Focus, Awareness, & Perspective

Why I might sometimes seem to have the attention span of a gnat

By Guy Quaintance   |   Jan 4, 2018

“You have the attention span of a gnat.”

Have you ever known someone like this, or been accused of this yourself? I imagine that some people have difficulty concentrating for long periods of time due to medical issues or their general state of mind. But could it also be attributed to the nature of a person’s environment, or their job?

Could it be that, given certain situations, having the attention span of a gnat is actually a good thing?

Focus & Awareness
I am a motorcycle deputy. When I am going ANYWHERE the stakes are high. It doesn’t matter if I am patrolling or just going from Point A to Point B. I am exposed and at risk, for obvious reasons.

Everything on the road that is bigger than me is a potential threat (almost everything). Sometimes things that aren’t bigger than me are a threat too. The main reason I am alive, despite the thousands of attempts on my life (mostly due to carelessness) is because I have a well-developed sense of my own mortality. Right and wrong have little to do with survival.

My job as a peace officer is to pay attention to what others are doing. As a motorcycle deputy I must also pay attention to many, many details that are less consequential when occupying an enclosed vehicle. The road surface, the road grade, my position in my lane, my hand and foot placement, balance points—it goes on and on.

Other people and their reactions to me are also important. Are they being friendly or furtive? To the untrained eye, sometimes they look the same.

Even being stopped carries with it its own set of risks. Without a protective cage and off-balance, the vulnerability is obvious. Like a giraffe drinking water, I am in a precarious state while stationary. At least three of my four limbs are busy and I am balancing a bike that weighs nearly 1,000 lbs. Add to weight the fact that people exist who are actually looking to do me harm. If you haven’t noticed, peace officers aren’t very popular among many social circles.

Navigation poses it’s own challenges. I don’t have the navigation system you have in a car, and even if I did, it would be foolhardy to look at it. Everything must be done by memory and on the fly.

As I flit about from place to place and task to task, I must pay attention to every minutiae of detail. The one thing that I miss—one car pulling out, one rock, one pothole, the stray dog—any one of these things has the potential to kill me. I must see it, evaluate it’s threat potential quickly, react appropriately and move on mentally so I can do it again. This is the constant while I’m operating: assessing, gauging, evaluating … A smooth transition from one issue to the next is paramount.

Guilty?

Do I have the attention span of a gnat? You bet I do! Especially when I am on a motorcycle. Tunnel vision, or focusing for too long on any one thing is what gets people like me killed because that focus destroys situational awareness, while potential threats are everywhere. I must be able to recognize and react appropriately to every stimulus I encounter because the stakes are always higher for me than they are for you in a vehicle.

It would be impossible for me to walk a mile in the shoes of everyone or even anyone. However, what I can do is try to take into account what perspective another person might have before I make a judgement regarding their motivations. I will say this: In my experience, being in two different states of mind at once is next to impossible.

In my case, if I am a bit scatterbrained and need to be told twice or 17 times about a detail on a problem, it could be because I am having difficulty switching from gnat-mode to my tunnel vision, deep-thinking, focus on a specific problem mode. It could also simply be that what is important to you right now is less important to me right now, and for that there may be ample reason.

I suspect the reverse perspective is also true. Expecting someone who resides in a world where they are in a relatively safe place (riding a desk, for instance) and are responsible for long-game decisions to be able to switch to gnat-mode instantly with little or no notice is unreasonable. Granted, we don’t live in a reasonable world. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to inject reason into our day-to-day interactions with others.

Perhaps the reason you are having difficulty getting someone to focus on your problem is because something else is more important to them. If you want your important things to be important to others, then YOU need to take a minute and tactfully redirect their attention to your topic. A lack of tact and/or patience is likely to permanently undermine this process. A better approach might be to help them with the problem they are working on first. They might be both grateful AND focused, allowing you later to borrow that focus for what matters most to you …

In Sum
In closing, be kind to each other. Accept the fact that other people’s viewpoints and problems are just as valid and real as yours, regardless of their rank or yours. Patience, tact, and empathy are all small kindnesses that we can give to each other. It costs nothing. Yes, I understand that time is a finite resource and once used it can never be returned. That’s why it’s so important not to waste it being angry and closed-minded. My experience: A minute spent being kind will yield more than any amount of time spent being unkind will.