I'm starting to get alarmed about my ever-shrinking attention span. When you combine my gnat-like attention span with the creeping complexity of life and my infinite to-do list it renders simple tasks impossible.

For example, every now and then I have to write an old-timey check. The entire process takes less than a minute, but I can't concentrate long enough to fill in the date and amount without my mind wandering and my hand doing automatic writing on whatever topic is passing through. About one-third of my checks these days look like this:

Date: 4/17/14

Amount: 170.25

Written amount: one-hundred Game of Thrones who is texting me?

I have about seven unrelated thoughts before I finish the check-writing process and every one of them is more engaging than what I'm supposed to be doing. I literally can't focus long enough to finish a one-minute process. It is simply too boring when compared to the stimulation of life.

Recently I decided to learn drumming by using video lessons on the Internet. I fire up the video, grab my sticks and wait to be shown something useful. Instead, the drum instructor starts talking about. . . his feeling about drumming... what he used to find challenging but doesn't anymore...Game of Thrones, who is texting me? I literally can't last long enough to get to the part where he hits something. I bail out, promising myself I'll have better focus another time.

I have about a dozen computer-related problems that I'm capable of solving if I could focus on them. But they aren't quite important enough compared to the rest of my priorities and I don't have enough attention span anyway. Some solutions are as simple as Googling how to stop expired software from begging for a renewal. Some involve Norton Internet Security working on one browser and not another, and so on. All are easily fixable with a tiny bit of focus. But I don't have a tiny bit of focus. So my computer operates like the economy of Greece.

For years I have referred to my smartphone as a time machine. When I'm in a long line for something, for example, I fast-forward to the future by checking email, Facebook, Internet news sites and whatnot. Suddenly I'm at the front of the line and I'm not aware of the passage of time. This method also worked at red lights back in the days when texting and driving still seemed like a good idea.

As a result of all the baseline stimulation in my life, I can't stand as much as a few seconds of boredom. For example, I have a technical glitch with my TV setup that causes the screen to blank when the signal changes from a commercial to a show. I know the solution, but it would take up to five minutes to implement it. So it won't happen. And every time the black screen occurs, my first thought - no kidding - is to wonder what-the-hell I'm going to do with myself for three seconds. It seems like mental torture. And keep in mind that I'm always working on my computer or drawing while the TV is on. It's still not enough.

All of this makes me curious how kids can get through homework in the year 2014. I assume technology has shortened their attention spans too, and kids don't have much to start with. I can't imagine I would be able to finish high school in this day and age.

Are there any studies that show the impact of smartphones on school performance? I'm getting close to the opinion that kids shouldn't have access to full-service smartphones during the school year. But I'd need some hard data to confirm that opinion. Does it exist?


Scott Adams

Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of the best graduation gift ever.



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+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 26, 2014
Good article! I enjoyed the first 5-6 words anyway (then I sort of wandered off).
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 21, 2014
Scott: Nicholas Carr's book on this subject, "The Shallows", is fascinating reading. I managed it even though halfway through every page I wondered if I should check my email.
Apr 21, 2014
Hmmm. Lie down on this couch, Mr. Adams. So tell me, Mr. Adams, how long have you hated your mother?

Hmmm. I see. And how does that make you feel?

I have a diagnosis, Mr. Adams. You are a victim of DGS. That is, Delayed Gratification Syndrome. It's a relatively new syndrome, as I just made it up. You see, Mr. Adams, you have had too much success in your life. You now look for reasons to delay your success wherever you can find it.

Completing a task has become an anathema to you. Once a task is successfully completed, it becomes another thing in your past. The longer you can delay gratification by completing tasks, the more you have to look forward to in the future.

This is often the case with, for example, authors whose books have not had the success they expected. They develop a tendency to stop completing tasks, both for fear of not having the result meet their expectations, and to delay that good feeling they will get when a task reaches completion.

Not to worry, Mr. Adams. We can cure you of that. I'd recommend three hours a week at $1500 per hour, for the next two or three years. By the time you get done with our therapy, your problem will be behind you.

See you soon, Mr. Adams. My couch is always open.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 19, 2014
Hey, Robonaut is getting legs. One small step for a robot, another small step for mankind.
Apr 19, 2014
At rushing life, I'm shifting from amateur to pro-athlete.
What you described happens to me, too. I guess I'm maybe even deeper down the rabbit hole.

I can't let go and relax to follow an entire episode of - say - Game of Thrones, without doing something else at the same time and also skipping those parts that appear to be obvious (even if they are not.. the time I spare feels worth trying to feel the blanks).
Nowadays, I mostly listen to TV Series, to the point of wishing they were radio dramas.

Few things are good enough to get my full attention, but there still are and they do.

My attention span is actually as strong as ever, but it's also constantly arguing with a persistent sense of urgency: I work and execute much faster than I used to, if I feel like it.
But for most things, I just don't.

Many aspects of life feel too slow to bear, so I just speed 'em up.
When I can't, I procrastinate till they are so urgent that I need to rush them like there was no tomorrow.

I tried to speed up relax, too. That hurt. I forced myself to respect that.

Right now I'm finding a balance... I'm not sure if this is sickness or just our brain train to adapt to a foolishly vast amout of possibilities.

But I feel like trying to become good at this has made me much happier than trying to escape it.

Apr 18, 2014
[All of this makes me curious how kids can get through homework in the year 2014. I assume technology has shortened their attention spans too, and kids don't have much to start with. I can't imagine I would be able to finish high school in this day and age.]

Apr 18, 2014
What you describe looks like akrasia and even if not completely the same, it may be solved by the following technic (taken from lesswrong, which I am not affiliated in any way, but love to read)

Increasing Value

It's hard to be motivated to do something that doesn't have much value to us - or worse, is downright unpleasant. The good news is that value is to some degree constructed and relative. The malleability of value is a well-studied area called psychophysics, and researchers have some advice for how we can inject value into necessary tasks...

More on
Apr 18, 2014
That's just weird, dude.

I guess most people would describe that as ADD, though I'm not sure if ADD is a thing that you suddenly come down with as an adult (and there's still murmurings out there most "cases" of ADD are just young boys being normal young boys). Is ADD a thing you can train yourself into by pulling out your smart phone as a diversion at any slightest moment of impatience?

As for the eternal problem of "kids these days", I refer back to your original book, the Dilbert Principle, and its talk of deviant smart people that built the world. I think kids are mostly the same in any era, some are going to be naturally attentive or smart and some are going to be distracted and more skilled in less academic tasks. Technology is just an alternate outlet to playing in the mud by the river or kicking balls around or whatever it is kids used to do. I've read about "kick the can" in novels set in the "good old days". Kick the can. That's what you do when the best entertainment you can afford is something pulled from the garbage pile. Maybe creativity is a lost art among kids these days because they don't have to be creative to keep themselves busy. Who knows if that does or doesn't lead to less ability to be creative as an adult. People have never been all equally creative anyway.

So I'm not sure if we can really affect kids that much or not. The ones that have the most potential anyway, you probably can't screw up too badly with something so trivial.
Apr 18, 2014
I had a college professor teach me a very useful trick and I still employe it daily. Put everything below your level of awareness except what you're focusing on. It helps with communicating with people as well. It helps with listening to what someone is saying rather than preloading a response.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 18, 2014

What? I'm sorry, I wasn't listening.

>>Numerous studies give credence to Hunt's concern. One Pew Research Center poll that surveyed 2,500 teachers found 87 percent of them felt modern technologies created an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” A 2012 study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, reported that 71 percent of 685 older and younger teachers surveyed said they thought technology—TV shows, video games, texting, and social networking—was hurting attention span “somewhat” or “a lot.” Sixty percent said it stalled students’ ability to write and communicate face-to-face.

Numerous studies? A Poll of what people feel is now a 'Study'?
Apr 18, 2014
You seem to be producing a comic strip every day, and I'm sure that takes more than 10 seconds. How do you focus on that? Think about that, and attempt to apply it to the rest of your life.
Apr 17, 2014
Sounds like you only have attention deficit when it comes to things you think are boring. Some people's minds love information and in the modern era, you can get it. I love my smart phone because if I have an idea or want some info, I can look it up IMMEDIATELY. It's immediate gratification for the brain. I also hate it when people/videos rambling on and on about boring stuff instead of getting right to the point, but so many people do that, I guess there must be a lot of people who like that kind of thing. Anyway, the thing is, if you do this hyper active brain thing day in and day out all year, year after year, it's like giving crystal meth to the energizer bunny, you start to lose control of the steering and your brain is all over the place. To be balanced, the rest of you needs some time off from your hyper active brain from time to time and your hyper brains needs a rest from itself. I really suggest you try meditation. If the thought of doing something that is similar to nothing for a whole 30 minutes scares the bejeezus out of you, then all the more reason you will want to do it. You'll learn a lot about yourself when you do.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2014
The worst omission from one third of your checks is my name.
Apr 17, 2014

As the guy who's behind you in that line, let me say that NO ONE should have a smartphone at any point in their life. I'm tired of CFs (clueless F&#$s) who get to the front of the line (after waiting 5 minutes) and still don't know what they want, and in that 5m of waiting it never occurred to them that they might actually have to pay for whatever they're ordering so then we all have to wait a little longer while they rummage thru their purse or open their wallet. Worse yet, the person who's in line in front of you, using their smartphone to ask their friends/family/co-workers what they should buy, either for themselves or to bring back with them. These types of smartphone-induced behaviors should be considered grounds for "justifiable homicide".

Most people don't have 2 neurons to rub together, much less devote to a smartphone and any other activity. I can't even remember the last time I sat in a business meeting with more than 4 people when at least 1 of the attendees wasn't checking their cellphones or using their tablets (for non-meeting related activities). What's worse is that this type of behavior is now the cultural norm, even though their lack of attention means the meetings always run long, because those who weren't paying attention ask questions that have already been answered.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2014
Practice, practice, practice. You need to find things that require you to focus for periods of time. If you find the phone distracting then put in the bedroom. The messages will be there when you retrieve it later.

You focus during tennis don't you? I'll find myself engrossed in some project or another for long minutes and when I finally come out of it I realize my phone is somewhere else.
Apr 17, 2014
Scott, intelligent people have minds hungry for new information like a cat has more interest in moving objects over stationary objects.
Now that humans have more sources of all the information in the world, those that have brains that are capable of absorbing and processing more information will.
I think seeking new current information and experiences is a good "problem" to have.
Apr 17, 2014
Here's my worst example of being easily distracted. I was getting ready to go to work, and went to put on my watch (yes, I'm old and still wear one). In the time it took me to pick up the watch and lay it across my wrist, I became distracted, let go of it and reached for something else before fastening it. It hit the floor and the crystal cracked. Ugh!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Apr 17, 2014
Attention can be trained.
Don't let your brain go to pieces.
Apr 17, 2014
I share your problem but not its intensity, and not it's "cause". I am not ADD-like because I am bored. I have a lot of thins that interest me and so I try to task-switch (since multitasking is fairly rare). somewhere the multitasking gets...confusing. But then, I'm old.
Apr 17, 2014
Here is an article that appears researchy, if you can bring yourself to read something from Huffington Post. It was linked from a different site; I swear I don't actively read articles from that site. The author is a pediatric occupational therapist, but she cites her own research a few times. Honestly most of the article doesn't really speak to your actual question, but the first two paragraphs seem relevant. Also, the table at the end is interesting. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cris-rowan/10-reasons-why-handheld-devices-should-be-banned_b_4899218.html
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