It is often said that our attention spans have been getting shorter due to all the information at our fingertips, especially now with our cell phones always near at hand. We keep getting distracted by new notifications and new headlines, so we skim and skip instead of read in depth.
And the content is starting to adapt. I first saw tl;dr (too long, didn’t read) on Reddit, to summarize a post that was sort of longish, but I am seeing it crop up in various articles and blog posts online now. Even books are starting to be snippet-format, with short 2-3 page chapters before moving on to the next topic.
I thought I was somehow immune to this attention-shortening phenomenon, until recently, when I took a break from Reddit.
I stumbled on Reddit maybe a year ago and got hooked on the Ask Reddit thread pretty quickly. I liked the interesting questions and the (mostly) fascinating, funny, smart answers. Since there were always new questions and new replies to check out. I quickly became obsessed. I kept scrolling and scrolling, looking for the dopamine hit I would get from finding that next laugh, that next heartfelt story, that next smart play on words. If I started reading something that didn’t look promising, I quickly moved on. If you don’t know about Reddit, it’s pretty fragmented in itself. Short answers and even shorter responses. Hence the tl;dr. People don’t want to read anything that is too long.
I was on Reddit pretty much every spare minute of the day for a while: while brushing my teeth, while toweling off after a shower, while waiting for the dog to do his business, while waiting for a friend to show up. I read before bed, sometimes deep into the night, and then I would grab my phone if I woke up at any point. When that happened, I could easily read for two hours before attempting sleep again. I started waking up super groggy, with my head buzzing. And even then, if I had a few minutes, instead of napping, I would read in bed before getting up. It was getting way out of hand. In addition to seriously affecting the quality of my sleep and consequently my whole day, I had not read a full book in ages when I used to devour a few a month.
I snapped out of it this summer, in a house my family and I had rented for vacation. We discovered a closet full of books for guests to read and my eye quickly fell on a Stephen King book I hadn’t read yet. I LOVE Stephen King. I had four days to read this book if I wanted to finish before we left, so I got cracking. The phone got put aside. Even sleep got put aside as I read far into the night, completely absorbed. For the first time in a long time, I was completely immersed. In one story, one subject. Whole sentences and paragraphs and chapters, lots of them. It felt great. It was coherent. I was back.
I have been Reddit-free for three weeks and I don’t particularly miss it, which was surprising. I thought I would feel compelled to catch up. As could be expected, I am sleeping much better. I am waking alert and ready to take on the day. Since I am not reading every time I have a minute, my brain has some free space to work out problems, remember things and daydream. I have been reading books again. And best of all, my head has stopped buzzing and looking for that next hit. It really was an addiction. Hard to see while you’re deep in it, but very obvious when you get out.
Since I was doing so well, I decided to “allow” myself to go on Reddit on a Friday night before bed. Bad idea! I read into the wee hours of the morning, waking up tired and grumpy, and spent the rest of the weekend finding every excuse to check for the next thing. I guess it will be cold turkey for me!
The lesson? Be aware of how your attention span might be eroding and take steps to remedy it. Are you distracted by every notification? Shut them off so you can concentrate for given stretches of time. Find yourself skipping anything but the shortest articles? Challenge yourself to an in-depth one once in a while. Constantly checking your Facebook? Use a timer, if you must. You can still enjoy the Internet and the phone, just stay aware. Good luck!
“We all understand the joys of our always-wired world — the connections, the validations, the laughs, the porn, the info. I don’t want to deny any of them here. But we are only beginning to get our minds around the costs, if we are even prepared to accept that there are costs. For the subtle snare of this new technology is that it lulls us into the belief that there are no downsides.”
Congrats to those who read this whole thing!