The Underlying Reason You Can't Focus
It's not the holidays. It's not technology. It's evolution.
Posted Jan 02, 2017
The first world has an attention problem.
A 2015 study by Microsoft Canada found that our average attention span—“the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted”—was 12 seconds in 2008. Five years later, it was only eight seconds—one second less than a goldfish’s.
The average knowledge worker consequently loses 2.2 hours of productivity per day to distractions and recovery time. And email, the web, instant messaging, and interruptions in knowledge work cost the U.S. $588 billion per year.
Why are we so bad at focusing?
One reason for our fishlike attention is today’s hyperactive, procreating content and commotion. We witness more data, more web pages, more TV shows, more cars, more video games, and more rapid-fire, instant-gratification technology every day.
Our access to information is unprecedented and ever-increasing. The Attention Economy notes that one Sunday New York Times edition contains more factual information than the entirety of written material that 15th-century readers could access. Their problem was not “finding time to read, but finding enough reading to fill the time.” Our new wealth of information has created “a poverty of attention,” as political scientist Herbert Simon put it.
But there’s another, maybe bigger, reason why we’re distracted: What’s important for modern humans and society has changed, and it’s now instinctively hard to recognize and prioritize. Our attention problem is due to both a lack of focus and focus on the wrong things.
Here's what I mean:
Our ancestors evolved over millions of years to pay attention to what mattered in pre-civilization savannahs: namely, new information about safety, weather, food, and what was moving (and therefore edible or dangerous). Our survival often depended on instantly processing these two elements.
Thanks to the Internet and advancing technology, today “infor-motion” inundates. What used to be sporadic and worth noting is now commonplace and rarely life-threatening.
So it matters less. Concentrating on what’s novel and fast is no longer as useful for our survival and success. But we’re instinctually still captured by it: The average American spends nearly as much time watching TV in a lifetime as working.
Instead, what’s important today is still and boring, like an empty Word document or an unsolved math problem. As Cal Newport argues in Deep Work, the activities that are personally and economically rewarding in modern society are highly specialized, irreplaceable skills and intense, self-controlled focus.
Without tolerance for work that's slow-moving and at times uninteresting, deeper-working human competition, aka machines, will beat us and take our jobs. Oxford employment economists predict that almost half of existing jobs are “at risk of death by computerization within 20 years.”
In short, the attention of modern humans—who have nearly identical genes and brains to our late ancestors, who roamed the plains with spears—automatically shifts to what has only recently become of limited value for ourselves and society. While our higher, conscious minds might recognize that checking email, browsing social media, and running down the YouTube rabbit hole isn’t fulfilling, productive, or important, our instincts say that’s exactly what we should be doing.
So here’s our real attention problem as I see it: Contemporary society doesn’t favor the same things evolution did. We evolved to pay attention to new information and motion. Civilization—which is just the last .1 percent of human existence—rewards ignoring the things we were primed, as animals, to drop everything for: staying still and single-minded long enough to concentrate and produce something valuable.
Because natural selection won’t kill off those of us who can’t adapt to society’s new demands, humans will have to fight our entrancement by new, fast stuff forever. Each year, with more new, fast stuff, the battle toughens.
The good news is, in the first world, we’re lucky enough to feasibly channel our attention to deeper, more meaningful things without risking death.
Furthermore, the increasing need for self-control in our era of endless information makes us not just human, but, in some ways, more human than we used to be. We can prioritize our highest faculties over our rote instincts, losing nothing, and gaining free will.
A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.