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The Pandemic Attention & Patience Deficit: Will we have the cognitive bandwidth to see this through?

As I find peace and freedom in being able to take in the fresh air on a long bike ride, I find my wonderland halted when I have to stop at a red light… which brings me within an “unsafe” social distance and sneers for not dawning my mask.

A good chunk of my life is attracted to things transforming, or even better, about to transform. In this respect, I don’t think I am alone. For many people and in many contexts, change equates to progress. Not many of us want to return to a world where we: communicate only through letters, receive news through morning & evening edition newspapers or get to the next town by horse-and-buggy. Change is good, right? The big caveat. Sweeping change may be en vogue, but getting change to stick is the other side of a progressive society’s coin.

In the 2020s, everything has been accelerated. In research that I have called the “Hockey Stick Monitor” (quintessentially Canadian), society has sped up across a basket of fifty factors 4X faster than the previous generation. Think how movies used to stay in theatres forever (1982’s E.T. was in the top 10 box office for 44 weeks); now blockbusters are fortunate to stay two weeks at the top. Think about the pace of home delivery - we used to be content with 7-14 days; now satisfaction is measured in hours. Ponder the immediacy of social media. Consider the impatience we have with slow customer service. Each year, customer expectations go up 25%, but company delivery only improves 5% annually. Something has to give — and it usually is our attention and patience.

So we have been sped up. In an oft-quoted Microsoft study, our online attention spans appear to have dropped 33% in a span of just fifteen years, to less than that of a goldfish. A more recent University of Denmark study suggests a social group acceleration, citing Twitter hashtags spending 33% less time at the top of what’s trending over a duration of just three years.

A lot of this instinctual drive for “what’s next” is abetted by the technology and media around us, but that isn’t the only reason. As humans, our cognitive wick is getting shorter and shorter. We are in a change fog. Because we know more, we now focus less. Because we desire more, we commit less. Because we stress more, we worry faster.

Societally, we have a fierce competition for novelty and this is the challenge of the times we find ourselves in. Will we be able to concretely solve the direct & underlying challenges of this COVID-19 pandemic given our shortening levels of attention and patience? For our collective sake, I hope we can.

Let’s be clear. The vaccine is not what will solve this pandemic. I repeat — the vaccine will NOT solve the pandemic. We will not simply get immunized and be able to file 2020 (and parts of 2021) away as merely a bad dream, and then move on with our lives. Oh no. In our first survey that we fielded with our Grey Swan Guild, a full 57 percent of us believe COVID is a long-term defining shock to our culture, economy & society. Most of that majority believes, it may take a generation to fully resolve the issues that have been identified, hatched and grown during this pandemic. Attention and patience required indeed!

Even the symptom of the pandemic, the sneeze if you will — being able to meet, travel and conduct business freely —will take longer than most could have plausibly considered at the start of the pandemic. In our wildest dreams, if we dialed back to our mindsets in April,2020, only the most pessimistic or brutally rational of us could consider a pandemic lasting into 2022. An early graph-laden Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation’s (IMHE) pandemic projection model suggested April 12th, 2020 might have been the date of peak infection and death rates in the U.S.. You could not have been more wrong IMHE.