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Like a goldfish

  Newsletter Article

Why we so easily get distracted

In the age of the smartphone, Pokémon Go, and Facebook, it's not hard to get distracted: whether from boring conversations, when a quick glance at your phone is the equivalent of the "Skip dialog" function in computer games; from working on a degree dissertation; or indeed from your job. The next reason to get distracted from a challenging task is just a click aw... hang on a sec, I'll be right back; just need to collect some resources in Clash of Clans.

Where was I? Oh yes: A 2015 study showed that the attention span of young Canadians (eight seconds) is already less than that of goldfish (nine seconds). And the obstacles grabbing our attention and diverting us from our tasks are growing ever more powerful as the wealth of alternatives on offer expands. Alongside the app icons, our smartphone displays a little red circle with a little white number inside it which gets bigger and bigger depending on how often we use the app, and leaps accusingly toward us whenever we unlock our phone. Our tablet, laptop and e-mail client diary do the same. And then there are prompts to update and back up. In short: we are being swamped by a flood of information.

Our brain reacts to this by so-called "media multitasking": Instead of performing two tasks at once, it switches rapidly back and forth between the two. That happens in all areas of our everyday lives, and is not restricted to the younger generation. A study by C.A. Marci in 2012 revealed that young adults switch between two tasks every two minutes - 27 times an hour. And older adults did not do much better. They switched between the two tasks 17 times an hour - or every three to four minutes. We also appear to have lost the ability simply to stand still, or concentrate on a single task. Even when standing at the store checkout, we are tapping around on our phones.

Larry D. Rosen, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at California State University, puts it like this: "We act as though we are no longer interested in or able to stay idle and simply do nothing. We appear to care more about the people who are available through our devices than those who are right in front of our faces. And perhaps more critically, we appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts."

But there is good news too: Multitasking skills have greatly improved as a result of this trend - even among men.