Your alarm goes off, and the first thing you reach for is your phone. Scrolling, You sift through your notifications, dismissing most of them before hopping onto Facebook to see what’s been happening while you were asleep.
It’s your lunch break, and you’re slowly working away at your meal while catching up on the Tweets you missed in the past four hours. Once you’re finished, it’s time to feast your eyes on Instagram’s perfectly-curated tropical vacations, morning lattes, and flatlands.
Before you know it, you’re home from work, and — of course — it’s time to relax and scroll on Pinterest for some dinner inspiration.
Ideas, opinions, and stories flit past your eyes all day, so fast that you barely have time to register every separate thought.
Chronic Scrolling is Causing Us to Lose Our Attention Spans
In 2015, Microsoft Corp. did a study on human’s attention spans and found it to be a shockingly low eight seconds.
Our attention spans weren’t always this low, but we’ve trained ourselves to get bored with a topic before we’ve even discovered half of it.
How? Social media.
In her podcast, cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf explains that by scrolling on social media, we’re teaching ourselves to give our attention to one post for three seconds, and then a meme for a half-moment, and then skip past the next post because it’s three lines long, and that’s too much to read. In fact, she goes so far as to say that this causes brain damage.
And she’s right. We’re training our brains to not use themselves to their fullest potential.
If you know anything about online marketing (or writing), you know just how little time a person will dedicate to your posts. It’s a constant battle to get people to read a social media caption all the way, so you have to keep them “short and engaging.” Getting them to click through to another article (and then read it) is a whole other issue.
So when it’s time to study, it’s a struggle to pay attention.
When it’s time for a deep conversation with a friend, you wander off-topic.
When it’s time to look deep into yourself for self-improvement, your mind flits away to other easier-to-handle thought streams. Or, more likely, you find something to distract yourself with.
People Would Rather Feel Pain Than Be Alone With Their Thoughts
There have been multiple studies on this, including one from the University of Virginia, but here’s the basic idea:
You stick someone in an empty room with bare walls and leave them to their thoughts. Somewhere around 15 minutes, almost half of the participants of the study would rather give themselves a “mild shock” than a daydream.
This study was performed in different settings, and on young people as well as older people — and a lot of them didn’t want to be alone with their thoughts. They preferred a distraction of some sort.
In a world where technology is almost always within reach, mindless distractions are easy to come by.
But that’s the problem — we’re willingly becoming mindless.
So how do we fix this? By feeding our brains with more than simple distractions.
The first step I took was removing all social media apps from my phone’s homepage. That way, if I unlock my phone out of boredom (something I do often, unfortunately), the only apps I see are ones that would encourage productive or educational behavior. I’m encouraging myself to do something good with my time — like read an article — instead of mindlessly scrolling.
And honestly? It’s worked wonders. I rarely go on Instagram anymore, and I only go on Facebook to access hobby groups. If I’m on my phone, it’s much more likely that I’ll be doing something that’s good for my brain (and my mental health).
I’ve come up with a list of things I do instead of scrolling on social media.
Don’t do anything.
If you’re one of those people who would rather shock themselves than be alone with your thoughts, I highly recommend you give it another shot.
Your brain needs idle time, especially after you’ve had a lot of information thrown at you. To put it simply, you can process things better if you actually give yourself a chance to think.
What if your mind is a terrible, depressing place?
You can change that — you just have to put in the work.
In her book Switch on Your Brain, Dr. Caroline Leaf goes into creating a positive thought life that will ultimately affect every aspect of your life. She’s seen victims of traumatic brain damage overcome their injuries by creating new networks in their minds that lead them to go about their lives as before — and even pursue higher education.
Read this excerpt from the book, talking about a girl who suffered from a traumatic brain injury as a result of a car accident:
“. . . I saw the greatest changes in patients who willfully, determinedly, and persistently chose to focus their attention on improving their skills and restoring function. For example, one of my patients had been in a car accident when she was a junior in high school that had left her with extreme brain damage. Scrolling, Her neurologist and other doctors told her parents not to raise their hopes of her being more than a “vegetable.” Even when she got back to a fourth-grade level, the doctors said that was her limit. Fortunately, she and her family chose not to pay attention to what they said and instead chose to focus her attention on what she wanted for her life . . . Consequently, she built new networks in her mind focused on where she wanted to be and strove to make it happen.
She talked with me about her goals and vision, and we worked together, taking small steps, working consistently toward achieving them. There were times she wanted to give up, but she always picked herself up and carried on. The benefits were evident: Not only did she catch up with her peer group, but she also went on to complete twelfth grade and further studies after high school . . . she had not only restored her original level but had gone way beyond her functioning.”
If her techniques can help victims of severe brain damage, they can help you create positive thought networks.
Read a book.
What better way is there to spend an hour? You get some off-screen time, your brain is focused on the same thing, and you’re entertained.
No time? Take a book with you when you go places. Scrolling, If you’re like me, you’re always 15 minutes early. Instead of spending time on your phone while you’re waiting for your friend to show up for a coffee date, read a few pages in a novel.
Read an article.
The longer, the better. For some, this won’t be as easy as reading a book, but it’s worth it. If we want to get our attention spans back, we have to work for it.
My one piece of advice? Don’t skip over the long paragraphs. Yes, I know they’re scary. But the point here is to do something good for your brain. Challenge yourself.
Get outside (and don’t look at your phone).
I love giving myself some time to think while being outside. Whether it’s a walk around the block or venturing into the woods of a nearby park, get outside and enjoy it!