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Self-Care and Attention Span with Anthony Clemons

In this episode of LivingUpp's Conversations with Smart People, I interviewed Anthony Clemons, an educator and writer who lives in Elizabethtown, KY, about the topic of self-care and attention span.

Anthony uses an array of adult education and educational psychology coursework to teach college instructors, and for years he's been studying attention spans -- how we misunderstand them, what's actually going on with our attention, and what that will mean in the new fourth industrial revolution.

It's been widely suggested that our attention spans have dwindled in recent years as the use of digital devices and social media have increased.

But is that really true? 

Watch the full interview here

What is an attention span?

To answer the question of whether or not our attention spans have dwindled, we need to first understand what an attention span is.

The earliest research on this topic began as far back as 2,400 years ago with Aristotle. It was originally a philosophy before it was a psychological ideal, and it involves how we manage the noise around us.

"Attention span is a colloquial term that we sometimes use to explain how well we're able to dedicate our focus and attention," explains Anthony. And understanding how to better manage our attention can help us achieve our goals more effectively.

How is attention span measured?

Have you ever heard that the human attention span is as short as a goldfish?

In 2015, Microsoft released a study claiming that the attention span of humans was a mere 5 to 9 seconds -- or that of a goldfish. The claim was later debunked when the information cited was found to come from erroneous sources. But even so, the seed for shortened attention spans was planted in many.

The truth is, however, attention spans haven't changed much. In fact, University of Chicago professor Edward Vogel determined that attention hasn't changed in any meaningful way in 20 years.

Attention is measured in terms of how many stimuli we can interact with at a given time, how well we're able to divide our cognition via the 3 types of attention -- selective, sustained and alternating. For example, we can generally only divide our attention between up to 4 items at a time.

But the challenge is, the variables we interact with -- the amount of stimuli we're exposed to -- is increasing constantly. There's always something else to attract our attention. 

Over the last decade, companies have doubled down on efforts to capture our attention through marketing and advertising. And as these efforts have increased, more and more products are being designed to increase the bandwidth of our alternating attention. As a result, our sustained attention capability has decreased. That means we're always trying to find more stimuli, but it doesn't necessarily mean we're productive.

We're often just busy.

That's why we constantly seek out more and more stimuli to keep our minds occupied, and we're less willing to engage over long periods of time with stimuli that won't engage our alternating attention. 

What are the best ways to keep someone's attention?

To increase sustained attention, you have to set the right conditions. 

We live and work in environments that are not conducive to our ability to focus. Open office environments is a classic example. 

According to Anthony, if you want people to get to a deeper level of cognition, if you want them to be able to critically and creatively focus and reach what we call flow -- the ability to deep dive into something that engages you to the point that you lose track of time and space -- you have to set the right conditions.

In his book Flow*,  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced Me-hi Cheek-sent-me-hi) describes this state of optimal experience as "a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like." 

"We are moving into the fourth industrial revolution," Anthony explains, "which is a new economy that's going to progressively reduce the number of low skill, low wage jobs, while increasing the need for soft skills, like strategic level thinking and interpersonal relations."

In this new economy, we won't be effective without the ability to focus.

But the paradox is, we've been more focused on building our alternating attention skills versus our sustained attention skills. So, rather than being able to get into the state of flow, we've been living in a more shallow level of thinking.

Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows* addresses this well, says Anthony. "We're basically walking in the kiddie side of the pool rather than being able to cognitively deep dive into the deep side of the pool." And that's important to realize if we want to be successful in this new economy.

Critical thinking unpacks the constituent parts of an idea, whereas creative thinking takes disparate ideas and draws interesting connections between them so they can be used in some way. 

As we look toward the future, the real question is going to be this: Do we have the cognitive bandwidth to make these disparate connections and unpack the constituent parts of an idea so we can really understand what's going on?

And that will require sustained attention, which is the idea behind Anthony's forthcoming book. 

What has surprised you the most as you've studied the research?

"One of the main things that really surprised me was our willingness to buy into the dwindling attention span wholesale. There is no evidence to support whatsoever -- empirically, qualitatively, or otherwise -- that our attention is dwindling," he says.

"The reality is," he explains, "that our ability to have sustained attention is being affected by alternating attention. That may sound like we're splitting hairs, but if we reframe our definition of what attention is, it's not splitting hairs. There's a vast difference between the two." 

Another thing that surprised him is how little we really know about attention. With so many factors and variables, we still have much to learn.

How does attention span relate to our health?

The book Generation Z at Work* addresses the issue of anxiety facing our younger generations today. As more and more options and stimuli are given to students to interact with, the more likely they are to have anxiety. This feeds into the mental health crisis we have in higher education today. 

We have to start practicing more self-care strategies to reduce anxiety.

One of the best things we can do is try to reduce distractions. We have to begin prioritizing what is going to make us effective, and we have to set goals to build more stamina to sustained focus. We also have to regularly engage in more activities that require deep cognition. 

Energy management will be essential.

How do you practice self-care personally?

"I'm still learning," Anthony admits. "What I have begun to do is learn how to say 'no' effectively." 

Saying, "Thank you for considering me but right now my schedule's packed, here's somebody I can recommend for you," is getting easier. "But what I don't do anymore is say I'm sorry...because that implies it's something I should feel sorry for."

Anthony also believes in napping, something those who regularly engage in deeper thinking may also want to consider. 

Where does this leave us?

Right now we are living and working in a reality where our attentional needs are being undermined, and because of that we're not able to critically and creatively think.

If we want to be effective and learn how to be good citizens, we've got to begin using self-care more so we can do right by ourselves and by others.  

Have a thought about attention span? Leave a comment below.

*LivingUpp™ is a participant in affiliate programs, which means we may earn a commission from qualifying purchases on links to Amazon and other affiliate sites.

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