About Attentional Fracturing

There has been a phenomenon that I have measured and seen in myself and people around me. Up to today I did not have the right words to describe what exactly it is that I am talking about. Listening to the latest episode of the Hello Internet Podcast gave me a word that conveys my observations: Attentional Fracturing.

We are increasingly living in an environment where everything and everyone around us is trying to deal with our attention. Ads constantly bombarding us, TVs in bars, phones always buzzing, … In a way attention has become the currency of this new digital age that we live in.

Introspective

Before talking about the problem, I invite you - the reader - to think about your own behaviour - how you work, how you spend your time, where you put your attention. Let me ask you a series of questions.

  • In your last week - what was the longest time one single thing has held your attention without being interrupted by Twitter, Facebook, Slack or anything else?
  • When did you have the last meaningful conversation with someone that was not interrupted by one of you looking at your phone or quickly answering that text message?
  • When was the last time you have spent 10 minutes reading without having the urge of being interrupted by something?

While asking these questions to myself I came to the conclusion, that my attention span as decreased to an embarrassingly small level: At any time there are a number of indicators on my screen - indicating whether or not there are new messages sent to me on any number of - different mediums. Phones and tablets demanding attention and everything most things even interrupt me in my thought process when they think something important has happened by sending notifications.

When reading I constantly pick up my phone - just in case someone tried to reach me. While working I look at that slack notification icon every couple of seconds - just in case someone messaged me. It has been a long while since I have spent a large amount of attention on a single thing.

The Problem

The internet is a beautiful place: Every possible piece of information is at our fingertips at any given point in time. Most times we don’t even have to do the hard work of finding the information ourselves - there is already someone that summarized the important portions of a book in an article and someone else that summarized the important portions of the article in a comment.

The unimaginable mass of summaries and short versions of everything out on the internet combined with the ‘always on’ mentality regarding communications has trained our brains to an ever quicker reward cycle and with that ever shorter attention spans. At times it feels like the minimum unit of attention that can be given to a single thing has decreased significantly - as if it had been fractured into little pieces.

Possible solutions

The primary goal of this article is to highlight the problem of attentional fracturing in order to prompt readers to start thinking about their own attention spans, not to give a solution. However, here are a couple of things that I personally have started doing in order to combat the issue. Most of them boil down to making it harder to unintentionally fracturing your attention into pieces: Changing the thing that captures your attention must become more intentional in order to control it.

  • Limit messengers that are always running.
  • Messengers that should be always running (because having them running has a net-positive impact) must not always be visible: They can be delegated to a certain workspace that I have to conciously switch to for communications.
  • Pomodoro Timers are a great technique in order to micro-schedule your time into manageble blocks of work and free time.
  • StayFocusd is a chrome extension that only allows access to distracting websites outside of work timers.
  • Make it harder to unintentionally grab my phone by placing it in my backpack instead of my pocket.