The Big Cost of a Short Attention Span

by Neal Frankle, CFP ®

I’ll admit that I have a short attention span. You might have a short attention span too. According to Wikipedia* the average person has an attention span of about 8 seconds. That’s a frightening statistic. It’s actually a miracle that anybody ever gets anything done if you think about it. On the other hand, consider how much we could get done if we could just focus a little longer.

The Expensive Price Tag of a Short Attention Span

I think I can illustrate how costly this is by sharing a story with you. I was chatting with Ron, a bright successful young man a few days ago. We got to talking about personal finance and he asked me if I knew of any good retirement calculators. He was frustrated by the planning tools he found on the web.

I suggested he use my Roadmap to Retirement Calculator (still in Beta). I explained that it provided a lot more information than the typical calculators all over the web. He seemed really interested……until he discovered there were 30 questions. At that point, he told me he didn’t have the time. Then he went back to his Sudoku puzzle and we didn’t have much more to say to each other.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Sudoku as much as the next Pilgrim. But how could Ron have such little time to create a financial plan when he had so much time for games? Had Ron been willing to sacrifice 10 or 20 minutes of his Sudoku bliss, he could have had a much better understanding of what he could do to significantly improve his finances. And this was all available at no charge. Certainly that would be a good trade off….right?

In a perfect world, of course it would have been a good trade off. But in the world we live in, most people prefer to entertain themselves rather than do something good for themselves and others. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

But we don’t really have a global attention span problem. We have an attention span problem when it comes to those activities we identify as not being fun. When we have something to do that’s fun, most of us can stay at it all day long. Am I right?

The Solution

If you want to be more productive, the solution of course is to just stay focused. But just telling someone to focus isn’t any help. Words alone won’t make a difference. The only way to really stay focused is to have a different mindset. If you are about to start a job that you think is drudgery, you haven’t got a chance. As soon as the first slightly entertaining escape presents itself you’ll abandon your important task faster than you can say “Words with Friends”.

So what is the solution?

As I said, you need a new mindset. My suggestion is to not do anything unless you can find some way to associate pleasure with the task itself. Let’s go back to Ron my Sudoku loving friend.

When he had the opportunity to run the kind of plan he wanted to run, the first thing that came into his mind was probably all the work he would have to do (answer those pesky 30 questions). Of course, the work wouldn’t stop there. Once he saw the types of questions being asked, I’m sure the thought of all the changes the plan would ask him to make to his financial lifestyle. If I’m right and all those thoughts really did enter his mind, it is any wonder that he balked? Who wouldn’t want to get away from such a punishment?

But what if Ron would have stopped and thought about the plan in a different way? What if he would have thought about all the short attention spanfreedom he was going to attain by doing that plan? What if he thought about how good he’d feel once he became free from debt? What if he shut his eyes and imagined the wonderful sense of control over his financial life that was waiting for him? My guess is that if Ron thought about the plan this way, nothing could have stood in the way of him doing that plan and implementing the ideas behind it.

I realize that this is a process and that very few of us are able to do. It’s hard to fight our natural impulses to A) automatically associate work with negativity and B) look for the easiest way out possible. That’s exactly why I’m writing this post.

I want you to try something. Think about the day ahead. Pick out the task you least want to do. Next, write down 3 fun things that you associate with having done that task. Then see if it helps expand your attention span.

Do you think this will work? If not, what are your suggestions? Do you struggle with a short attention span like me? What does it cost you?

*http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attention_span

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