Do we actually pay attention to what we pay attention to?
Does anyone ever have less than four tabs open in their browser at a time? Switching from one to the other every few minutes without giving our full attention to any of the websites we have open? If you’re a rare unicorn who has just one or two tabs open in your browser at a time, give yourself a pat on the back because your attention span is probably way above the eight seconds most of us are working with.
We know the digital culture we’ve grown up in is undermining our patience and ability to focus as much as our parents did. It’s not news that our ability to focus affects little things like the number of tabs we have open and of course more important things such as our capacity to focus on any of the various personal and professional projects we as multi-passionate people are inevitably involved in at any given time.
Not properly paying attention leads to loss of long term focus.
Our diminished capacity to pay attention affects our ability to focus long term too. This short-termism is obvious in our spending habits (overpriced avocado toast anyone?), how we work within organizations, and engage in our communities, which ultimately affects the economy as a whole. So, if we zoom out even further for a second, we can begin to see that our attention and the economy as a whole are actually more closely linked than we may think. In turn, this compromises our productivity and creativity as a society.
On the brink of the fourth industrial revolution, it is hard to tell what the long-term economic impact of short-termism will be. Growing up in a hyper-digital age, the Internet and its bite-sized bits of information are all we’ve known. There is almost no information we can’t have access to within seconds, because Google is just a “Hey Siri!” away. But this constant-on digital culture is spoiling us. Our poor attention spans are losing the plot...and losing productivity it seems. Chief Economist at The Bank of England, Andy Haldane, thinks that the decline in our attention spans is detrimental to creativity and the quality of societal productivity.
The consequences of short-termism
Millennials check their phones on average 150 times a day and scroll through their social media feeds in every spare moment, and this need for short-term gratification may have far-reaching consequences. It turns out this is potentially compromising societal productivity and perhaps even our collective socio-economic wellbeing as a whole.
Haldane argues that technological advances in the digital age, and the media being everywhere all the time, are promoting instant gratification and short-term thinking, while possibly undermining patience. And patience, the commitment to hold off on instant gratification for long term rewards, is key to economic growth.
Back in the day, patience was a virtue (and an economic driver).
In the pre-modern era, humans were not patient. How could they be? They were just trying to survive with the limited resources they had. They used their time and energy to make sure they could eat, sleep, and have a safe place where they could eat and sleep. And that’s it. They didn’t have the energy to plan and strategize for long-term gains.
According to Haldane, things changed during the Middle Ages. He says, “In the run-up to the Industrial Revolution, society became more willing to wait than in the past. That, in turn, promoted saving, investment, and, ultimately, sustained growth.” People started earning more money and were willing to put in the work and time it took to earn more than they needed.
The printing press was a game-changer too. Haldane believes that reading helped rewire our minds to prime it for deeper thinking and longer-term decision-making. This gave way to increased creativity and innovation, which are key factors in economic growth.
Technology drives economic growth, but at what costs?
Just as the printing press may have caused re-wiring after the fifteenth century, in a similar way the Internet may be making us more short-term oriented and impatient in the twenty-first century. On the verge of the fourth industrial revolution, without a doubt technology has fueled economic growth exponentially.
But at what cognitive costs, he asks.
“Psychological studies have shown that impatience in children can significantly impair educational attainment and thus future income prospects. Impatience has also been found to reduce creativity among individuals, thereby putting a brake on intellectual capital accumulation. Innovation and research are potential casualties from short-termism.”
Now in the digital age, the economy thrives off creativity and innovation. However impatience and being constantly distracted reduces creativity among individuals, putting a brake on intellectual capital accumulation. As distraction does not foster creativity, the knock-on effect is that perhaps we will also find it difficult to buckle down and work to gain the experience, know-how, and skills to propel innovation. With our phones practically a fifth limb at this point and the constant information and distraction, it feels as though we are constantly busy. Always grinding. So many of us are experiencing burnout. But are we actually busy or are just distracted?
What if we paid more attention to what we pay attention to?
In this constant hustle culture, it is imperative to ask ourselves whether we are actually contributing to new knowledge, creativity, and innovation, or do we just think we are because we are always busy? How do we know if we are busy being productive or just “busy”?
Well, one thing we can begin to do is cultivate what we call Attention Intelligence. This is about managing your attention in healthy and meaningful ways. It is just as important as your IQ and EQ. Your attention is one of your most valuable resources, and honing your AQ means learning to manage that fine resource, so that you are not hijacked by distractions. You stay in the driver’s seat. AQ helps you to spend your time and attention on tasks and activities that promote productivity and mental wellbeing. If we don’t pay attention to our AQ, it will be detrimental to our individual personal growth, our professional lives, and possibly even our mental health.
But as we can see, it could also pose much bigger consequences. Our collective AQ as a society could possibly have real-world implications for our collective socio-economic wellbeing. By managing our individual AQ we help to minimize distractions and focus for longer on the things that matter. It is a handy tool against short-termism. It supports us in long-term strategic thinking and stimulates creativity. Which, ultimately helps us become individuals that can contribute to intellectual and creative capital that supports the economy and as a whole, as well as our collective wellbeing. So, as the digital age continues to drag us into a rabbit hole of distraction, it is imperative that we start paying attention to what we pay attention to because it pays!