Are you paying attention?
February 2022
Feb 2022-2
Hi there,

How’s your work week going? Are you feeling focused, calm, unfazed by your to-do list? Have you transcended the cacophony of Slack notifications and apocalyptic news bulletins to achieve inner peace and tackle today’s tasks? If you have, good for you; there’s the door over there. This newsletter is for the rest of us, who can’t focus on anything for more than 72 seconds and feel like a swarm of bees has taken up residence inside our heads. 

By now, you’ve probably heard many times that modern humans have the attention span of a goldfish, that the youths have all been lost to the wilds of Instagram, that smartphones have hollowed out our hearts and minds. But how much of this is actually based on science? Are we really losing our ability to focus, or is this just the human condition? That’s what we’re delving into today — plus some strategies to get your focus back, so you can stop feeling like the dog from Pixar’s Up.

Until next time,
Katie and the team @ TDL

1. What the science says

There’s no good evidence our attention spans have shrunk. Much ink has been spilled and many pearls clutched over concerns that the human attention span is collapsing, but claims that we’ve gotten unilaterally worse at focusing are dubious. Sure, our cognitive abilities are always adapting to the world around us, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Tech is related to inattention, but causality is unclear. Many experts are uneasy about the potential long-term effects of technologies like smartphones on our focus, and research shows tech use is correlated with distraction — but we don’t have enough evidence to say with certainty that these new media are causing a widespread attentional deficit.

Our environment makes it harder to concentrate. We’re not wired to filter out so many distractions day in and day out, but that’s what the modern world demands of us. The more stuff there is vying for our attention, the faster we shift our focus from one topic to the next

Anxiety can impair attention too. There’s no shortage of things to be worried about these days, from climate change to COVID. Crises make us vigilant, constantly on the lookout for potential threats — something that’s not generally compatible with sustained attention.  

2. Taking back your attention

Work deeply. Coined by Cal Newport, “deep work” is a technique for becoming more intentional about the way we spend our time. It boils down to scheduling distraction-free blocks of time to focus on tasks that are challenging and involved, which also tend to be the ones with the highest value.

Build a distraction-proof workplace culture. This is not an individual problem: the expectation of constant accessibility has made it virtually impossible to focus deeply. On average, workers only focus on a task for three minutes before moving on to something else. Changing workplace norms and instituting policies around deep work can give employees the space they need to execute their best work. 

Try meditating. (You knew this was coming.) Research has found that meditating for just 10 minutes significantly improves attention. If you keep at it for a few weeks, other studies suggest meditation can restructure your brain, improving connectivity between different areas and allowing for better attentional regulation, among other benefits. 

Embrace boredom. Boredom forces us to reflect on our values and goals, highlighting when we’re insufficiently engaged by whatever we’re doing. “Quick fixes” like watching YouTube may numb us to the unpleasantness of being bored, but they also rob us of opportunities for introspection and creativity — and make us more averse to just sitting and focusing.

Set some intentions around social media. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it last year, social media is attention alcohol: in the right quantities, it’s a vehicle for entertainment and connection, but in excess, it can be toxic. Ask yourself which parts of social media you genuinely value, and how you can structure your engagement with certain platforms to maximize the good while minimizing the bad.
3. Opportunities in Behavioral Science
The Decision Lab is hiring a Senior UX Designer!
We're currently looking for an experienced designer to join our team. If you're passionate about the behavioral sciences and genuinely curious about how they can be applied to create impact through digital products, you may be a fit! Click the link above to view the posting. (This role is based in Montreal.)
4. Get Involved

Interested in having your voice heard? Join us on our mission to change the world through better decision-making. We're interested in articles that get us thinking about human behavior so we can better understand why we do what we do. To learn more, visit our content submissions page.

5. Feedback

We would love to hear about how we're doing and what you would like to see from us. How can we help you use behavioral science to make an impact in your role? To give us feedback, simply reply to this email. We look forward to hearing from you.

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