjoy “disproportionately large” benefits from mindfulness rituals.

That may or may not explain the growing roster of mindfulness tools emerging on the market, most of which explicitly target the contemporary ‘multi-screener’ information worker.

Headspace is one such example. The accessible, cartoon-driven meditation web and mobile app provides lessons and tools for meditation for wherever you are, and whatever way you’re feeling.  

It’s already found favor at companies like Adobe, Delta, and Airbnb.

Studies show that apps like this can genuinely improve employee performance. They offer benefits in terms of endurance and engagement, boosting positive attitudes and reducing negative ones. They can also declutter and hone your thoughts so you work better under pressure with less stress, and work with a more defined focus and sense of purpose.

Mindfulness is all about re-jigging your brain by directing attention towards a simple, very specific stimuli. That might mean breathing in and out in a controlled, self-aware way, or doing a ‘body scan’ where you concentrate on specific parts of yourself, tuning into all the little things going on with yourself that you typically never think about or notice.

By learning to direct your attention in a rigorously specific and simple way, Headspace and other similar tools offer help in defining focus and the purpose of that focus. So next time you’re multitasking and stressing out, you’ll have a way of regulating and re-directing your attention.

Success through speed and slow down

“I hate everything that merely instructs me without increasing or directly quickening my activity.”

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As it turns out, there is no clear winner when you pitch a short, fiery attention span against a slow, linear, and meditative one. Indeed, the most effective approach may be a hybrid blend of the two.

It’s good to front-load tasks and assimilate information fast, turning on a dime to problem solve and get stuff done. At the same time, this kind of high energy cognitive work needs similarly ‘extreme’ breaks where you slow down to a near standstill.

The consequences of a short-term attention span at work are that we may not be thinking big-picture, and may not be able to properly assess our priorities, critique, and re-calibrate. If we're easily distracted, we cannot increase attention on the task at hand or deeper concepts.

Constant multitasking can cause stress and burn-out as well.

Every once and awhile it’s a good idea to clear your thoughts and remember what you’re really doing, and what’s at stake.

In a general sense, what’s happened in modern times is we’ve gotten greedy about attention – we’re spoiled to find the most relevant content or address an issue in the most timely fashion possible.

As they say, self-awareness is the first step to changing things up. Let’s take our eight-second attention spans and make them count.