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Paying (for a lack of) Attention


By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation

In 2000, the average human had an attention span of twelve seconds; by 2013 that number had fallen to eight seconds. Goldfish have an attention span of nine seconds.

Microsoft study cited in Adam Alter’s book “Irresistible.”

I’ve been using this stat as a starting point for my various keynotes. It’s stunning but not surprising. Life’s various distractions have only become supersized in the digital age. Email, instant messages, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Fit-bit… is technology serving us or are we serving technology?

Right now, it’s the later.

We are drunk on digital and we need to stop. Or, at least, we need to recognize that human beings cannot tap the immense power of their own human brains when they are constantly being distracted by all sorts of external stimuli.

  • In Alter’s book, he notes a few more important statistics:
  • Cellphone users spend an average of one quarter of their waking lives on their phones (more time than any other daily activity, except sleeping).
  • 70% of office emails are read within six seconds of arriving.
  • Up to 40% of the population suffers from an Internet-based addiction, whether to email, gaming or porn.

Lest you think this post will become a “get off my digital lawn” screed, no one lucky enough to have an iPhone should throw it away. The digital age has ushered in an amazing array of devices and platforms that are already improving the human condition in myriad ways.

But we do need to recognize that if we are hoping to tap the fullest creative extent of our workforce – our people – than we need to protect them from digital overload. Of course, improvisation does just that. Phones down, eyes locked, empathy raised: improvisation is a workout in being a human being.

Alter even found some interesting “technological” solutions to the “technological” problem. My favorite comes from German car manufacturer Daimler:

The company’s one hundred thousand employees can set incoming emails to delete automatically when they’re on vacation. A so-called mail on holiday assistant automatically emails the sender to explain that the email wasn’t delivered, and suggest another Daimler employee who will step in if the email is urgent. Workers come back from their vacations to an inbox that looks exactly as it did when they left several weeks ago.

Can you imagine?

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