It wasn't just you - the pandemic really did make it hard to focus on anything

Humans have always worried about dwindling attention spans and loss of focus. So why does it feel so extra in the digital age?

How our sense of time and ability to pay attention have been disrupted during the pandemic

TikTok has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, setting a record for most app downloads in a single quarter in April 2020. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

We have been lamenting our reduced attention spans and blaming technology for this change since the Industrial Revolution. But it seems particularly difficult to focus on a single task during the pandemic — and according to one researcher, our lack of attention in uncertain times makes evolutionary sense.

"The potential value of this information that you're not paying attention to could be very high. In times of uncertainty, we tend to find ourselves spending a lot of time looking around, wondering, 'Where's the threat?'" Thomas Hills, professor of psychology and co-director of Global Research Priority in Behaviour, Brain & Society at the University of Warwick, told Spark host Nora Young. 


Hills said this COVID-19-related vigilance is using up a lot of energy. "We know that task-switching is costly. And presumably our minds know this."

This change comes at a time when the attention of an average internet-connected smartphone owner is already splintered by the vast amount of information available online.

"We just can't pay attention to everything, so we don't have the same kind of filter that we used to have," Hills explained. "And not only are we evaluating whether something is of value, but we're doing a secondary evaluation: Would other people think this is valuable?"

As a result of these changing habits, Hills said, the way information is presented to us online has also changed. The researcher said social media posts are often more memorable than contents of a book or a newspaper article - thanks, in part, to algorithms that tailor information in our social media feeds to our preferences.

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"Algorithms recognize things that will keep you online just a little bit longer and then they can feed these things to you," Hills said. 

TikTok the day away

One of the platforms that has built its success on hyper-personalization is TikTok, a social media app that allows users to post short videos. The platform has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, setting a record for most app downloads in a single quarter in April 2020.

Toronto artist Hima Batavia said that for her, the bite-sized videos have replaced television as a way to decompress. "What captures you is that you're getting all this content that you really like," she said. 

TikTok's For You page helps ensure that a user can spend hours watching 15 to 30-second videos on the platform. "Your algorithm will change over time based on what you're liking and what you're spending time on," Batavia explained. 

University of Toronto associate professor Sarah Sharma said that part of TikTok's universal appeal is how the app seamlessly fits into the flow of the day, something that has been disrupted by the pandemic.

"One of the things that is definitely shared is an alteration to the rhythm of the day," said Sharma, who is also the director of the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology. 

She said that another shared anxiety during the pandemic is related to time, and how to spend it in the best possible way.

"The sense of wanting to [spend] this time well is culturally problematic. Are you living your COVID time well? Are we missing out on something by not doing something well? Was COVID a big missed opportunity for that hobby you never got around to?"

Sharma said these questions present a good opportunity to question the "performance of busy-ness" and the culture of efficiency that made time so scarce in the pre-pandemic world.

"I always think of these as opportunities to rethink how we work and live together," Sharma said. "It's been an opportunity to think about a shorter workday, to cut out some of the unnecessary things that fill up the day."

Click 'listen' button at the top of the page to hear the full episode.

Written by Olsy Sorokina. Produced by Kim Kaschor and Samraweet Yohannes.