Attention Deficit: (Or Why Writers Smoke)

“Sustained attention is the level of attention that produces consistent results on a task over time. Most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.”

Or writing a novel?

I have been worried lately about my attention span. As I have discussed before, I often use Freedom to turn off my internet while I write. This is because I cannot help but flick between Facebook, two separate email accounts and now…yes, it’s finally happened…Twitter. It’s an unending cycle of checking for some kind of communication from, well, anybody. Some little task that I can complete easily. But as soon as I complete one such task, I am bored and flicking through, looking for the next one.

Using Freedom makes this easier…however, I still have the urge to flick my brain somewhere else. To find a small task to complete easily.

And this is when I smoke.

Smoking and writers used to go together like absinthe and painters or opium and…writers. Now, no one smokes. In a class full of ten undergraduate creative writing students, not one smokes. Is it wrong that this makes me a little sad.

Smoking a cigarette is an easily accomplished task. It allows your mind a minute away from the larger job you attempting to complete (ie writing a novel), but instead of making it focus on something else, it allows your mind a break. A breather. You can ruminate of the next scene you’re going to write, or even just the next line.

Apparently watching television at a young age is correlated with this kind of short attention span, although there is not necessarily causality between the two.

“One study of 2600 children found that early exposure to television (around age two) is associated with later attention problems such as inattention, impulsiveness, disorganization, and distractibility at age seven.This correlational study does not specify whether viewing television increases attention problems in children, or if children who are naturally prone to inattention are disproportionately attracted to the stimulation of television at young ages, or if there is some other factor, such as parenting skills, associated with this finding.”

Well, I LOVED television as a child. Still do in a completely habitual Pavlov’s dogs kind of way. I will watch pretty much anything. Or will spend hours ‘surfing’ and not watching anything, if given a chance. This is why I no longer own a television.

However, growing up and going to school my attention span was always pretty solid. I was never accused of having ADD or anything.

That is until I took this test

Turns out I “sometimes have difficulty maintaining focus on a task and following it through until completion. People who have short attention spans tend to jump from project to project and are often known to be quite disorganized. This frequently results in missed deadlines, tardiness, and bills being paid late. An inability to pay attention for an extended period of time could be a result of fatigue, a medication side-effect, or you may simply have a personal issue weighing heavily on your mind. However, if you feel your occasional inability to pay attention is significantly affecting your life, it would be a good idea to visit a psychologist in order to assess whether Attention Deficit Disorder may be an issue.”

Granted, this is probably gross over diagnosing through the internet…but it makes me think.

It’s only in the last year or so that I noticed the change…and what has changed in my life in the last year?

Excessive technology.

Higher engagement with social networking sites and email.

“Some authors, such as Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, believe that the attention span of humans is decreasing as modern technology, especially television, increases. Internet browsing may have a similar effect because it enables users to easily move from one page to another. Most internet users spend less than one minute on the average website.[9] Movie reviewer Roger Ebert, an active blogger and “Tweeter,” wrote of the impact of technology on his reading habits and his search for “frisson” on the web and in life. Ebert cited an article by Nicholas Carr in the June, 2010 Wired magazine about a UCLA professor, Gary Small, who used an MRI scan to observe the brain activity of six volunteers, three web veterans and three not. The professor found that veteran web users had developed “distinctive neural pathways.”

Now I’m not saying technology is a bad thing…but it changes us. And therefore we must find new ways to work around and through the distractions.

Or old ways…

Like smoking cigarettes.

*all quotes from ‘attention span’ article on

One thought on “Attention Deficit: (Or Why Writers Smoke)

  1. Finnginn says:

    What did you score in the test? I got 65 – it interpreted this by telling me things I already knew about myself or I wouldn't have been able to answer the questions. Psychobabble bullshit in my opinion, but I haven't had a cigarette yet today so I wouldn't trust my judgement on anything.

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