Saturday, May 25, 2013

Connecting Our Attention Spans and Success: The Seth Godin Question

Yesterday, I was talking with a colleague about Seth Godin. Seth's blog is pretty much required reading in some circles, and we were talking about why he's so popular. There are times when Seth is brilliant, and there's times when he's not so brilliant - I'm pretty sure that's a function of numbers as much as anything; he's an extremely prolific author and blogger and no one hits it out of the park all of the time.

My colleague suggested one simple reason I hadn't considered. "Seth's stuff is usually really short. I can read it in a minute. Other stuff, I look at it and I know it's got value and I should look at it, but it'll take me a while to read, so I put it in a folder for later."

"Does later ever come?" I asked her.

She laughed. "Sometimes."

Wise Geek reports that an adult should have an attention span of 15-20 minutes - more than long enough for most of us to read a few thousand word article. Yet the internet has reduced our attention span substantially. Typically, we'll spend a minute online paying attention to a single item before we're distracted by something else. Some people don't even spend that much time: they're on to the next thing in less than 10 seconds.

What impact does this have on our success? Well, I think answering that question depends where you're standing. Seth Godin has done well formatting his messaging in a way in such a way to appeal to an abbreviated attention span. When you're populating a website with content, you'll get better results if all of the essential information is instantly identifiable. Non-fiction book design is steadily evolving to incorporate lots of white space, bullet points in quantity, and infographic style design to make them more appealing to the reader.

But does the rapid delivery of information give us everything we need to succeed and thrive? I'm not entirely convinced. If we're only consuming what we can consume quickly, we're limiting ourselves. A diet that consists of only food that's easy to chew and effortless to digest will make us sick in the long run. We need fiber to keep things on track. To extend the metaphor, perhaps we need the intellectual fiber. Perhaps we need to spend time with ideas, taking them in slowly, mulling them over, thinking about them, integrating them into our worldview, and only then taking action.

Doing this can mean taking action that goes against prevailing cultural norms and our own personal daily routines. Suggest to someone that they spend a quarter of an hour with a single article is to provoke an almost guaranteed response of "I don't have time to do that!"

What would happen if we found the time? If we slowed down just enough to be present in our lives, professionally and personally. Would we learn more? Would we understand more? Equipped with more knowledge and understanding, what could we accomplish? It might be worth spending 15 minutes a day finding out.

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