Have you ever heard the phrase “attention span of a goldfish”? Maybe it seems like something mostly applicable to teenage boys, but did you know that it actually applies to the majority of the human race? The attention span of the average human is around eight seconds, and the goldfish has an attention span of approximately nine seconds. We have grown used to being constantly stimulated, and can’t go more than eight seconds without that stimulation.
Choosing the More Pleasant Task
When struggling to keep our attention on something, our brain senses that we don’t understand what’s going on; for example, when reading a particularly difficult textbook, or trying to figure out a tricky puzzle. We all dislike the feeling of failure, and it’s hard for us to continue to struggle with a difficult task for a long time without seeing positive results. Whenever the feeling of frustration kicks in, we’re tempted to drop the frustration-inducing task, and switch our attention to a more pleasant “task”—such as scrolling through our Facebook feed. How many hours of your life have you already wasted scrolling on your phone, or zoned out in the car? But working through difficult tasks and increasing your attention span can be incredibly healthy for your spiritual life, whether it’s in paying attention at church or staying committed to your marriage.
In a stressfully busy world where attention span has dramatically decreased, experiencing each moment fully—whether you’re folding laundry or worshipping at church—can be a challenge. Recognizing our terribly low attention tolerance and focusing on each moment can be incredibly advantageous to our mental and spiritual health. By doing this one can seriously improve the small moments of day-to-day life. As Christians, our call is not only to recognize and focus on the “big picture” of attaining eternal salvation, but also to concentrate on making each moment of our lives focused on living as a child of God. These small moments are what will lead us to heaven.
Living in the Moment
Our brains are wired to make habits. The more you give in to giving up, the more your attention span decreases. As with anything that requires practice, the less you use certain areas of the brain, the more they lose their ability to function properly. As far as attention span goes, people such as contemplative Buddhists or Catholic nuns have actually been found to have highly active and well-functioning prefrontal cortices – the area of the brain responsible for paying attention – versus those of us who never engage in paying attention for long periods of time. If you put effort into paying attention for a significant period of time (even ten minutes—remember, you’re at approximately eight seconds now) your attention span will increase as your prefrontal cortex grows stronger.
A second important aspect is making each moment count—but first, understand that making every moment count does not mean being productive every moment of the day. Unfortunately, society places too high a value on usefulness, and while relaxation is an essential aspect of mental health, it’s just not something we place importance on in day-to-day life. This constant pressure to be productive leads to a stressed, rushed lifestyle: a lifestyle that does not allow for living in the moment.
The question posed to me that began this thought process was, “Do you wash the dishes to have clean dishes, or do you wash the dishes to wash the dishes?” I automatically answered, “to have clean dishes.” That’s the point of dishwashing, right? Wrong. With the attitude of always working for some future goal—washing dishes to have clean dishes, folding laundry to have neat clothes, walking to the mailbox to get the mail—an attitude of living in the present can never truly be fostered.
Consider this: you will continue to have to-do lists for the rest of your life. The thought of going through life with each day’s main purpose being to cross things off of a list, only to fill it up again each day and start the entire process over again, is seriously depressing. Resolve to stop completing tasks just to “get it out of the way.” Every single thing you are able to do each day is a blessing, a gift from God, something you could not do if he had not allowed it.
Stop and Focus
Psychologically, our brains are wired to notice and react to any stress in our lives. Ignoring what’s going on in the moment is like trying to put off getting out of bed in the morning. The longer the alarm clock continues to beep, the more irritated you become, until you finally get out of bed and turn it off. (Let’s keep the snooze button out of the equation.) In the same way, acknowledging the emotions our brains are conveying to us is the only way to send the “message received” signal to the brain.
Our thoughts and emotions don’t like to be ignored. With this in mind, the next time you are engaged in a simple task you normally rush through, stop and focus. It could be an exercise as simple as invoking the use of all five of your senses. What does the water feel like on your hands? How does the soap smell? What can you hear? In this way, a task as simple and mundane as washing the dishes can become an opportunity for peace and gratitude. This attitude towards life leads to a decrease in anxiety and stress. Not being attentive to your experiences decreases mental well-being.
Life should not be treated as one long to-do list. When you stop and focus on each present moment, you will live a much fuller, more peaceful life filled with gratitude and appreciation for beauty. Additionally, stress levels and anxiety will decrease, and your brain will thank you for acknowledging all its emotions.
Avoid less. Experience more. Appreciate every single little thing God allows you to do in your life.