Regaining Your Focus: Overcoming the Attention Span Challenge

by | Dec 13, 2023 | Executive Presence

Do you find yourself in perpetual distraction, scrolling on your mobile device, checking every notification, or peeking at the latest video someone sent you? Rest assured, you’re not alone.

Our attention spans are under constant attack from new technology. However, the reality is more nuanced.


Regaining Your Focus - NxtGEN Executive Presence

Differentiating attention span and focus

Contrary to the common belief, attention span and focus are not the same concept, although related. They both refer to slightly different aspects of attention.

Attention span is the duration of time a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. For example, if you can read a book for an hour without your mind wandering, or binge-watch a Netflix show, you have a relatively long attention span. Attention span can vary greatly among individuals and can be influenced by factors such as age, time of day, health, and interest in the task.

Focus is directing your attention to one specific task or stimulus while ignoring other distractions. It’s about intensity and selectivity. If you can focus on a task in a noisy environment, it shows a strong ability to concentrate. You will also be aware of this concept if you play any sport that requires concentration and mental agility, such as golf. Think of it as the quality of the attention you can maintain.

There are numerous perspectives available online, and it is crucial to distinguish between facts and lore. We will now take a closer look at the attention span puzzle and revisit the topic of focus in future posts.


Debunking the 8-Second Goldfish Memory Myth

In 2015, the Internet was abuzz with a startling new claim: “Humans possess an attention span of just 8 seconds,” often compared unfavourably with the attention span of a goldfish. However, it turns out this is not entirely correct, as there isn’t sufficient data to substantiate the claim that our attention spans have shortened, as this topic only began to attract academic interest in 2004. So what causes the issue and – who are the culprits?


Regaining Your Focus - NxtGEN Executive Presence

Source: Canva

Technology gets a bad rep

According to the Centre for Attention Studies, a lot of us are unaware of our technology addiction, and indeed, we do worry our attention is shrinking. Research in the UK also indicates that people underestimate the frequency of checking their phones. They think they check them only a third as often as they actually do.

Additionally, half of the respondents admit that despite their best efforts, they struggle to stop checking their smartphones when they should be concentrating on other tasks.

While technology seems the biggest culprit that competes for our attention, most of us find having information at our fingertips valuable, and particularly useful when we seek solutions to professional and personal challenges. According to Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, Co-Director of the aforementioned Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London:

“Technology has created more distractions and reduced the need, and perhaps willingness, of people to engage in long and tedious tasks to achieve their goals. But it’s an untested hypothesis whether this impacts our underlying ability to concentrate”.

Gloria Mark, PhD, author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity presents another claim. Her research shows that nearly 20 years ago, people averaged 2.5 minutes of focused attention while working online or doing something involving screens, before switching to a different screen. By 2012, that time span had shrunk to 75 seconds. And by 2021, it had compacted to a measly 47 seconds.

Regaining Your Focus - NxtGEN Executive Presence

Adapted from: Mark, G. (2023), Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.
Copyright: NxtGEN®

Multiple types of attention

Furthermore, when discussing attention spans, it’s important to identify exactly which aspect we are addressing. According to a Forbes article titled: Science Shows: Humans Have Massive Capacity For Sustained Attention, And Storytelling Unlocks It, attention comes in various forms: sustained, selective, intentional, and unintentional. Sustained attention, often experienced during deep work or creative flow, allows us to focus for extended periods. However, there’s a stark contrast between actively trying to pay attention and deliberately dividing your attention amidst distraction.


The antidote

There is hope! One of the most powerful mechanisms that has emerged as a potent tool for sustaining attention —according to actual science—is storytelling. When we encounter a story we can relate to, our brains pay attention. We subconsciously grasp onto, and gravitate to the familiar.

Ever found yourself so engrossed in a great movie that a sudden noise jolts you back to reality? That’s immersion, a state of complete captivation. Scientists like Dr. Paul Zak have spent the past two decades studying this phenomenon.

When our brains are actively engaged, we pay more attention and encode more into memory. A good story hooks us with the familiar and then uses novelty as a mechanism to stimulate engagement. Dr. Zak’s research discovered that immersive storytelling triggers the release of oxytocin, an empathy-related chemical in our brains.

When we encounter relatable stories, our brains latch onto the familiar, sustaining our attention. The novelty in stories triggers surprise and delight, while tension incites curiosity and cravings. Weaving these elements together can extend our attention span.


For personal growth

Enhancing attention can be achieved through mindfulness exercises, digital detox, and time management techniques for self-improvement. The School of Business at George Washington University advocates for practices such as meditation, attentive listening, consistent reading, moderate exercise and single-tasking.

Dr. Izzy Justice’s work further emphasises the importance of reducing mind complexity and maintaining a clear target for improved focus. His work in neuroscience and golf demonstrates the role of understanding brain wave frequency in successful putting. His neuro-hacking techniques, while derived from sports, can be applied to everyday situations to improve focus and mental strength.

Let us expand on this neuro-hacking technique:

Regaining Your Focus - NxtGEN Executive Presence

Understanding the nuances of attention and employing strategies to enhance and sustain your audience’s attention can significantly improve your communication. The key lies in harnessing the power of storytelling in professional communication, actively engaging our minds to pay more attention and encode more information into memory, and adopting mindful practices for personal growth. If we fully grasp the potential of storytelling, we might adopt a distinct strategy and stand out from other communicators.


Get in touch

NxtGEN Executive Presence helps leaders establish and develop outstanding story skills that facilitate the most effective communication. With our customised training programs, you can enhance your storytelling skills to become truly impactful and inspiring. We offer simple training solutions that bring tangible benefits. If you’re ready to learn how to harness the power of storytelling for your leadership team get in touch with us here.