Stolen Focus: Understanding how the fractured mind works and how it impacts your work as a media writer

“The average human attention span is approximately 8 seconds, or one second shorter than that of a goldfish.”

I’ve seen this statistic for years, and even cited it in my own writing, often without thinking much about it. Critics of this statistic call its origin story and oversimplifying of cognitive effort into question, both of which are legitimate concerns. What they don’t debate, however, is how people are having a harder and harder time staying focused on any one thing.

Attention spans are changing, but this isn’t because we’re getting worse at focusing. Instead, our digital environment is making it harder for us to apply the most effective kinds of attention.

A study conducted by the Technical University of Denmark found that our collective attention spans are decreasing due to the huge amount of information presented to us at all times. Social media, 24/7 news updates, and ads are constantly competing for our attention. This means that it’s becoming harder and harder to give content our sustained or selective attention. Instead, we’re often relying on our divided attention, trying to focus on several things at once, and often failing to do so.

In looking through research on focus, one thing that people often fail to understand is that it’s not just about the thing we’re concentrating on and the thing that is pulling our attention away. It’s about the cognitive efforts and additional focus shifts that take place when we move from Action 1 to Action 2 and how that further fragments our mental capacity.

For example, let’s say you’re reading this blog post on your computer when a friend texts you about an upcoming plan. Even if you don’t answer your friend, you probably think you have a single split in your attention:

  • Blog post = 50%
  • Glance at text = 50%

That doesn’t seem so bad until you realize that your mind is being forced to engage in shifting behavior that you also have to account for. It actually works like this:

Blog post — Focus shift — Text message — Focus shift — Blog post again

In other words, it’s more like 20% of your focus is on each element in that amount of time, as you move from processing one thing to another.

Now realize that in most cases, we’re not just shifting between one thing and one other thing. We’re all over the place. Also, we’re constantly finding new things that attempt to grab our attention, further fracturing our focus.

In the book “Stolen Focus,” Johann Hari digs more deeply into each aspect of this issue, relying on both scholarly research and personal examples to outline how our ability to concentrate has been blown to bits. Here’s part of the book, as republished in The Guardian, which is kind of a bleak look at who we are now:

Prof Barbara Demeneix, a leading French scientist who has studied some key factors that can disrupt attention, told me bluntly: “There is no way we can have a normal brain today.” We can see the effects all around us. A small study of college students found they now only focus on any one task for 65 seconds. A different study of office workers found they only focus on average for three minutes. This isn’t happening because we all individually became weak-willed. Your focus didn’t collapse. It was stolen.

So, if you’ve read this far, congratulations. You’ve hung in there for more than 65 seconds. With that in mind, let’s look at what this all means to journalists:

Write short, write clear, get it over with: When it comes to basic things, don’t be afraid to be basic. The whole goal of the 25-35 word lead and the short-paragraph inverted pyramid structure is to give people what they need to know and let them move on with life.

When we talk about this kind of writing, we often note that if a person stops reading at any point in the piece, they aren’t missing crucial information. What the authors above (and other researchers) are telling us is that they will almost certainly stop reading a lot more quickly than you think.

Apply “mental goosing” liberally: If you’re not writing something that can be told in a simple NVO structure (Packers beat Bears; Mayor loses election; Crash kills three), you need to make sure you can not only grab people by the eyeballs, but that you can keep them.

In discussing the “goldfish paradigm,” I often joke with my class that to keep things working well, I have to do something every 8 seconds or so to reengage them with the material. I basically have to “mentally goose” them or “give their brain a poke” if I want to keep them focused on what I’m telling them.

Narrative work is often misconstrued as “Write as long as you want because people will just curl up near a fireplace with your story and a nice snifter of cognac and read every last word you deign to provide. The truth is, the longer it is, the more chances you have to lose them.

As you read along, if you find there are pockets of writing in which your mind is drifting, you’re not goosing your brain. And you’re the one who was interested enough in the topic to write it, so chances are, the readers who are giving you a passing glance are already gone. Make sure there’s always something there to hold their focus or forces them to refocus on you if they drift.

Accentuate value quickly and clearly: I got the chance to talk to a student newsroom a week or so ago as part of their reporting training. One question I got was something most beginning journalists struggle with:

“How do you make speeches or meeting stories different or interesting? Because we cover a lot of those…”

Good question, but it reflects backward thinking.

I asked the student why they covered the things they covered, and I knew what was coming: We always cover them. OK, so why do you ALWAYS cover them? Well… because we ALWAYS cover them.

Cut the the moment of clarity: You keep going to events just because you’ve always gone there and looking for something interesting, even after you’ve been shown that nothing of interest is there, simply because people keep having events. That’s like fishing for trout in your bathtub because it’s frequently full of water and it’s conveniently located.

Instead, look for the value first: What’s going on there that your readers would WANT to hear about? If the answer is “Nothing,” then don’t go there.

If you have an answer (“A former football players is going to talk about his life after a dozen concussions” or “The city council is going to limit parking on streets around campus.”) go to the event and get that stuff. Then, write a story that would accentuate the value quickly and clearly:

“Four years of college football and five years in the NFL has left retired quarterback Jim Jenkins with the cognitive ability of a distracted 5-year-old, he said Tuesday night.”

“Students  living in the Weebly Heights section of campus can no longer park on the streets over night, after the Oshkosh Common Council approved a transit bill Tuesday night.”

In short, tell me why I should care about this right away. Otherwise, people are going to be less interested in paying attention and will quickly hop away to something more interesting.

If there’s any silver lining in the brain study stuff, it’s that people can get locked in quite strongly when you something that strongly affects their lives and they understand to what degree it actually does.

The hard part is making sure we’re doing that in everything we write.

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