Guide HR: A goldfish is sharper than you (thanks to smartphones)

We think we do more in this age of instant information, but the quantity and quality of our work actually suffers. We lose on every metric: health, productivity and relationships

Researchers recently surveyed 2,000 Canadians and also studied the brain activity of 112 individuals using electroencephalograms. What they found is quite intriguing.

Canadians’ average attention span was 8.25 seconds in these studies in 2015.

In 2000, it had been 12 seconds.

The average attention span of a goldfish is… nine seconds.

How did this happen? According to a Microsoft study, our smartphones are responsible.

But before we get into causes, is it actually a problem if we are not able to hold a coherent thought for more than eight seconds?

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In fact, the consequences are significant for everyone, including students, workers, parents and leaders. But let’s focus on the consequences for leaders. A leader’s tasks, to name a few, include problem solving, making decisions, innovating, managing, planning, organizing, and prioritizing.

For these, we need what we call working memory. Working memory is the ability to keep several relevant pieces of information in mind at once. It involves staying focused on critical information in order to reach your goals.

For example, if you are evaluating a business decision, you need to focus on all that is relevant, including timeframes, production costs, information about your other options, and your risks.

If you are distracted by emails, texts or Facebook posts, you increase your risk of making mistakes, finishing too late, or forgetting about the proposal altogether.

Working memory — the ability to stay focused — is one of the most important keys to good performance in many jobs (and for students). Think about a child who wants to do his homework while watching TV, checking Facebook, listening to music, and texting his friends. He tries to say, “It’s no problem, Mom, I swear! I’m multitasking.”

But you know better. The ability to maintain your focus is one of the most distinguishing character traits of successful people.

Surveys show that 77 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 are continually reaching for their smartphones, compared to 10 per cent of individuals who are 65 years old and up. Children and young adults are losing the ability to not be occupied. Their brains are addicted to novelty and excitement.

The typical manager is interrupted every eight minutes. A full 28 per cent of their time is occupied by unnecessary interruptions from which they need to get back on track.

How can we be productive and calm at the end of the day? We face what some experts call “an epidemic of overwhelm.”

Our brains have not evolved to deal with constant stimuli. And a lot of the information that interrupts our day is either unimportant or not aligned with our goals, mission and values.

You know that feeling you have when two people are trying to speak over each other at the dinner table? It’s impossible to follow the conversation, and we get overwhelmed. We do this to ourselves with technology. We try to have many conversations at once, and we think we’re good at it.

We don’t realize what we miss or the damage we cause to the real person in front of us. We don’t recognize our brain’s craving for silence and rest.

We’re losing our ability to pay attention and make good decisions, and so we revert to the level of a goldfish.

We think we do more in this age of instant information, but the quantity and quality of our work actually suffers. We lose on every metric: health, productivity and relationships.

Of course, in 2016 it’s impossible to avoid all these distractions. However, we need to invest energy in developing new habits in order to create time and space that allow for deeper thinking. How do we accomplish this?

Know your biological rhythm for different tasks. Some people are better at deep thinking in the morning, others at night.

Maintain time every day where you turn off your technology, including your computer and smartphone.

Provide autonomy to your employees.

Allocate time where you don’t work hard. Problems of any complexity require the unconscious brain.

Consciously choose your distractions; don’t let distractions choose you.

If you’re struggling to implement any of the above steps, consider adopting these seven “time activities” for a healthier brain (adapted from David Rock).

1. Sleep time: Refresh the mind and body; 95 per cent of us need an average of seven to eight hours of sleep.

2. Make time for play: Your brain likes to play — so play with your child when you’re at home, and try to have fun at work. When you play, you work for your brain.

3. Practise downtime: Disconnect for integration and insight. Close your cellphone while you have to focus. Set aside a full day a week without your cell.

4. Take time for reflection, attunement and mindfulness: Smell the roses, listen to the birds, and breathe deeply.

5. Connect time and the healing power of relationships: Your brain needs love. It becomes distracted and disorganized when it’s investing its energy in hating someone.

6. Get physical: Improve your brain’s plasticity through exercise. Train your muscles; train your neurons.

7. Focus time attention management for performance: Close the door to your office when you need to engage in deep reflection. You can’t concentrate when you have too much noise around you. Isolate yourself from time to time.

As a leader, if you want to be relevant, successful and happy, you must do better than average. It takes more than a fish brain to stand out in business and life.

About the author


Pierrette Desrosiers

Pierrette Desrosiers, MPS, CRHA is a work psychologist, professional speaker, coach and author who specializes in the agricultural industry. She comes from a family of farmers and she and her husband have farmed for more than 25 years (

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