You probably have a shorter attention span than a goldfish

I was a participant in a conference a few weeks ago and there was someone sitting at my table who inspired me to write this blog. You see, they couldn't sit still and focus for literally more than a few minutes at a time.

Take some notes, check mobile for email.

Pretend to listen to presenter, check mobile again. This time LinkedIn, then Twitter.

More pretending to be present. Then mobile, again. Toggle. Swipe. Tap. Snap.

I reflected on why they were even attending. Then I thought about a concerning trend that I'm sure you've noticed as well. Our attention spans are getting shorter, and shorter. Our inability to focus is defining our relationships, our work and our inability to connect with the present moment. Like handymen walking around a renovation site filling up all of the cracks, we fill up the cracks in our diaries with meetings, with email, with social media, with noise.

Something fishy

You'd be better off employing a goldfish.

A recent article in Time outlines a survey by Microsoft showing since the year 2000, the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds, one second less than a goldfish (the little fishes can focus for nine seconds). The researchers hypothesise the incoming streams of information from multiple screens and your phone (what I refer to as a weapon of mass distraction) causes us to fragment attention. We may be able to consume more knowledge, and multi-task slightly better, but at the cost of diminishing attention span.

OK, so where was I? My phone just rang and I totally lost focus.

Distractify me

While distractions can be tolerated during simple tasks such as email, it totally compromises your ability to complete high level cognitive tasks. You know, the stuff that matters – the real work. That thing you call 'your job'.


This distraction renaissance reminds me of one of my 8 year old daughter's favourite poems.

Goldfish, goldfish

Swimming all around.

Goldfish, goldfish

Never makes a sound.

Pretty little goldfish

Never can talk.

All it does is wiggle

When it tries to walk.

If we asked that same goldfish to spend a day observing the average modern day worker and the way they behave, the poem would probably go like this.

Human, human

Darting all around.

Human, human

Never doing anything profound.

Distracted little human

Doing all you can to shirk.

All it does is toggle

When it tries to work.

But all is not lost, and there's no need to concede defeat against your digital devices. Becoming aware of the lure of technology and its impact on your productivity is the first step. The next step is to rebuild the way you set up your working week. And there are five MUST DO'S that help you focus better than a fish.

Five productivity big rocks

There is a famous Steven Covey story where he spoke about putting together a fish tank. When you go to a pet food shop you buy the tank, big rocks, gravel, sand, a floaty thing and of course, the little gold fish. I'm about to ask the obvious: but what is the best way to assemble the tank? Of course first you put in the big rocks, then the gravel, the floaty thing, sand, water then your little fishy.

The problem with the way so many people operate in this new world of work is that we first flood the tank (call this your diary) with water (let's call this email), then we squish in the sand (we'll call that meetings), then if we have any capacity left over we try and squeeze in the big rocks with much needed time (but all too often nowhere near enough) to think, to plan, to be creative, and to get into flow (working without distractions).

The last few years I've been teaching my executives a simple, yet profound process, when it comes to being productive and putting the big rocks in first.

1. Weekly plan

At the start of the week (I suggest a Sunday arvo or first thing Monday morning), spend 45 to 60 mins looking at the week ahead and getting ready for the important 'performance moments' coming up (these include meetings, presentations, one on ones, proposals due).

2. Team meeting

Lock in 30 to 45 minutes (avoid 60 minute meetings like the plague) where you and your key team members talk through the week ahead and the best use of resources, main goals for the week. Try and anticipate any challenges that might arise. I like doing this first thing on a Monday morning.

3. Daily warm up

Just like an athlete warming up before a competition, you can't be expected to press a button and expect your brain to dive into focused work. And if you have been on email, social media and news feeds that morning, you consciously need to put a hard stop in your diary and sit down for five to 10 minutes with a mindful approach to the day ahead. Ask questions like:

  • What is the best use of my time today
  • What are the four or five tasks I need to complete?
  • Who do I need to connect with today?
  • How do I best prepare for 'performance moments' throughout the day?

4. Forced Isolation

FI is the concept of cocooning yourself for two to three hours (I'd settle for 60 to 90 minutes if you're really busy, or if you find it too difficult to concentrate for longer periods) and focusing on high level cognitive tasks, without distraction. Turn your mobile onto silent, disconnect from the internet if you have to and get into flow and think, plan, strategise, create and do. The reality is most office workers these days have NFI – No Forced Isolation.

5. Rear view mirror

I've only added this recently. At the end of the week (Friday for most people) lock 60 to 90 minutes in your diary and look back at all of the meetings, presentations, sales calls that you had. Have you followed up and sent everything you said you would? What is the next action?

Looking in the rear view mirror at the end of the week helps you have a proper weekend (not a weekend catching up on email and unfinished tasks) without constantly thinking about work. It also sets you up to have a relatively blank canvas when you start work the following week.

What tips have you learned along the way to help you stay focused? Let Andrew know in the Comments section.

Workplace performance expert Andrew May is a Partner at KPMG Performance Clinic, a best-selling author and keynote speaker. He has spent the past 20 years helping business leaders and their teams improve performance, productivity and wellbeing.

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