STIMULUS CONTROL: Regaining attention span

Wakefulness, processing work at night in the head whilst sleeping, remaining anxious, high brain activity during sleep, REM induced erratic and episodic dreams and its involuntary occurrence all are aspects experienced by most, at least the working lot amongst us. Going to sleep bears equivalence to unconsciously carrying the office to bed and the sound of the alarm in the morning wrenches one away from the prescribed 6 hours of relaxed sleep and one consciously starts preparing for the work day.


From the morning look at the tasks that distract; newspapers, television, social media, twitter, instant messaging, cell phone mails and on an average checking 4 different emails (Office mails, Gmail, Yahoomail etc. ) on smartphones that facilitate the toggle between mailboxes effectively and many other attention dissipaters. The almost ‘always on’ connectivity and robust 3G and 4G bandwidth augments this and the future will only see better speeds and availability, further diverting attention. These days, one is so riveted to respond to cell phones that people easily give in to these digressions and such compulsions can only result in a lack of task focus and these are brilliantly masked under the efficiency mirage ‘multitasking’.

It is inexact to compare the ‘non-internet period’ task performance versus present day ‘always on’ Internet arena task performance. There is a generation of youth who haven’t known any other terrain except ‘high bandwidth always available internet’ kind of scenario hence multitasking for them seems to be an innate skill in fact they don’t even construe it as multitasking, they just were born into it and merely consider it as a way of life. In their minds there is no comparison yardstick to perceive a world bereft of high bandwidth and concurrent task achievement.   All these are indications of the easy succumb to the power of distraction resulting in a total loss of stimulus control. The idea of this blog is not to lure the readers into a critical debate but the objective is to highlight the importance of stimulus control and regaining it to produce quality work be it any field.



Multitasking is made out to appear as a modern behavioural elixir and multi-tasker’s seem to be proud about it as if they have acquired a new dexterous craft. Multitasking seem to have immense suggestive value and though its merits are indeterminate, it is being encouraged and deemed acceptable in the workplace. Switching between tasks such as data back up on the hard disk whilst constructing an email to a client and accepting a phone call may perhaps not impair cognitive control and may be fine but look at other tasks such as reading a proposal, writing an article, analyzing a financial document, performing open heart bypass surgery, flying a combat aircraft, reading a book, playing chess, performing in a concert or practicing for it, listening to a child and hordes of other examples and if one adheres to exemplary standards of performance, care and delivery then it mandates unswerving attention and diligence. Switching tasks whilst on such pursuits and then returning to the original task results in sub-optimal productivity. It is definitely not wisdom that exalts and this rationale is impenetrable.



People are terminally distracted by the cell phones these days; posting content on Facebook, uploading photos on WhatsApp, minute by minute check of various mails, responding, experiencing, consuming copious YouTube videos that is inundated with exhaustive content to keep one informed and entertained. After the 2nd world war Television had this effect on people, enslaving them and as Roger Waters (Pink Floyd 1992) puts it in one of their songs ‘The species has amused itself to death’ implicating the inordinate hours spent watching television and being entertained by it. In essence modern behaviour is pulsed with instant appeasement as one rummages thru any content be it television, Internet, print media, books, etc. Whilst watching a movie either at home or cinemas even the slightest boredom can lead to deflection from the big screen on to the smartphone device hence it has become incumbent upon moviemakers to keep their audience riveted during the entire two-hour duration. Tolerating audience is becoming extinct and patience is a bygone era. Why tolerate and be patient when you can multi-task.

This has conceived a whole new generation of animators, graphic designers, action sequencers, effect augmenters, facial animaters (done with FACS-Facial Action Coding System), 3D technicians, virtual camera systems, creating skeletal and muscle-simulation systems as in the Na’vi creatures in Avatar. What is this generation up to; create path-breaking effects as in Avatar, Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong, Inception and many others making it almost impossible for the audience to look away from the screen. They have brought back the focus to the screen and temporarily seem to arrest multi-tasking till these kind of special effects become a given and 3D films become commoditized. To avoid this they have to keep working harder in perpetuity to retain audience attention.

If one were to learn from the above analogy, find out what is it about your work, hobbies, relationships, indulgences and goals that make it boring for you to look away and multitask. I don’t imply boredom as the sole cause for multitasking as whilst waiting in a queue one can optimize time by emailing something important or read an e-book or communicate with someone. In contrast one can may also decide to do nothing and just absorb the environment around, observe and learn to relax without a ‘constant overwhelm’ thereby providing a reprieve to the mind. The main argument here is to regain one’s stimulus control and to avoid multitasking that results in diminished focus on tasks that need dedicated attention.


shutterstock_192681236It is indubitably proven that attention span or concentration span is important for learning. It is precisely the amount of concentrated time spent on any task without an iota of distraction and this is the abiding rule for goal achievement. Set goals get sabotaged due to limiting beliefs, lack of faith, inner constraints, lack of conviction and one amongst the reasons is lack of concentration or attention on allocated task or goal. Attention span is sub-componentized into:

  1. Transient attention and
  2. Selective sustained attention

Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/ distracts attention. The average attention span of a gold fish is 9 seconds and that of human beings is 8 seconds. Television adverts tries to capture audiences imagination in 30 seconds, which is the approximate allocated time for one advert (depends on country to country) hence one can imagine the creativity and content impact needed to retain our transient attention span and increase it from 8 to 30 seconds for the advert to become permeable.

Selective sustained attention, which is focused attention, is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. For human beings this is about 20 minutes. This is why in a selling environment formal presentations or pitches have to be made in 20 min and then followed by discussions. Thereafter attention persists but the intensity of absorption dilutes hence all power packed messages has to be permeated in the first 20 min. On the whole attention span is measured on selective sustained attention i.e. the time spent continuously on a task. Attention span expands when people love what they do or if something is absolutely captivating as in watching movies, football, surgery, painting, playing music basically a whole lot of passionate pursuits. It also depends on the skill set of the person, if one is learning the guitar or any musical instrument it is customary to practice for 20 to 30 min and then keep the instrument aside but once the tunes are formed and chords get easier with familiarity the attention span goes up and practice duration increases. Persistence is the trick here in learning anything and if one can retain one’s stimulus control and persevere a little more each day, any skill can be acquired.


Focusing on tasks or any activity is the most important behavioural trait required for learning as well as effective functioning. Behavioural symptoms that manifest inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness are categorized as ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). These people have short attention span, constant fidgeting and learning disability. Though most institutions and authorities would categorize serious lack of attention as a condition, interestingly such categorization of kids under ADHD is controversial and Sir Ken Robinson has presented a brilliant 18 min talk at TED ‘How schools kill creativity’ in which he highlights the case of Gillian Lynne (Choreographer who has done ‘Phantom of the Opera’). Gillian was diagnosed as having a learning disorder and couldn’t concentrate. Upon her visit to a specialist along with her mother the specialist leaves Gillian alone for 20 min in a room and turns on the radio. After the specialist and her mother left the room Gillian was up on her feet and moving and swaying to the music. After a few minutes of watching Gillian the specialist said to her mother “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” As Sir Robinson further states ‘ Some people have to move to think’ and this is remarkably true. Though the above is an interesting example and attempts to dissuade people from easily categorizing attention deficit people as ADHD or hyperactive, it doesn’t negate the conception that to achieve success in any field focus is needed.


The cheetah is the fastest land animal in the world, reaching speeds of up to 113km/h and can spot a prey 5 kilometers away. They can accelerate from 0 to 100km/h in just 3 seconds and whilst running use their tail to steer like a rudder for a boat. Amongst big cats cheetah’s are the only ones who can turn in mid air while sprinting. In spite of having all these alpha predator attributes and its supreme ability to outrun and incapacitate the predator, the cheetah is very sagacious in preserving energy and spends immense amount of time planning and stalking its prey in absolute stealth. It spends considerable time in pre-hunt focus and ensures that it is within reasonable striking distance; such is the importance of focus for it as a miss could signify starvation for a week. Even with the instituted glory of being the fastest land animal (which obviously they don’t know), cheetah’s never loosen their precondition of focus upon the task. When was the last time we bore equivalence with such a resolute focus on any task in our life and the answer to this will tell us about the relative importance of that task in our life. Any task that is critical and which upon its botch would invoke wrath from its stakeholders is not a task that can be assigned to multi-tasking bliss. It needs diligence and fixated attention. Depends on work to work and industry to industry and every industry has its own multi-taskable delights but certainly work shrouded in artistic expanse, financial turf, science & engineering, surgical considerations, explorative and dedicated space research, authors, publishers, precision tool manufacturing, child care, all these demand focus. What about carpenters, plumbers, electricians, painters and so on, well beyond possibility of any doubt all these professions need focus to resolve the tasks confronting them hence I do not propose any hierarchy in importance with respect to any profession.



Certainly multitasking has advantages. In a crisis such as war, when wounded bodies are being fed to the surgical table and under severe time pressure, multiple tasks have to be done to preserve life and the surgeon’s multitasking abilities shaves off wasteful minutes. Whilst cooking, for an experienced cook multitasking is a divine tool with baking, boiling, brewing, simmering, stewing, steeping, toasting, heating, grilling, frying, cutting, roasting, sizzling, steaming and associated culinary felicity but to use multitasking as an enveloping strategy eventuating into a habit for everything is imprudent. Retaining one’s faculties, poise, attention, focus and stimulus control as

  • One works in an office environment
  • Experiences a relationship
  • Listens to the other
  • Learning
  • Performing critical tasks
  • Indulging in creative work of all persuasions etc.

is essential and has a far reaching consequence in one’s absorption and success rates. Dedicated focus and passion in any area is one of the fundamental requisites needed to become distinctive in that field. What is the commonality between

  • The average skilled
  • People without musical instrument artistry
  • People lacking sports acumen and happy to assign their life to viewing delight
  • People not academically brilliant
  • People inept at work

basically any area, is not about people who are less talented or lacking ability but it is their perception that they lack these qualities and the singular striking aspect in their formative pursuit strategy, if they introspect, is the utter lack of focus and persistence on each task they indulged in. They had temporarily divested their attention initially, didn’t give that 20 min of selective sustained attention to the piano, didn’t persevere a little more whilst matching a formula in chemistry and with passage of time reinforced it with the belief that they don’t have the talent, acumen, aptitude for that task. They view their entire life from this new self-affirmed philosophy and luxuriate in passive existence. All it requires is a gentle shift.

Having said all that, would we want a smartphone that does not multitask, well it wouldn’t be a smartphone then would it? You bet we do want a smartphone and to extrapolate into the future, we would like to have a darned good one with all complexities and processing power for simultaneous tasks. The idea is not to stifle technology but manage our behaviour and remaining in sync with it.


Getting one’s stimulus control and focus back is the first step towards re-sculpting. Resolute perseverance and staying on the task a little longer will see it through.   One must work towards increasing the transient attention and selective sustained attention span. Meditation, Mindfulness, concerted practice and various techniques exist to augment these but prior to all this is the awareness that ‘one must bring unified focus’ for a sustained period for task completion. Stimulus control as a definitional term occurs when any organism behaves in a specific way in the presence of given stimulus and another way in its absence but in this write up, stimulus control denotes a kind of practiced restraint upon being bombarded by incessant stimuli daily. For a change, shut out your mobile phones for the first 2 hours of the day which you can demarcate as planning time or stimulus control time to induce a new behavioural habit and to celebrate with oneself the liberation from addiction. These two hours are to organize the day and get the most important tasks done upon which dispensing attention is an absolute imperative. You certainly know what it is but have been procrastinating due to initiation reticence.

 What are the chances you have read this blog in one go without compromising your attention span?

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