Australian cricketers concentrating in the field. Image source: Cricket.com.au
It’s no secret that increased media consumption and digital lifestyles are diminishing peoples’ abilities to concentrate for extended periods of time. A 2015 report from Microsoft Canada states that s average attention spans have fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to 8 seconds in 2015. To put that in perspective, the average attention span humans has diminished to levels lower than the notoriously dim-witted goldfish (9 seconds). According to Microsoft, the key factors that are contributing to our waning attention spans are media consumption, social media usage, technology adaptation rate, and multi-screening behaviour. These factors all comprise elements associated with the rise of digital media technologies.
Right, so increased engagement with digital media technologies is resulting in a lower attention span for the user. This sounds obvious, but the implications can have serious consequences. Take for instance the fundamentally dangerous activity of driving a car. Common sense tells us that it is important when driving to maximise concentration in order to ensure the safety of all road users. But what happens when you get a text message or app notification whilst driving? You should just ignore it until you arrive at your destination, right? I decided to test this idea as I drove from Wollongong to Sydney on the weekend— a trip of around 90 minutes. New South Wales Law states that drivers must refrain from using hand-held mobile devices at all times when operating a motor vehicle. This meant that I was (rightfully) unable to use my phone while driving. Instead, I chose to conduct an experiment to record the number of times that I considered picking up my phone when driving. My intention was to provide a demonstration of how often I am distracted by the thought of picking up the phone.
It is illegal to use your mobile phone while driving in Australia. Image credit: Cars Guide
This experiment consisted of simply recording the number of times I was tempted to check my phone during the 90-minute journey to Sydney. I also recorded the number of times that I received notifications whilst driving in order to indicate how often my phone was attempting to distract me. My passenger was tasked with recording my observations as to negate the risks associated with this experiment. I will take this opportunity to also add a quick disclaimer: at no time during the experiment did I actually attempt to use my phone whilst driving.
Over the course of the trip, I recorded 14 instances where I was tempted to check my phone whilst driving. A breakdown of these instances is provided below.
– 7 times I considered looking at my phone while stopped at traffic lights. These lapses of concentration were attributed to the boredom that ensued as I waited for the light to turn green.
– 4 times I was tempted to look at my phone during general highway driving or suburban driving. This would have been the most dangerous time to check my phone given full concentration is required in order to safely operate the vehicle.
– During the car ride I was greeted by three notifications from my phone; two text messages and one Snapchat notification. On each of these occasions my concentration from driving was momentarily broken as I fought the urge to check these notifications.
I noticed that even though I was not tempted to engage with my phone, I was still mindful of its presence. I found that I was distracted by the thought of checking my phone every 6.42 minutes during the duration of the trip. This experiment shows that mobile phones have the ability to distract a driver, even when the driver does not react to the distractions by checking the phone.
Australian cricketers demonstrating deep focus. Image credit: Cricinfo
Conducting this experiment got me thinking about selective concentration. When I was young I used to play cricket which I think involves a unique level of concentration. During cricket matches, the players are required to bat for upwards of seven hours per day. It seems impossible that the players are concentrating throughout their entire innings, given that the average human concentration span currently stands at 8 seconds. The key to concentrating on a game of cricket is the player’s ability to select the correct moments at which to focus their concentration. Cricket lab provides an interesting explanation of how cricketers manage to stay focused throughout the course of their innings. The key is apparently knowing how to manage your focus by learning when to switch it on and off.
This analogy provides an interesting example on how to imagine switching your concentration on and off like a cricketer does when batting:
You’re in a room with a beautiful picture on the wall, you have a
torch with a lens that can focus in and out, soft to sharp focus.
You turn out the light in the room and focus the torch on the painting, using soft focus to look at the whole picture and sharp focus to zone in and pick out detail on the picture.
Your mind is like this, it can switch your focus between sharp or soft, close or far, in and out, very quickly.
Focusing in sharp and tight on something uses up mental energy very quickly … so how do you manage this for batting.
The most important time to manage your focus at the crease is between balls, strange as this may seem. This is when you have time to think, an over may take 3.5 to 4 minutes but the ball is only in play for 4-5 seconds from when the bowler runs in, to when the ball is bowled.
You want to keep your mind quiet between balls so that it is present with where you are, not off in the future thinking about the ball you might get or off in the past thinking about the ball that was just bowled.Essentially the cricketer wants to pick the perfect moments at which to concentrate. Perhaps training our minds to recognise opportune moments to use sharp focus can be applied to our digital media usage? It is apparently impossible for humans to concentrate all of the time, so instead we may be better served by learning how to focus on our media devices at the right times. Recognising the times that you are required to employ sharp focus may also enable you to recognise when it is appropriate to switch off and check our devices. Granted, this method would not suit the driver of a motor vehicle, given that it is illegal to handle a phone while driving, but imagine a situation such as studying at university, or working in front of the computer.
Essentially the cricketer wants to pick the perfect moments to concentrate. Perhaps training our minds to recognise opportune moments to use sharp focus can be applied to our digital media usage? It is apparently impossible for humans to concentrate all of the time, so instead we may be better served by learning how to focus on our media devices at the right times. Recognising the times that you are required to employ sharp focus may also enable you to recognise when it is appropriate to switch off and check our devices. Granted, this method would not suit the driver of a motor vehicle, given that it is illegal to handle a phone while driving, but imagine a situation such as studying at university, or working in front of the computer.