How long can you stop web browsing to read through the end of this article? Three minutes? Two minutes? Two seconds?

Multiple studies have corroborated our decreasing attention spans during the social media age, but should this really be a cause for concern?  If you can still immerse yourself in deep thought, you’d probably  reach the same conclusions as these studies have shown. Check to see if you can relate to any of these statements:

focus multitasking

Photo by Piotr Bizior

  • You’re attracted to productivity tools such as Evernote, RingCentral, Apple’s Multitasking for all Apps on the iOS7, and the like. In fact, you’ve already subscribed to or downloaded such tools and apps, some of which you don’t even use.
  • Interruptions in the form of constant online chat sessions, phone calls, and emails usually happen in your workflow. You expect yourself to be able to juggle all these random activities all at once.
  • You have multiple tabs open on your browser. You can’t help it…one link just naturally leads to another, and another, and another….
  • People expect you to drop everything you’re doing to respond in real-time to all their online queries.
  • You expect yourself to drop everything you’re doing to respond in real-time to all online queries.
  • Not knowing how many likes, retweets, favorites, or responses your post got is like having an itch that won’t go away. You feel the need to check NOW, regardless of what you’re supposed to be doing.
  • You only read blog entries with 300 words or less… or those with a lot of pictures.

If you find yourself nodding to more than one of these statements, then you’re one of those affected by the pressures that social media and technology have wrought on our attention spans. You can also probably relate to Nicholas Carr, who laments in The Atlantic that his “concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages” of reading a book or article. Not only that; Carr also confesses, “I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”

Multitasking is a desired skill, or is it?

Citing media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Carr emphasizes that media are not just passive channels of information. Media don’t simply supply you with information; they also shape your thought process. Since the Internet swiftly distributes information to you, your mind also expects to take in this information at the same speed. Carr has an apt metaphor for what is happening to his brain: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

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The world passes by in a blur as we rush through our daily tasks

Maybe you’re thinking that this isn’t much of a problem. After all, multitaskers are what companies want nowadays. Everybody is expected to multitask, you think. In fact, your resume proudly proclaims that you’re “adept at multi-tasking” or something of that sort. However, studies show that multitasking could actually be detrimental to you. In the Myth of Multitasking, Stanford psychology professor Clifford Nass says that the top 25 percent of Stanford students use four or more media simultaneously. While writing papers, these students are also texting, visiting social networks, listening to music, etc.  Adds Nass, this is something that didn’t happen to previous generations, even if they did have other distractions such as TV and radio.  Compared to older generations that were exposed to these older technologies, today’s generation owns multiple gadgets that enable them to multitask.  However, these additional paraphernalia also cause extreme distraction.  Nass makes an important distinction between people who multitask and people who rarely do: those who multitask all the time are chronically distracted. They also can’t filter out irrelevant information and can’t manage a working memory. Nass even goes as far as calling people who multi-task as “mental wrecks”, saying that they “initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. And even – they’re even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they’re actually worse at it. So they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

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Does multitasking equal efficiency?

Lest you think that Nass is a lone deviant in this busy multitasking world, you’d find it interesting to learn that other researchers report similar findings.  A statement released by the University of California, San Francisco last 2011 declares, “Researchers know that multitasking negatively impacts working memory in both young and older adults.  However, anecdotal accounts of ‘senior moments’ . . . combined with scientific studies conducted at UCSF and elsewhere indicate that the impact is greater in older people.” Meanwhile, a study by Lloyds TB insurance asserts that the average attention span has been reduced to 5 minutes, down from 12 minutes in 1998. The study also revealed the serious effects of this lack of focus: task performance was affected and the risk of accidents increased.  In fact, the research also showed that in 2007, more than £1.6-billion worth of damage was caused by people not concentrating properly.

It looks as if our inability to focus has spawned problems that we probably fail to notice in our rush to do things quickly and in real-time.  While doing things more efficiently matters, there’s also a need to slow down and reflect if we have ironically become less efficient as a result of our desire to become more efficient.