Impact of Shorter Attention Spans on Readers and Writers

Twice in one day last week, I encountered references to people’s reduced ability to focus these days. Our shorter attention spans are due largely to the ever-present distractions from technology—and I know this is true, based on my own behavior.

The first time this issue surfaced was during the Association of Missouri Mediators conference I attended, in which the keynote speaker, Professor Noam Ebner of Creighton University, cited the following statistics:

  • Today we spend on average three minutes on a task before we are distracted.
  • Once we are distracted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task.

Moreover, he said, humans are not good multitaskers. Contrary to what we think, every distraction detracts from and delays our ability to perform the task we were doing. The ubiquity of smartphones is the primary reason for our distraction, though other forms of technology are factors also. Think of when email first entered the workplace and dinged at us every few minutes. Now those dings follow us whenever our smartphone is within hearing range.

This photo isn’t of me. In reality, as I listened to the webinar, I played the video on my desktop, listened to the audio on my phone, took notes on my laptop, and kept my tablet nearby. No wonder I was distracted.

Later that day, while I was listening to another presentation during the AMM conference, I read an article (yes, I was distracted by technology) on The Passive Voice blog entitled “Shorter Attention Spans.” The article quoted Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, during the Frankfurt Book Fair:

“You have whole generations being trained for shorter attention spans than books require.”

As a writer, I had to stop and think about that statement.

I remember my childhood years when I spent whole days immersed in a book, from after breakfast until dinner, with only a short break for lunch. During summer months, I often consumed two books a day for a week.

Even into high school, when I had the time, I could read for hours on end. I read my favorite Phyllis Whitney young-adult mysteries and the like in a day. I read many classic novels (such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre) over the course of a few days, or no more than a week.

Even as an adult, despite working 50 to 60 hours a week and raising two kids, I escaped into books when I could. I’d take a weekend afternoon, or stay up late into the night, to read. It might only happen once every month or two, but it was a favorite respite.

But now? I still read a lot. I probably average a couple of novels a week. But  I find myself reading for a few pages, then switching my tablet to email, then checking Facebook, then back to the novel. My attention span is definitely shorter.

What does this mean for society?

Professor Epner talked about how it is harder for parties in a mediation to focus on problem-solving when their attention spans are shorter. This leads to the need to have shorter mediation sessions, and to let the parties break to seek out information and do other “homework” in between sessions.

The ubiquity of screens and digital interruptions have impacted the quality of our communications also. According to Professor Epner, we don’t interpret body language or word inflection in the same way we used to. Our intuition and empathy have changed as a result.

All this isn’t necessarily bad, because technology has added new ways of communicating as it has changed face-to-face opportunities. But technology makes communication different. And if we don’t recognize the changes and consider them in our communications, we will not resolve problems and differences as well as we used to.

Now, think about what this means for readers and writers.

I described my own experience as a reader above. I do not read without distractions as I used to. I do not think I’m unique in this regard.

If other readers have changed as I have, then writers need to consider how to grab readers in shorter bursts and how to retain them as long as possible, or re-grab them after a distraction. Shorter chapters. More reminders of setting and situation in novels. More headlines and breaks and sidebars in nonfiction. More uses of metaphors that relate to today’s readers.

Carolyn Reidy of Simon & Schuster said we need to be sure books remain “central to the discussion of what’s going on in the culture,” while at the same time using social media to reach consumers more directly. I agree with both points. The challenge is to handle both book-length writing and social media snippets equally well, for the functions that each does best.

Writers, what do you do to attract and retain today’s readers that you didn’t do ten years ago?

Posted in Reading, Technology, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , .

6 Comments

  1. That, in a nutshell, is why I don’t read on a tablet. A book, a physical book, anchors me. It seems to me, it’s too easy to blame technology. I appreciate having one window open for research, the other on the document I’m writing. It seems to me, in blaming technology, we’re simply opting out of making choices. Technology is. There’s no going back. Finding a way to balance that is individual choice. I choose hard copy newspapers and books; I also choose walking over running. This all boils down to individual choices. What works, what doesn’t work.

    • Janet, I also do better when reading a physical book, although I sometimes find myself tapping the page to get it to turn (it doesn’t) or tapping a word to look up the definition (it remains stubbornly on the printed page).
      Theresa

  2. I must admit my own distraction as I was reading, when you mentioned Phyllis Whitney as an author you enjoyed in your youth. Phyllis Whitney! I read all her books back in the day! Let’s see, what were they… And off I went to look up the Phyllis Whitney books I, too, once devoured…. 🙂

Leave a Reply