The truth about the goldfish vs human attention-span debate

Digital distractions like smartphones, social apps and clickbait articles are diverting our attention and eating up our precious time. It’s time to train our brains to tune out the “noise” and focus on what’s really important.

Remember the great “Goldfish-vs.-Human” attention-span debate?

You know. Researchers determined that the attention span of humans had declined to eight seconds, even less than that of a goldfish.

News outlets like the New York Times, the Telegraph, Time magazine, USA Today and others breathlessly reported the disturbing details. Anguished commentary followed. Questions were raised. Fingers pointed.

Then, just as fast as the story appeared, it vanished. (I hate to keep you in suspense, but I’ll get to how it turned out shortly.)

The entire incident underscored a disturbing trend in our fast-moving, digitally dominated world: Too many things are fighting for our attention, and they’re driving us to distraction. We’re bombarded by the constant beeping and chiming of our smartphones, the endless streams of emails, the parade of sports scores crawling across our screen and a never-ending supply of articles that (like this one) tease with “10 Reasons Why…” or Shocking Revelations About….”

All these distractions rob us of our productivity at work and gobble up our free time outside of it.

In fact, we now spend more than five hours a day looking at mobile apps, which is even more time than we spend watching TV. [1] Social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are particularly insidious. They’re designed by smart people who understand human brain chemistry and have one goal in mind: To keep us engaged for as long as possible, so that advertisers can sell us as much stuff as possible. They keep us coming back time and again by providing an eagerly awaited rush of dopamine every time a pop-up notification promises us another comment or “like.”

I Say, “Enough Already!”

I’m here to call a timeout on all these unproductive time-wasters.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy social media as much as the next person. It’s a great way to catch up with friends and reconnect with old acquaintances. But after lingering for what seems like just a few minutes, I’m always horrified by how long I’ve actually spent on social sites.

Worse yet, there’s no sense of achievement derived from visiting. Sure, we may be more up-to-date, but we’re likely no wiser or accomplished than we were beforehand.

If you’re like me, someone who has too little time and wants to make the most of what free time is available, we’re no doubt searching for ways to shape up our brains so we can better concentrate and get a genuine sense of achievement from even most mundane tasks – everything from balancing our checkbooks to folding our laundry.

There are plenty of ways to achieve better brain fitness. Here are a few I am going to try to wring more achievement out of my precious time:

  • Ditch the Smartphone. The best way to avoid distractions is to get rid of the source of distraction, at least for a while. And, let’s face it, our smartphones are a big distraction. Obvious? Yes, but not as easy as you’d think. Especially when you consider that the average person checks their smartphone 47 times a day (82 times if you’re between 18 and 24 years old). [2]
  • Hit the Gym. A good, brisk workout isn’t just great for our physical health, it’s also good for our mental health as well. In fact, studies show that as little as 15 minutes a day of physical activity can help improve concentration and memory. [3]
  • Bring the Music Forward. How often do actually sit down and simply listen to music all by itself? Not often enough, I’m afraid. Instead we treat music like background noise, especially when working or when performing other tasks. Let’s take some time to put on our favorite music, close our eyes and concentrate on what we’re hearing – each note, each instrument, each lyric. It’s sure to calm our nerves, lift our mood and help us achieve peaceful and contemplative state.
  • Become One with Nature. Take a few minutes to find a secluded spot in nature and take in the sights and, especially, the sounds. The sweet melody of birds singing acts as a natural balm to our senses by assuring us that our environment is safe. This feeling of security in turn reduces our blood pressure, enables us to concentrate and helps us think more clearly.

Oh, and About the Goldfish…

As you probably figured out by now, the findings about dwindling attention span were utterly debunked. Our attention spans aren’t shrinking, and scientists don’t even know what the attention span of a goldfish is, let alone how it compares to ours.

And if you made it all the way to the end of this article, thank you. Your attention span is definitely longer than that of a goldfish.

But then again, was there ever any question?