3rd August 2017 by Malcolm Allison
I can think of no better way to start a blog on the topic of focus, than the apocryphal story of the goldfish.
In the middle of 2015, TIME magazine published an article by Microsoft about the diminishing attention span of today’s youth. They spiced up the story by comparing the attention span of young adults to that of the goldfish. Allegedly, a goldfish can remain focused for 9 seconds, the young adult for only 8. It turns out the comparison is even more unfavourable (the goldfish has a much longer period of attention). It is interesting that the Canadian authors of this study blame the Internet, so perhaps my distrust of social media is not just paranoia.
At the other extreme of attention, lies the concept of slowness. I need to introduce you to another book. The Discovery of Slowness, by Sten Nadolny, is a novel based on the life of an English explorer named John Franklin. Franklin was renowned for taking a little time before responding, as well as focusing on the exact problem, exploring the solutions before acting.
It is a gift from my parents that I am able to grasp things fairly quickly. Like most of those who will read this blog, I can take a perfunctory look at the data, and make a reasonable fist of an answer. We used to call this busking. Others think we are actually multi-tasking.
Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that it is a fallacy to say that we can multi task. There is some elegant research at MIT by Professor Earl Miller, who proved that our brains have bottlenecks where only one activity can be processed at a time, so we prioritise; we oscillate very rapidly between a number of concepts and impulses, so that it appears we are performing more tasks at the same time. We get away with it because our correspondents are also juggling too many things, and make assumptions, like Gestalts, as to our real intent. As life moves on so quickly, there is never the need to go back and check. We rely on the strength of the tide to erase all traces of our activity before anyone realises we were wrong. It would be rude to go back and we might miss the next great thing.
Those who make a real difference are the people who recognise this fallibility and focus intently, thinking through the consequences before acting. One of the most famous recent exponents of this was Steve Jobs. I think we are all familiar with his creativity but I would prefer to pick up on his obsession with typeface and on simple pure design, with no extravagant or superfluous elements. He kept asking the same questions until perfection was achieved.
I know that my own performance is on another level when I sit down and concentrate on the task in hand. It has taken me more than an hour to complete this blog. I wasted the first 30 minutes because I was vacillating. My blog was in competition with BBC sport, as I tried to influence the game between Leeds and Fulham (unsuccessfully) but for 30 minutes after the game this was the only thing on my mind. I hope it gives you a couple of minutes light relief and I hope you check out Nadolny. I am pretty sure you will find it with Google on your iPhone. There is probably even a review on Facebook.
Oh. I have focused on goldfish and I have some news, or rather the BBC has some news. In an article on the series ‘more or less’ they debunk the theory completely. Apparently attention span is task specific, and goldfish have good memories. In fact they are a model system for learning and memory formation and have been the subject of memory experiments for more than a century. If you needed more proof of the importance of focus, I give you the goldfish.