For most of human history, access to information has been limited. People could not read, and education was a luxury. During the past century or so, this has changed dramatically. Today more people are educated, and we have almost limitless access to information thanks to the internet. However, the problem is that we cannot handle so much information. We are bombarded with a wealth of information, but we have the same amount of processing power as we have always had. Add to that the fact that the number of minutes and hours in a day have also stayed exactly the same.

Too much information, too little time, and a mental processor that cannot keep up leads to what Herbert A. Simon describes as a “bottleneck” in human thought. There are simply too many things competing for our attention. Research shows that the average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. A recent study found that the average human attention span has fallen from 12 seconds in 2000 (which happens to be around the time that smartphones hit the scene) to eight seconds today. In comparison, scientists believe that the goldfish has an attention span of nine seconds. We are constantly being bombarded by texts, tweets, push notifications, ads, Facebook posts, emails, and more, and our brains are becoming hooked onto all these stimuli. We crave more and more new information, and it can be difficult to pay attention to any one thing for very long. Forget about the argument in favour of multitasking. Enough research has been done to indicate that people cannot in fact attend fully to multiple things simultaneously. Someone may have their phone out while they are watching television, but if they divert their attention to, say, a social media stream, they will miss some of what happened in the TV show.

We need to wake up to the fact that our attention has now become a commodity in this information age. The so-called attention economy has been one of the biggest tech stories of our time. The internet has an insatiable appetite for eyeballs and brains. There is fierce competition for one of the most valuable assets we have – our attention- and we should start treating it as such.

We need to pay attention to what we are paying attention to. Take note of the word ‘pay’ here. We need to realise that there is some sort of exchange happening. It is much like when we pay too much for an item only to realize it was not worth the money. Perhaps we should start to become more discerning about where we put our attention. Attention is like a magnifying glass. The more attention we devote to something, the larger it becomes. The choice is ours. What are we prepared to pay attention to these days, and how much are we prepared to spend? The final sobering question should always be, is it worth it? What is the payoff for me? Is it leaving me in a better emotional state.? Am I feeling happier, more empowered, safer, and more optimistic? Am I wiser? Does it make my soul sing? If the answer is no, then all the more reason to pay attention to what we are paying attention to.

“Give whatever you are doing and whoever you are with the gift of your attention.” -Jim Rohn