Same Old, Same Old Attention Span by
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Prompted By Attention Span

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A man walks down the street
He says, “Why am I short of attention?
Got a short little span of attention
And, whoa, my nights are so long.

                                                                   (Paul Simon, “You Can Call Me Al”)

Over the years, friends and relatives have noted that I didn’t seem to have changed much.  Looked the same, same politics, same sense of humor, etc. And I have acknowledged the truth of this observation. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, but I no longer consider it an insult.  Maybe it’s even a compliment; at worst, it is a neutral comment.  And, as I considered this week’s prompt, I realized that, notwithstanding social media and technology, it is also true of my attention span.  Yep; 30-45 minutes — then, now, and probably forever.

I first noticed this in grade school, where I became (and, of course, still am) an inveterate clock watcher.  No matter how fascinating the class, somewhere between the 30 and 45 minute mark I’d first look up and check the classroom clock or my watch.  And then struggle mightily to pay attention for the remainder of the class.  (This reminds me of the quintessential classroom attention span movie scene: Ben Stein as a monotonic economics teacher droning “Bueller?… Bueller?…” in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”  Thus, the featured image.)

This same pedagogical attention span stayed with me through college and law school.  And then, even as a lawyer taking continuing legal education courses the last few decades, no matter how fascinating the topic — and, trust me, there are some legal topics I actually find fascinating — I invariably hit the proverbial attention span wall at the aforementioned 30-45 minute mark. Then I just hung in there until the end to get the required CLE credit.

And what about my present COVID/retirement era attention span?   Same old, same old, it seems.  Early last year, spurred on by a generous gift certificate bestowed on me by some outside attorneys I had worked with for years, I started to stream The Great Courses lectures.  Here’s a sampling from its homepage:

Since then, I have watched these lectures, typically one a day, neary every weekday, with my principal focus on lingusitics and music appreciation courses (though I have just  finished a surprisingly interesting course on Gibbons’ “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”).   And, happily for me, most of the lectures log in at just over thirty minutes.  The one exception seems to be the music courses, since they typically also include passages of the music being described by the instructor.  As a result, these are generally about forty five minutes long.  And, apart from the inherent interest to me of the courses — unlike Ferris Bueller, no one is forcing me to take them —  and their universally good instructors, this length is perfect for my ever-constant attention span.  No distractions and no itchy fast-forward finger.

But there are troubling signs on The Great Courses horizon that, even if I am not reducing my own attention span, the rest of the world is. Indeed, The Great Courses just changed its name to the faux-word “Wondrium,” which I assume is the result of its market researchers concluding that “courses” sounds just too long and academic and, by contrast,  “wondrium” sounds, well, simply wondrous.  Plus, there are more and more gratuitous (to me) graphics inserted in the lectures, again signaling a concern about keeping viewers’ attention.  Worst of all, I watched a recently produced linguistics course that, although still excellent, was broken down into bite-sized fifteen minute segments, crammed with graphics.  I’m surprised that it didn’t also flash “Are you still watching?” on the screen as well. In any event, I revised my one-a-day rule for these lectures and would watch two of them at a sitting, not getting my full attention fix from just one.

And, speaking of fifteen minute segments being too short, that is also a reason why I am not enamored of TED talks, regardless of how sexy (sometimes literally) their topics are. Per TED’s rules, their talks are limited to eighteen minutes.     

Again, this is simply not long enough for my own attention span, though I am sure the short length (pardon my oxymoron) is a good deal of the reason for TED’s enormous popular appeal.

In sum, and to be fair to The Great Courses/Wondrium and TED, what they are now doing clearly reflects the decreasing attention span of so many of us, as most notably reflected in our evolving social media.  After all, Twitter limits texts to only 280 characters.  And, dare I say, even our beloved RetroFlash’s one hundred word limit probably appeals to our Retro-tribe’s own attention span deficiencies.

But, despite my own enjoyment of (occasionally) writing and reading our RetroFlashes, my attention span constancy remains.  Indeed, it also applies to streaming TV shows/movies, which my wife and I have immersed ourselves in in the COVID era, courtesy of Netflix and its progeny.


Most series’ episodes are about forty five minutes long, which is perfect from my standpoint.  However, my wife prefers watching two episodes most nights.  So we have reached an exquisite marital compromise: we watch two episodes and I get to check my iPhone without criticism during the second one.

The one exception to my attention span constancy these days seems to be Zooms with family and friends.  Of course, these are not pedagogical in nature, so this may not be a fair comparison.  But I find myself so happily immersed in them that I not only don’t check the time, but am amazed when an entire hour has magically passed.

(Zoom with some of my college classmates last year.)

There is a lot more I could say about my personal — and seemingly perennial — attention span, but I think I’ve made my point.  Plus, I don’t want to risk taxing any reader’s own attention span.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    You do seem consistent in your span through the years, John (good for you for taking all those courses in your retirement), but I think all this social media has really crippled others. My husband isn’t on any social media, but constantly plays games on his phone and must be entertained every second of every day. He isn’t capable of day-dreaming or just sitting still for one moment. I find this alarming.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I think I am pretty good at just “smelling the roses” from time to time. But what you see in your husband is certainly alarming. I have particularly noted it when observing people at a sporting event and so many have their heads buried in their phones. I want to say to them, “Can’t you just watch the game and enjoy it?” Apparently not.

  2. Marian says:

    I hadn’t thought about the consistency in attention spans, John, so this story really enlightened me. Now that I think about it, my attention span for just about anything on the screen is about an hour (possibly 90 minutes for something of exceptional quality). I often tell Dick, when he wants to watch a movie, that it is too lengthy and I can’t sit that long. Maybe we need more ways to have “intermissions” of different sorts. And, I hope the Great Courses aren’t “dumbed down” too much be gratuitous graphics and pauses.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. And I agree re intermissions. Most plays have them, why not movies?

      I don’t get a sense that the contents are “dumbed down,” but I’d love to know whether the professors who teach like or dislike the graphics in their lectures.

  3. Wonderful window into what makes John tick, and despite all distractions and diminished attention spans you found time for the decline and fall of the entire Roman empire!

    And speaking of name changes – have you noticed that Dunkin’ has dropped that unhealthy reference to Donuts?

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    My husband and I have a similar agreement when binging TV. 45 minutes is my max and if he wants to watch another episode, I am allowed to text my granddaughter. But I do fear that as younger people get involved with educational programming, it will get shorter. Also, why does the lecturer need to share the screen to put up a power point that adds nothing to the topic? It’s usually a list of points made in the lecture, I guess in case people can’t pay attention to speech by itself.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Great minds……, Laurie. I will be sure to tell my wife of your similar arrangement with your husband if it ever comes to that. And I completely agree aboutthe graphics in the lecture. On some occasions, they enhance or illustrate the points being made. But most of the time, they’re simply redundant. I sind it particuarly ironic in a linguistics course I’m taking when the lecturer is explaining that, contrary to myth, most ancient alphabets are NOT iconic.

  5. Touche John!
    Bet you’re a whiz at Scrabble!

  6. Suzy says:

    Never noticed those lyrics of Paul Simon’s, so thanks for that. Still, I’m glad you didn’t title your story “You Can Call Me Al.”

    Great that you can quantify what your attention span was when you were young, and find that it has stayed constant over the years. For me, back then as well as now, it totally depended on the content. In an interesting class I would be mesmerized and never look at the time; in a boring class (like HS biology, or Nat Sci 5 in college), I would be watching the clock almost from the beginning. Likewise, now I can easily sit through a two-hour movie or documentary without losing focus if I am interested. Of course if I am not interested, I can just turn it off.

    Funny about The Great Courses’ name change, I had no idea. Since we never ordered any more after those first two many years ago (discussed in my own story), I guess we fell off their mailing list. I’m glad to know that they have moved away from a video of just a talking head for half an hour, and have added graphics – even though you don’t like them. It makes me wish we could swap our old DVDs for a newer version of the same courses.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Not to worry, Suzy. Song title titles are your domain, not mine. I just know the lyrics because I had to lip sync that song at a firm holiday party a few years ago. Don’t ask.

      And I was surprised myself to realize that I seemed to have a constant attention span regardless of context. I thought I, too, would have a variable one.

      Glad to get you up to date on The Great Courses/Wondrium. Of course, these days, I doubt anyone actually buys their DVD’s. It is all streaming. Think Netflix.

  7. Khati Hendry says:

    Well Al, loved the Paul Simon reference! In all fairness to TED, and as mentioned in other postings on this topic, sometimes paring down the length of a presentation or writing is really challenging, and makes you focus on the most important parts, perhaps for the better. So not just pandering to short attention spans. But probably that too.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Khati. And you are absolutely right — and as others have also noted — there is much to be said for focusing on the important stuff and not going on and on. But I think TED’s arbitrary time limit is primarily meant as a way to draw the “short little attention span” crowd in.

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    Odd how I’ll start watching a six minute YouTube video, and after some time I will begin to suspect that I had misread the elapsed time because can tell that I’ve been watching it for nearly ten minutes. So I check and I am maybe 2:47 in….

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