Your Attention, Please!

How long can we use willpower to force ourselves to pay attention to something that’s just not that interesting?

If you do a search on the term, “attention span,” you get a pretty gloomy picture. Apparently people’s attention spans are decreasing dramatically in our highly distractible world.

I think all Learning & Development professionals would agree that in order to learn something, the person doing the learning needs to pay attention. So it’s alarming when I read blog posts that say people’s attention spans are now only 30 seconds long.

But if you think about it, that’s just silly.

If people’s attention spans were really that short, nobody would be able to make it through a Lord of the Rings movie, for example. So where does this idea come from?

To understand that better, let’s be clear about what is meant by attention in this circumstance. First, we are talking about deliberate attention—not the involuntary kind when our attention is grabbed by a sudden noise or movement.

Second, there’s the question of being interested. It may seem overwhelmingly obvious to say this, but it’s easier to pay attention to things we are interested in.

That means the question is: How long can we use willpower to force ourselves to pay attention to something that’s just not that interesting, such as tax regulations? There’s some research that may come into play here.

In a study by Professors Baba Shiv and Alexander Fedorikhin, participants were asked to remember either a two-digit or seven-digit number (Shiv, B. and A. Fedorikhin, 1999, “Heart and Mind in Conflict: Interplay of Affect and Cognition in Consumer Decision Making,” Journal of Consumer Research 26, December: 278-282). They subsequently were offered a snack choice of either fruit salad or a piece of cake.

If you were in the higher cognitive load condition (remembering seven-digit numbers), you’d be almost twice as likely to have chosen the chocolate cake. People who had to expend a lot of willpower to do the harder task apparently had less willpower left over to make healthy food choices. Similar results have been shown in other studies by researchers such as Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs.

So, the amount of time learners can force themselves to pay attention may only be 20 minutes or even 30 seconds before the effort of doing so erodes willpower sufficiently that our attention is pulled away by the distraction of a smart phone or e-mail or a Facebook update.

Need to Know NOW!
There are many ways to encourage learner attention, but one of the most powerful ones may be creating a sense of immediacy. If I’m learning about tax regulations in December, it’s harder for me to pay attention than it will be on April 14, when I’m trying to figure out if I can deduct the cost of my print subscription to Training magazine. It’s usually not that hard to pay attention to just-in-time learning because you know you will use it immediately, and you have an urgent need for the information.

If it’s not possible to delay the learning, then how do you help people pay attention to things they don’t need right now?

Try giving people an interesting scenario or problem or situation they need to solve, and then provide access to the information they need to solve it. That creates an immediate need.

The bottom line: We probably need a lot less “Here are the accounting compliance procedures” and a lot more “Your accounting manager is booked on a flight to South America in four hours, and you think there might be financial wrongdoing on her part. What do you need to look for first? Go!”

Julie Dirksen is an instructional designer, author, speaker, and big nerd about all things learning-related. She wrote “Design For How People Learn.” For more information, visit