If someone tried to force you to take a drug that was going to reduce your ability to mentally focus by 33%, you’d probably do everything you could to get away from them, right? Yet, the chances are you’ve already done that to yourself over the past several years. Your partner-in-crime is your smartphone.
In a 2015 study commissioned by Microsoft, researchers found that the average human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2015. A goldfish, on the other hand, has an attention span of 9 seconds.
So, what else was going on during the period that human attention spans dropped by 33%? The mobile communications era really took off. The first mobile email device, the Blackberry (remember those?) was introduced in 1999. The first modern smartphone, the iPhone, was launched in 2007. Is it a coincidence that attention spans have dropped during more or less the same exact period? Unlikely.
Smartphones kill our attention spans because they’re addictive. You know this intuitively, right? If you do, perhaps you’ll be comforted to know that, according to a 2015 study conducted by the National Safety Council, more than 80% of Americans agree with you.
Why are they addictive? Because there are so many things you can do with them. You can check your email, send texts, watch cat videos, look at celebrity pictures on their Instagram streams, read the news or (and this is my personal addiction over the past few months) check the latest Presidential election prediction on fivethirtyeight.com. And every time you do any of those things or thousands more like them, neurons in your midbrain release a neurotransmitter called dopamine into your brain’s pleasure centers. It feels so good that you want to do it again. Of course, like any addiction, this isn’t good for you over the long run. Among other things, it reduces your attention span and ability to focus.
So, what can you do to tame this attention span killing device? The big answer is to be aware of the smartphone’s drain on your attention and create some regular opportunities for your attention to be spent elsewhere. Here are three simple tactics – I call them habit hacks – that can help you do that:
Establish smartphone free zones – In my book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, I share the story of an executive who recognized that her smartphone addiction was taking her attention away from other things, like her family, that really mattered to her. Her solution was to plug her phone into a charger over the washing machine when she walked through the laundry room from her garage to the kitchen upon arriving home in the evening. The deal she made with herself was that she wasn’t going back for it until her kids were in bed for the evening. I asked her if that was hard to do. “Oh, yes!” she exclaimed. “For the first few nights, I felt like I’d cut my right arm off. I was so conditioned to look at the phone constantly that it was like a reflexive response.” When I asked her why she kept going with the laundry room charging approach, she told me that the benefits on the very first evening were so immediate and dramatic that she knew she had to keep going. Her kids were happier and easier to be with because they knew they had her attention. Her husband was happier because the kids were happier and he also had her attention. She found that she enjoyed sharing her undivided attention with her family much more than checking her phone. Within a week of starting the laundry room routine, the reflexive response to pick up her phone had completely disappeared.
Leave it behind – In a 360 degree feedback survey I conducted for an executive client a few years ago, his direct reports left a lot of comments about how they felt unimportant because he was always distracted by something on his smartphone. This stung the executive because the last thing he wanted was for his team members to feel like he didn’t care. His solution was to start conducting his meetings with them in their offices or in a conference room. When he did, he left his phone behind in his desk drawer. The impact was immediate and dramatic. The executive realized he was learning more because he was tuned into both the spoken and unspoken communications. His team members shared more because they knew he was listening. And, meetings became shorter on average because he didn’t have to ask for things to be repeated because he was distracted by his phone.
Remove your email from your phone – A few months ago, I was talking with a client who told me that since we last talked he had deleted his email accounts on his smartphone. In commenting on this bold move, I asked him what prompted it. He told me that he was in line at the grocery store with his kids a couple of weekends before and started checking his email while he was waiting. Then it hit him, “Why am I doing this when I could be talking to my kids?” When he got home he turned off the email on his phone. He hasn’t missed it a bit and has found that he actually enjoys watching his kids play soccer more than he did thumbing through emails on the sideline.
All three of these tactics have a few things in common. First, they were all relatively easy for the person to do and were highly likely to make a difference in increasing the quality of their attention and, consequently, their lives. Second, they re-created some simple boundaries in their lives that existed before smartphones came on the scene. That’s probably the biggest impact of the smartphone on our attention spans. They’ve eliminated so many boundaries that used to protect our attention spans. The simple steps these folks took to reclaim their attention all involved re-establishing some boundaries.
So, how about you? What boundaries do you want to reestablish and what simple smartphone tactic can you adopt this week that will help you do that?