“Your emails are too long so I don’t bother reading them.”

No buddy. Your attention span is too short. You don’t bother to invest your time in just about anything anymore.

But it’s not just you…

My emails are long. Well, they’re no longer than your average magazine article. Heck they take no more than 5 minutes to read. 5 minutes! Max! But in today’s world that’s too long… 

Many of you are just about ready to flick to the next thing… go on. Off ya pop.

Our attention span is getting shorter and shorter and it is a big, big problem. 

According to a Microsoft study in 2018, the average attention span of a human being is 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in the year 2000. A recent JAMPP study found that our attention, in particular our attention to technology and media, is decreasing by 88% every year.

This alarming issue is causing a tonne of problems: we are getting less done, we are absorbing far less useful information, we are absorbing far more useless information and we are procrastinating like never before.

This is why click bait exists, this is why insta stories only run for 15 seconds, this is why marketers put a time bar on the bottom of their videos letting you know how close you are to finishing in hope you don’t flic away, this is why I have to write emails in far smaller paragraphs than I should be. 

Facebook and Instagram would surely be the major culprits. Their algorithms are designed to keep you on their app for as long as possible and they operate no differently to a poker machine. If anyone doesn’t understand why gambling is so addictive, here is why:

Gambling (and Fb and Insta) is designed around providing you with positive reinforcement in order for you to continue to play. In 1948 Burrhus Frederic Skinner studied ‘operant conditioning’ (learning via positive and negative reinforcement) by conducting experiments using animals placed in what was named the ‘skinner box’. 

Skinner showed how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in his Skinner box. The box contained a lever on the side, and as the rat moved about the box it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately it did so a food pellet would drop into a container next to the lever.

The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being put in the box. The consequence of receiving food if they pressed the lever ensured that they would repeat the action again and again.

Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. For example, if your teacher gives you $5 each time you complete your homework (i.e., a reward) you will be more likely to repeat this behavior in the future, thus strengthening the behavior of completing your homework.

Skinner also researched different schedules of reinforcement in order to learn how long the rat would continue trying the lever until they gave up. Eg. Following a response of one pellet to every lever hit, how quickly would the rats would cease knocking the lever when the behaviour was no longer reinforced (continuous reinforcement)? And, when the behaviour was reinforced on random intervals (variable ratio reinforcement), how quickly would the rats give up? 

So when the rats were given a pellet every lever hit, followed by a complete cessation of pellets after a period of time, the rats were very quick to give up, assuming that the food must have run out. But when rats were given a pellet after unpredictable hits of the lever, it took them far far longer to give up, as the hope that the pellet would show up on the next hit stayed. 

Skinner found that the type of reinforcement which produces the slowest rate of extinction (i.e., people will go on repeating the behavior for the longest time without reinforcement) was variable-ratio reinforcement. The type of reinforcement which has the quickest rate of extinction is continuous reinforcement.

Gambling, Facebook and Instagram use variable-ratio reinforcement to keep us engaged.

A few years back both social platforms changed your feed from being chronological to what appears to be very randomised. The reason was to increase the randomisation of what was coming up on your screen. Rather than predictable positive reinforcement, you now receive randomised reinforcement. You just cannot stop flicking as you just need to know what may pop up next. What might just be that little bit better than the flick beforehand! That scroll down flicking action we do too… doesn’t it remind you of another brightly lit, addictive machine people spend countless hours and dollars on? Interesting.

Now our attention span has become shortened due to our desire for something better on the next flick. 

You do a flick, something pretty interesting pops up, but that little addiction monster on your shoulder says to you “yeah this looks okay, but hey, just flick one more time, something better may pop up on the next one”. So you do. The next response is pretty boring, lets flick again, oh look something funny! It’s over, lets go again, Oh! This actually relates to my interests! Oh but I have to hit the link to go somewhere away from my favourite flicky game… nahh… I’ll flick again.

Sound familiar? You bet it does! We’re all bloody guilty of it.

What my biggest issue with it is how much it is deterring us from the things we should be doing. We use it to avoid work that needs to be done, we use it in bed and it messes with our sleep, we then use it to ‘wind down’ because we’re so tired (because we fucked with our sleep from being on the damn thing in bed!), we say we are too busy to prepare healthy food, exercise, see a friend yet the ‘screen time’ feature tell you you spend 4 hours a day on the socials, we say we are going to start a new more positive behaviour but eliminate anything BUT our addiction in order to try and make that change, we say we are going to start a new more positive behaviour but eliminate absolutely nothing and use our addiction as a procrastination tool to never ever start. 

When we waste our days flicking, we learn nothing, we gain nothing, we achieve nothing. 

If instead of giving 1000 things our attention for 8 seconds each (2.2hrs), we gave 5 things of quality our attention for 15 minutes each (1.25hrs), we will have achieved so much more, had a greater positive impact on our day and actually moved forwards for once!

Here is one solution to this epic problem that I have been working on the past few weeks…

iPhones (sorry samsung users… maybe your phone has the same feature) now have a feature called ‘screen time’. In there it gives you daily and weekly usage data for your socials, productivity, entertainment and other apps, as well as total usage. Each day and week it tells you if your usage is above or below average and by how much. It also allows you to set app limits, cutting you from your app when you have gone over or have hit your end of day downtime limit.

I now treat it like a game. I have set a 2 hour limit to my socials, have a set downtime at night and play the game of trying to be ‘under average’ every single day and week. I am winning. If I can be even just a few % down every week, over time I am going to be so much better off. Also, by having these limiters it forces me to think about the content I am taking in. Now that I have a socials limit I make sure that what I consume is going to benefit me, rather than waste my time. 

So far the experiment has been a huge success, I care less and less about socials, I post less and I don’t care, I am spending more quality time with my family and doing what I should be doing at work, my sleep is better and I am reading more. It is great! 

So to all you short attention spanners that are no longer reading this email, I hope this provides you some value! Phone addiction is just as much of a problem as gambling and alcohol addiction. It is destroying our quality of life, it is preventing us from achieving what we are capable of achieving, it is slowly turning us all into those fat people on Wall-E. Not good.

Get off ya phone and get your life back!