The Goldfish Effect: How Short Attention Spans are Killing your Productivity

April 28, 2014

The Goldfish Effect affects all business decisions ever made and those yet to be made. So how can you stop it?

Over the past six months, I have had the pleasure of informing and entertaining TARGIT customers with my newly revamped webinar on Data Visualization. The webinar focuses on the essence of why Data Visualization is so important for successful business decisions. In it, I introduced a term that I call the "Goldfish Effect."
So what is the Goldfish Effect and why is it so important?

The Goldfish Effect affects all business decisions ever made and those yet to be made. Think of the amount of time you need to concentrate and focus on enough information to gain insight to make the best possible decision.

According to studies, the average attention span was 12 seconds in 2000. By 2013, that had dropped to eight seconds. That's eight seconds of total concentration and processing power before the brain moves on to the next task. Compare that to the average attention span of a goldfish, which is nine seconds. That's right, folks. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, we have shorter attention spans than goldfish.

What do the experts say and what is the cause?

"More than ever, research is highlighting a trend in reduced attention and concentration spans … the younger generations appear to be the worst afflicted." - Sociologist David Moxon

"…individuals who multitask emails, phone calls, and social-networking sites have more trouble paying attention and focusing on important information." - The New York Times

"…lack of attention has a serious impact on task performance and increases the risk of accidents." - Sociologist David Moxon

There is evidence that points toward a connection between reduced attention span and stress. As a person who has succumbed to the effects of stress myself, I can personally reiterate that one of the first symptoms that affected me was my inability to concentrate and hold information or thoughts in my head for any length of time. After speaking to many people about this, I am convinced that I am not alone with this experience.

There is a wealth of research and published articles about this connection between reduced attention span and stress. One of the most profound quotes that I found very interesting came from the Center of Studies on Human Stress:

"When you are stressed … this stress takes a lot of resources from your brain and interferes with your capacity to encode any new information."

So now we know that we only have eight seconds to gain the insight we need from our information to make the best decisions possible and take fast and decisive action. Today, we rely on information in the form of tables and crosstabs to analyze our data. Customers that I have worked with use crosstabs 90 percent of the time when building and presenting online analytics.

When I witness this, I often think about a funny -- yet very frightening -- human script I found online in reaction to handling decisions that require larger amounts of information: the Spreadsheet Syndrome.
1. Problem
2. Solution: Spreadsheet
3. Another problem
4. Solution: Bigger spreadsheet.
5. Go To 1

Don't worry, the cure is within reach!

Implementing Data Visualizations will allow you to draw insight from your information and make the best decisions possible while taking fast and decisive action, and with time to spare.

Don't believe me? Then let's put it to the test. Below you will see a table with a small subset of sales information showing revenue figures per product group, salesperson, and country. All I would like you to do is answer which product group and salesperson has the largest revenue. I'll start the timer!


OK, so how did that go? Here are the answers:

The T-SHIRTS product group and Keren Rose had the largest revenue.

Now let's see what happens when we apply a little Data Visualization. Below you will see a Data Viz with a full set of sales information showing revenue figures per product group, salesperson, and country. Can you tell me which product group, country, and salesperson has the largest revenue?







Obviously, jeans, Malaysia, and Fortunato Crawford had the largest revenue.

On average, the difference between finding the answer in the first chart and the Data Visualizations is around 15 to 23 seconds. Add those seconds up for a company with 50 employees that make 10 similar decisions every day. A quick calculation shows that there are over 600 hours per year that can be used on tasks that are more productive.

20 seconds
10 decisions per day 
50 employees 
220 working days 
2.200.000 seconds
(60 secs×60 mins)
611 hours

Have the Courage to Act. 

The courage to think differently about data presentation and breaking free from old routines can make the difference between success and failure.

Following a few simple Data Visualization principles can create hard hitting, straight to the point analytics that not only save your company time and money, but also allow you to make the best decisions possible.

Use these two before and after scenarios as inspiration as to how you can get the "Courage to Act."









Want to learn more?

You can watch my webinar on Data Visualization and the key to eliminating the Goldfish Effect in your company on demand any time.

Data Driven Organization Ebook

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