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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Get off the hamster wheel (for a bit) [Wise Wednesdays]

London, 2010. I found myself at the Oxford and Cambridge club facilitating a conversation between a neuroscientist and an entrepreneur. Both were concerned that our attention spans were dropping because of smartphones and social media (which was pretty much just Facebook back then).

Last week, a brilliant doctor, one of the brightest of her generation, told me that she was concerned about what would happen if she took a step back from the hamster wheel and put some attention on the bigger picture of her career. She was worried about the implications…Would she have to abandon everything and start from scratch if she faced the truth?...Perhaps it was best to just stay on the hamster wheel?...

Yesterday, I had a conversation with an ex-intelligence advisor to the military in Afghanistan. He left that role and went on to lead one of the largest conservation initiatives in the world. He lamented that decision makers simply didn’t understand the complexities of conservation. Their attention spans were too short to truly understand…

I couldn’t help but wonder about the link.

What’s the link between attention span, creating fulfilling careers and the fate of the planet…and does technology help?

Well, they say that where attention goes, energy flows.

So if your attention is constantly grabbed by everything (emails, messages, calls, meetings, the to do list, etc) your energy will be dragged from one things to the next and you’ll feel like a washing machine i.e. the hamster wheel experience (a lot of activity but not the progress you want).

Let’s look at smart devices like smartphones and tablets for a moment, as an example of the daily distractions that capture our attention. They’re part of what can create a sense of being dragged through life or stuck on a hamster wheel rather than being in control.



Some studies suggest that our attention spans have dropped since 2015 from 12 seconds to 8 seconds which is lower than the attention of a goldfish (which is 9 seconds). There’s a wave of concern over what this means for our wellbeing and performance. Are we closer to hamsters than to humans?

But a new statistical analysis of 2,093 UK adults found that, even if our attention spans are shorter, not everyone is concerned. The findings of the study tell us something about how we feel about losing attention span, being caught in distractions through smart devices. By an admittedly wild stretch of the imagination, they tell us how we feel about being caught on the hamster wheel and why it’s hard to get off it.

The study found that the UK consists of four groups with different views of attention and smart devices:

“Positive multi-screeners” (42% of UK) They love tech and the wide access to information. They don’t feel overwhelmed or worried about the impact on your attention span. (They are happy to be on the hamster wheel?...)

“Stressed tech addicts” (21%) They see the benefits of tech, particularly social media. But they feel overloaded with information and are concerned about the impact on their attention span and the end of deep thinking. (They feel the hamster wheel is necessary but have concerns…?)

“Overloaded sceptics” (21%) They’re much more negative about tech and social media. They feel overloaded with information. They’re very concerned about decreasing attention spans and the loss of deeper thinking. (They suffer from being on the hamster wheel but can’t come off?)

“Disengaged and untroubled” (17%) They don’t engage with tech for information or social media. They’re uninterested in the issues and are unaware of the ‘attention wars’. (They’re not on the hamster wheel nor interested in it)

So smart tech and social media (and the hamster wheel) are not all bad.

It depends on what they’re costing you.

As one professor at the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London put it, “Technology has created more distractions and reduced the need, and perhaps willingness, of people to engage in long and tedious tasks to achieve their goals.”

Whether that's true or not, a balanced approach might be like this: the hamster wheel is where you can get routine things done. However, off the hamster wheel is where you choose what to do with your attention and use it to figure out what you really want to do and which hamster wheel to get on…if any.

But don’t wait until you achieve that thing to take time out from the hamster wheel and figure out what’s important

Don’t wait until next year (we all know how that’s been going…)

Don’t wait until after Christmas / the New Year / the new tax year / the Summer, etc…

The time to balance the hamster wheel and the bigger picture of your career is always now.

Your life is worth it.

Have a great week,


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