9 Unexpected Advantages Of Having A Short Attention Span | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement 9 Unexpected Advantages Of Having A Short Attention Span | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement

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9 Unexpected Advantages Of Having A Short Attention Span


“I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austrian Composer of the Classical Era)

“I think the best thing I can do is to be a distraction.” 

Jackie Kennedy (Former U.S. First Lady )

“Creativity is just connecting things.”

Steve Jobs (Co-Founder; Apple Inc.)

 

Be short and selective with your attention.

I felt like a prisoner in pretty much every classroom I ever had to sit in. In high school, I’d sit in the front row in class because that was supposed to help me pay attention better but I’d still end up zoning out after 5 minutes. Sometimes I’d stop zoning out just long enough to write a note to my girlfriend or doodle or look back to at my wrestling buddies and make faces.

In college, I’d sit in 4-hour long science labs and let the overachievers in my group do everything because I hated sharing tasks and workspaces with other people. In graduate school, I’d feel really stupid and guilty when I had to read a journal article 15 times before finally understanding what it was about. My professors told me to read more slowly and thoroughly but that just made me fall asleep. What was wrong with me?

Paying Attention Should Be Hard

Attention spans are not getting shorter, they’re getting more selective. A large survey found that 80% of college students text during class and 15% send 11 or more texts in a single class period. During a recent study, human spies were placed at the back of law school classrooms to record the technological activities of 2nd and 3rd year law students. The spies reported that 58% of students were using their laptops for non-class purposes, like surfing the web or using Facebook, more than half the time. Statistics like these have been used repeatedly to argue that attention spans are getting shorter and that students and people in general are learning less.

Yet, the collective Intelligent Quotient (IQ) of the world continues to increase. This trend has come to be known as the Flynn-Effect. There has been a substantial and longterm increase in multiple types of intelligence test scores that have been continually measured in many parts of the world since the 1930’s. Similar improvements have been reported for both the semantic and episodic memory of these populations. In other words, we are getting smarter and our memories are improving. Why?

9 Advantages Of Paying Less Attention

Attention is money. There’s nothing more valuable than attention in today’s world. As a result, people who are the most selective with their attention are thriving. This means that having a short attention span – refusing to give up your attention to things that don’t matter to you and limiting your attention in environments that don’t fit you – carries with it significant advantages. Here are 9 unexpected benefits of having a short attention span:

1. You’re more committed.

The idea that people who have short attention spans are flaky is a myth.

It’s not that these people can’t pay attention; it’s that they choose to only pay attention to the things that matter to them most.

People with short attention spans are so committed to their biggest goals that they don’t have time to pay attention to things and people who are not a part of their goals. This commitment also makes them more resilient (see #5) and less likely to be manipulated (see #9).

2. You’re more connected

Connectors, not specialists, change the world.

People who have an easy time paying attention to minutia and extremely narrow fields of study are at a disadvantage in today’s world. They’re limited to only seeing what’s right in front of them.

On the other hand, people who have short attention spans are able to pick and choose from numerous fields of study and connect very different ideas in very unusual ways. They are also able to bring very different types of people together to make big things happen.

Steve Jobs wasn’t a particularly great artist, engineer, or designer. But he was able to bring the best artists, engineers, designers, and marketers together to create amazing products and fulfill his vision (see #7).

Richard Branson openly admits that he is horrible with numbers and details, but he is consistently able to bring amazing people together to disrupt the world’s largest industries.

3. You have greater energy levels.

Energy creates interest and interest creates energy.

Whenever I started to take a test in school, my right leg would jitter up and down uncontrollably. I would also chew ravenously through an entire pack of Big Red gum.

I also noticed that my energy levels would shoot through the roof whenever one of my teachers started discussing certain topics that I was really interested in like health, psychology, or entrepreneurship. Usually my teachers put me to sleep.

All of this made me think I had some kind of defect. But then I found out that fidgeting increases dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brains of people with short attention spans. Both of these neurotransmitters have been shown to increase focus.

I also found out that length, familiarity, and repetitiveness of a task decreases focus in people with short attentions spans (see #9). In other words, these people don’t have a defect, they simply choose to tune out when they get bored.

Individuals with short attention spans have tons of energy. But this energy is interest-dependent. If you have a short attention span, channel your energy into the things you’re interested in or rally your interest through physical activity.

4. You’re more flexible.

The shorter your attention span, the more quickly you can adapt to changing circumstances.

People who pay attention to everyone and everything have a disability. They get locked in on one way of doing things and constantly find themselves trapped in dead end positions and stale relationships.

Everything in the world is moving more and more quickly. The only way to keep up is to keep your mind free of clutter. This means being short and selective with your attention.

Stay committed to your principles and biggest goals (see #1), but unattached to processes and other people’s opinions.

5. You’re more resilient.

Juggling numerous ideas (see #7) and projects without occasionally dropping the ball is impossible. Mistakes happen. So do temporary failures. The key is to be able to pick up the balls you drop as quickly as possible and start running with them again right away. This kind of resiliency is something that people with short attention spans excel at.

On the other hand, people who get hyper-focused on irrelevant details or who dive deeply into their emotions after mistakes are doomed to permanent failure. It’s impossible to move ahead when you’re zeroed in on the past.

It should be hard to pay attention to mistakes, failures, negative emotions, and negative people. Don’t let anyone or anything make you feel bad about disregarding past.

6. You are more intelligent.

Intelligent people refuse to pay attention to everything.

Skimming and forgetting things easily — two things often ascribed to people with short attention spans — have been shown to promote rather than inhibit a person’s overall intelligence.

A survey of 900 experts interviewed for a Pew Internet report found that browsing or skimming the Internet enhances human intelligence. The majority of the experts agreed that this kind of short attention span behavior was in fact improving people’s reading and writing abilities, as well as their overall grasp of knowledge.

Albert Einstein famously said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” Einstein was also known to pay people to follow him around to write down his ideas as he thought of them so he wouldn’t have to waste valuable brain space by remembering everything.

Being able to scan the horizon of human knowledge without getting tripped up on details that don’t matter is a critical skill that people with short attention spans can easily master.

7. You have better ideas.

More than anything else, people with short attention spans excel and having incredible ideas. Their ideas are bigger, more abundant, and more novel than the average person’s ideas. This is because they are able to connect things

Consider Albert Einstein again and John Lennon (from The Beatles). Both of these men’s achievements were groundbreaking precisely because of their short attention spans. As Sam Anderson of New York magazine suggests, Einstein and Lennon’s distracted nature is what allowed them to link and synthesize things that had previously been unlinked—Newtonian gravity and particle physics for Einstein, rock and blues and folk and doo-wop and bubblegum pop and psychedelia for Lennon.

Distraction is the mother of invention.

8. You have a bigger vision.

I rarely watch TV but when I do I find myself clicking through every channel at least once to see what all of my options are before settling on a single one.

I do the same thing with the radio in a rental car when I’m driving through a new town. I’ll hit the scan button and (even if I find a good song) I’ll keep scanning until I’ve gone through every station.

This is how people with short attention spans treat life. They’ll constantly scan through everything that’s available, looking for the best ideas, people, and opportunities to pluck up and insert into the vision that they have for their lives (see #2 and #7). As a result, they are able to create and fulfill much bigger visions than the average person.

The only way to maintain a bird’s eye view of the world is to never get stuck focusing too much on one thing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should never care deeply about anything. It means that you should never limit your perspective.

9. You are manipulated less.

Contrary to popular belief, people with short attention spans are more self-aware.

They know what they want and what they’re really interested in and quickly forget anything else as a result. Individuals with this kind of mindfulness carry with them the added bonus of being able to see through people and things that try to manipulate them.

Unlike the average person, people with short attention spans on not easily influenced by marketers and salesmen. They don’t chase shiny objects easily. Just the opposite. They see past shiny objects. They ignore carrots and sticks — the cheap incentives and superficial threats that swindle the average person.

This is why people with short attention spans are often the most successful businessmen, businesswomen, and entrepreneurs. They don’t get stuck seeking approval and chasing other people’s dreams; they chase their own dreams.

Do you have a short attention span? If so, how have you been able to use it to your advantage?

We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below to let us know.

Be specific in your comment because thousands of people visit this blog each week and what you say could be the one thing that helps someone else put their dent in the Universe.

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You Comment, Isaiah Responds

  • Clete Hanson

    Great Article. I definitely carry a few of these habits (radio switching and fidgeting), so its nice to hear how it defines me and can be an advantage, not just something that ruins my pens. Also, I’m enjoying your book, lots of great stuff in there.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Oh trust me…pens will be ruined. Glad you’re enjoying the book!

  • Nicholas Ostrout PhD

    Great stuff Isaiah. I have to admit that I am obsessive when it comes to focusing on a task, although I did pretty much fall asleep in every class in high school and college. I think if I could relax a little, maybe I could pay attention less.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Intense focusing often occurs because you are so committed (#1) to the task at hand, that you choose to give all of your attention to it. Being able to selectively focus is a major advantage.

  • Matthew Hanson

    I can totally relate to this one. My attention span is aweful. While I see a little of all these points in myself, #8 (bigger vision) is spot on for me. I have always had a larger vision than all of my friends. My endpoint is often grandiose, and may seem unrealistic. The thing is. I am well on my way to making my vision happen.

  • James McCracken

    I can really relate to you paying attention in class only when the topic was of interest. I have no idea how many times I heard “you’re so smart, why aren’t you paying attention in my class?” The answer given was usually “I don’t know”, but the real answer was, “because civics is boring”.

    If there is an advantage I see, I think it is the increased flexibility. If anyone thing goes south, or no longer needs to be in the lead, it is very easy for me to switch tasks and do something else. I think it also means that emotionally I am less defeated when any one thing goes bad, as there are other things that still have possibilities.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Not getting too mentally defeated is a major advantage James. Many people let failure get the best of them and are not willing to try again. Being flexible allows you to move on to something else without skipping a beat.

  • Bill

    The only “comment” I remember from a report card was from my fourth grade teacher. She said, “Billy daydreams too much…” Even at the age of 10, I was (secretly) proud of that. I seemed to inherently sense that daydreaming would be more important in my life than anything they could teach me in school. I hated school, found it boring, and though I learned “the three R’s,” I didn’t start learning (and excelling) until I was out of school and pursuing the knowledge I felt was important to me.

    A fellow who was my cameraman for 15 years used to often chastise me for having a short attention span. Your second sentence in this post, “It’s not that these people can’t pay attention; it’s that they choose to
    only pay attention to the things that matter to them most.,” sums it all up for me. I wish I could have articulated this comment to him then!

    Great post, Isaiah!

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Thanks for sharing that Bill! It’s not too late to email your cameraman 🙂

  • Dora Farkas

    Having a very selective attention span is an essential life skill in today’s world. I believe this is a skill which can, and must, be trained for survival in the workplace. Just staying on top of email and answering each one “properly” could eat up most of the workday. (And when you respond to every email people usually reply back to you, creating even more emails to deal with).
    Another challenge is that there are so many projects calling one’s attention that unless you are selective about which ones you attend to and how much energy you expend on it, you will constantly be treading water with little to show for your efforts.
    I think the best way to develop your selective attention is to define your own priorities before you open your email, before you have a meeting with someone and before you embark on any time (and attention)-consuming project.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Exactly Dora! Dividing your attention between numerous tasks causes you to work extremely hard, and have little to show for it. You’re better off selectively focusing on the top priorities and excelling at them. The rest doesn’t matter.

  • Tc Imes

    As a Special Education teacher, I read this and find myself smiling and nodding my head through the entire thing. I think of my students and how often I redirect their fidgeting and/or what I deem as off task behaviors. Unlike Bill’s response of “I don’t know” when asked why they are not paying attention, my students usually get to the point when I ask them…”because this is boring”, “because Suzzy is really pissing me off right now”, “f*** this school”. The responses are classic and endless.
    As the time has passed I have realized that what I deem as off task behavior tends to be an unconscious crutch that they use to help them pay attention for as long as their minds will allow. This usually looks like pacing, fidgeting, standing, etc. It was strange at first to get use to this in my class, but the poor behaviors in my class have dropped significantly and grades have improved as well.
    I’m going to share this article with my students.
    Thanks for the continued motivation.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Thank you for that story Tc, it is really motivating.

  • http://www.1441.us Raphael Ruiz

    But to be able to “play w/in a system” we have to #1, recognize these children, let them know what’s going on in their heads. #2, let them know that its ok to be weird. #3, develop some control techniques and coping mechanisms when the “ants in your pants” make normalcy impossible.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      I agree Raphael. Everyone has quirks, and being able to see them as an advantage helps to cope with them. Weird people succeed more than “cool” people do.

  • Matthew Giulianelli

    I’ve always had a tendency to bounce from one area of interest to another throughout life. One thing I have noticed however is that I’ve always been more committed (#1) and had greater energy (#3) whenever I have felt totally engaged in a project or activity at the time. I also agree that in today’s world, being able to selectively shift focus on what’s important to you and to connect others along the way is vital.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

      Yes, connecting others is extremely vital. Otherwise, you will quickly wear yourself thin.

  • Grey is a Lie

    I really needed this, thanks Isaiah.

    I’ve realized that all these advantages are actually my traits, especially 1-4; And they are the reason I’m a more efficient performer than my superiors that I sometimes end up doing their jobs just so I can be sure it’ll be done right and there won’t be a last minute disruptive rush.

    This has really worked in my favor very nicely coz I’m the first person clients’ would want to talk to. I’m the technical lead in deploying software services but many of the company’s clients always prefer to channel their thoughts and queries through me coz they say I’m very thorough, less intimidating and will explain technical aspects to them in plain English allowing them to be very involved in the whole Project cycle. Apart from my own pleasure at my finished product, the other part of my work I value so much is my clients’ pleasure at the finished product. 🙂

  • Dan Hartman

    Really interesting. I apparently have ADD and have long suspected I got certain advantages from this along with the widely-reported disadvantages. Maybe it’s confirmation bias that makes me like this article so much, but I can say that I strongly agree with points 2 through 8 and somewhat agree with the rest. Have shared this with a few others who apparently have “attention disorders” so hopefully they enjoy the read as much as I did.

    • http://isaiahhankel.com/ Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      I’m glad this resonated with you Dan. Thanks for taking time to share your story here. Try to see your “ADD” as a gift and leverage it hard to get what you want. You’re in charge of your focus, nothing else is.

  • Milarvelo

    An interesting read and it certainly presents some wonderful information.
    In trying to relate this to my own situation, is it possible that someone can have both long and short attention spans?
    While I’ve often felt that as I’ve gotten older my attention span has massively shrunk yet to some degree I feel as though there are times where I am able to focus for an incredible length of time. Could it just be that I actually have a short attention span with wider gaps in between? I’m curious because I think understanding where I’m at currently along with the information in this post will really help me towards becoming the better version of myself and adequately functioning and contributing where I should.

  • http://theinspiredcafe.com/ Dija Henry

    This post made me think of my 8 year old son. He fidgets and walks in class. We’ve been talked to about his attention span daily. But when he’s interested in something, he is amazing at it. He’s very intelligent, kind and insightful. I know he’s destined for great things…but school is a source of frustration for him. Both my husband and I are very creative (I’m an actor/filmmaker. He’s a web developer/musician). I’ve been debating on homeschool because I hate seeing him have so much stress at school every day. This post was very encouraging to me. I wish that schools would get with the program and start getting more creative with education.

  • papers with boxes

    This is so true. I myself have really short attention span and it’s hard to maintain a high gpa when you’re in class for science subjects and Maths. For me, studying for Chemistry is the hardest and I can see now why while I was reading this article. It is true that I get easily distracted in Chemistry class because I was daydreaming but really – I don’t see how it is practical in any way in my life. Lab sessions are usually short and in no way it helps me to learn more. Instead, during lab sessions, they are to be done fast and memorising facts while answering post lab questions (and working on the report). That’s why, I don’t see the practicality of Chemistry unless I dive down into it for a degree but in now way it’s going to happen.

    Having short attention span is also a reason for me to be very interested and invested in psychology, literature, languages, life science, political studies, history, coding and games. I see the practicality and they’re fun as you dive deeper into the topic particularly. I also love writing, drawing and painting as they’re fun and there’s no rule to it.

    Last but not least, YES, I get back up again after an hour of crying if something really bad happened to me. I just don’t lose the motivation to achieve my goals and instead, receive more from it. I become so determined and motivated and just strong willed that it is impossible to push me down again.

    Great post, Dr. Isaiah!

  • Dory

    I’m 19, high school dropout. I have ADHD and cant get any degree, and without a degree I can’t get anywhere in Holland. My attention span doing most things is literally 5 seconds, I got the nickname dory for that 😛

    In class I was mostly just sleeping or daydreaming. It was too damn boring, mandatory remembering information that I would barely ever use in my adult life, for years, just ruined my childhood.

    What I have found is that I’m very good at seeing in the shadows. Or really, really fast decision making. People always compliment me for my quick straight to the point thinking but in my head it’s the complete opposite, they just see the ideas that come out, not all the noise and chaos inside.
    I’m also a big trouble seeker, always in for a thrill. Can have extreme tunnel vision (which is fun doing extreme sports)

    In this society I experience ADHD as a motivation problem, small simple task can cost me loads of energy because I don’t like ’em. Even though I was 200% commited to get my degree I couldn’t do it. If I lived in prehistoric times I would be very succesful, in this world ADHD is just a major setback.

  • Mohammad Jiblawi

    i’m an 22 year old male and I disagree with your claims. Let me explain:

    almost all of these claims are false in my case. I have ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder) and one of the greatest problems i face until today is my short attention span.
    I almost quit writing this review more than 3 times while writing it.

    i do have more energy than the average adult male, but i don’t have any of the left 8 advantages mentioned earlier. I feel pain, i get disgusted with myself, every time i have an “Episode” i break down, my life is a mess, i can’t make my own decisions, my alleged “Friends” think i am stupid and even talking to me is a waste of time. i get distracted very easily, i can’t focus in a conversation for more than 3 seconds. i might focus for more than a minute if i try m best to focus and then that is it. my grades in any class or registry always start high and then drop as i lose interest in the subject. i can barely focus in class for more than 20 minutes. i have tried various medications, and almost all of them made my case worse. i have a reduced frontal cortex size, and i my brain processing power is below average at best. i have to get by just by working my hardest and most of the time that is just not enough.

    i get emotional when sad music plays, and feel nothing when an aunt dies or a close one is diagnosed with an incurable disease eating at them slowly over time.
    i feel bad. for me, life is not fair. for me, being “normal” is an advantage.
    writing my final words down, my brain started to hurt. i just … can’t.

    • Maximilian Brown

      Im pretty sure adhd is pretty different from add which I think this article is more attuned to.

      I have a friend with adhd and he had a really hard time growing up, but he’s in his early 30s now with business awards and is a pretty successful entrepreneur. I asked him what he does when he gets distracted and he said “I just let it go.” He just lets himself go on whatever tangent his mind wants to take him on. I don’t think he sleeps much, but he’s making things work in his own way with his own traits, and I think you can too. Keep experimenting and keep talking to (the right) people.