Archived Story

John Jarpe: Our shortened attention spans

Published 12:07am Thursday, November 3, 2011

How many people reading this column will finish it? How many glanced at it, saw who wrote it, and went to something else?
My hypothesis is that most people who started it won’t finish it in one sitting. We are simply too distracted and too tempted by other things to grab our attention than we used to be.
Next time you’re in a meeting that’s less than exciting, or the speaker isn’t really engaging the group, or there’s a break in the action, take a look and see how many people are checking their phones for messages, emails or postings.
It used to be, people might doodle on their papers or even just daydream if they were not paying attention. If there was a break, they’d talk to their neighbor.
Looking at a handheld device is a pretty obvious indicator that whatever is on the phone screen is more important than what the meeting or speaker is all about. Next time you go to a movie or to church, take a look around when people are walking out. How many are checking their phones for texts, messages, etc.? In the old days, when more people smoked, you’d see people light up when they got out of those kinds of places. Thankfully, maybe that’s some progress; at least phones are healthier than smokes.
The point is, people have been away from their devices for a stretch of time and need to get to them again.
For years, we in schools have talked about kids’ attention spans and the challenge to engage students in lessons. Nowadays, with all our potential distractions, it’s adults as well who need to make sure we are paying attention ourselves when we are at meetings or when we should be discussing matters of importance. Recent studies are showing that a blended approach of direct teaching and online learning is the most effective instructional approach. We might want to take heed and structure our meetings the same way.
So, how did you do? Did you get this far without stopping to check an electronic device or flip to another article, section of the paper, or website? I actually wrote this piece in one sitting without checking email or making or receiving a phone call, and that’s an accomplishment in itself.
Oops — cell phone just vibrated!

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