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Working Attention Span: We're Losing to Goldfish??

June, 10 2019

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Dr. Brynn
Written By
Dr. Brynn

Why are Goldfish Beating us on Working Attention Span and What does it mean for Productivity, Performance, Motivation?

Attention spans are shortening. This is partly because of changes in technology and the world becoming an increasingly distracting place (a topic for another post soon!), but even before tech was changing so rapidly, humans still had a relatively short attention span - less than the average goldfish!

The average baby boomer American male has about 7 seconds of working attention span, while the average goldfish has about 8. (Don't feel too terrible, as it would turn out, the goldfish has almost no long term memory, so it forgets everything it ever knew at about 27 seconds or so!).

The reason humans have a shorter working attention span is partly because of the very many requirements on the human psyche and cognition - the human brain processes about 200 million bits of information a second (not consciously - thank goodness!) and needs to be able to both code switch, pay attention to many things, and maintain high levels of cognitive activity, which can only be sustained for shorter periods of time (the goldfish meanwhile, doesn't have quite the same cognitive requirements to dedicate energy and attention to).

So, while your body works according to a 'Circadian Cycle' which lasts 24 hours, scientists figured out that your brain actually operates according to something called an 'Ultradian Cycle' which lasts only about 90 minutes total before you need a break (or your stress response starts to increase while your productivity and ability to pay attention decreases).

The following image is a depiction of a theoretical ultradian cycle:

Ultradian Cycle

Here's the the thing - this was true all found to be true as of the 1970's!

Lately, we notice that the rate of walking, talking and typing hasn't just increased on average on a global scale, but as technology has advanced, ultradian cycles have in fact sped up!

What it means, is that our human brains actually need more rests more often, our attention spans have shortened and our ability to stick to a task for very long has decreased!

What does this mean for you and your daily brain-based motivation, productivity, and peak performance?

In order to be more productive, we actually have to plan our work-day according to our Ultradian cycle - we have to plan work for a maximum of 90 minutes at a time, followed by AT LEAST 15 minutes of rest, but with breaks that are no longer than 20 minutes (or we lose the plot and find it harder to get back to work).

Create for yourself both a task-list (things you want to get done) as well as a schedule (when those things will get done) that sticks to 90 minutes of work-time followed by 15 minute rest periods and your brain will be maximally operational, you will get more done in the time you do work, which supplants the lost productivity from your break time. 

But wait, aren't we more productive if we just keep at it and never take breaks at all?

No. After the 90-minute mark your brain fatigues so significantly, that further effort produces diminishing marginal returns - you might as well walk away, because less and less efficacious work gets done as the clock ticks on.

In other #mondaymotivation posts, I have discussed what you should do on your 15-minute breaks (e.g. take a walk, socialize, drink caffeine, meditate, nap, eat etc.) in order to maximize your productivity once back 'on the job'.

Now, for this nugget of truth: All this insight and research is well and great - but likely outdated - after all, the ultradian cycle was discovered and test in the 1970s. The likelihood that you have a full working 90 minutes of productive cognitive attention to dedicate to anything in today's working environments is very low. I'm going to suggest, based on research, that in fact you likely have something much closer to approximately 45 minutes of functional, productive, cognitive attention span, after which point you should probably take a 15-minute break. Try both and let me know how it goes for you!

Happy Monday everybody! See you next week!

#mondaymotivation #motivationmonday #productivity #peakperformance #motivation #brainscience #business #drbrynn #takebreaks #ultradiancycles

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