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Regaining Focus in a World of Digital Distractions
Chances are, you’re going to look away in less than a minute. You might get a notification or decide to check social media. Gloria Mark tackles this in her new book, offering a weapon in the fight against daily distractions.
In a society that quickly loses focus, the media has been paying a lot of attention to Gloria Mark and her new book, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity (Hanover Square Press, 2023). The book reports that people spend an average of just 47 seconds on any one screen before shifting their attention elsewhere. In terms of how often we switch projects, readers learn it can take up to 25 minutes to return our attention to a project after an interruption. “There’s been a lot of media interest in the book, more than I could ever have imagined,” says Mark, Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS). “But it’s because people have trouble staying focused. It’s just such a common phenomenon.” With a Ph.D. in psychology and decades of experience in studying how people interact with technology, Mark is now broadly sharing her findings about attention spans in the digital age. Breaking down myths and offering strategies for individuals, organizations and society at large, she is calling for a cultural shift that will help us regain our ability to focus.
You have a BFA in art, MS in biostatistics and a Ph.D. in psychology. How did you start studying technology?
It was by chance. My Ph.D. advisor had worked at Bell Labs for a long time, which was a premier research institution, and he enjoyed the work. So after getting my Ph.D., I was pretty open to working in a research lab. There was a job opportunity that I heard about at a research institute affiliated with a company called Electronic Data Systems. They needed a psychologist to study how groups were using technology, and my Ph.D. was in group decision making. So it was a really good fit. I started studying groups who were using computers for decision making, and that’s how I got thrust into studying people using technology in a real-world environment.
So after decades of research, what motivated you to write this book?
My work for the most part has been published for an academic audience, but from time to time, I speak with journalists, and I always thought it would be interesting to share my work with a wider audience. Then I got a call from an agent who asked if I’d be interested in writing a popular book. After thinking about it, I said, “yeah, I’ll do it!”
Did it surprise you that we spend on average 47 seconds on a screen before shifting our attention?
It did! I started studying attention spans with my student, Victor Gonzalez, back in 2004, and at the time, we found that people were spending two and a half minutes on a screen. So this was a considerable decrease, and yes, I was surprised, though I too had had felt myself switching attention a lot. But remember, this is an average. Sometimes we can stay focused for longer, but the median length of time in the last five years is only 40 seconds. That means half of all our observations are less than 40 seconds on any screen. And this has been replicated by independent studies as well. The idea that we’re shifting our attention so rapidly is what I refer to in the book as kinetic attention.
You also report that we’re self-interrupting 49% of the time, so it’s not just device notifications. Do we need to change our behavior?
Yes, but we need to think about it as a cultural shift. In the book, I talk about how change has to come at three levels.
First is individually. I think people can develop their own agency to control their attention better. There’s a lot of software on the market to help people self-regulate, but I argue that it’s better for people to learn self-efficacy on their own, to learn how to control their attention. I outline ways to do this at the individual level.
Then, on the organizational level, some companies have proposed batching emails, which is sending email out only two or three times a day. But my research shows that’s not a silver bullet, because it really doesn’t lower stress or increase self-reported productivity. We find that people check email, on average, 77 times a day. So batching can help rewire people’s expectations, so maybe they check email only three times a day, but a better strategy is to do either an email-free day or to restrict the window of time when electronic communications can be sent, to change people’s conditioning for constantly checking. Of course, there needs to be exceptions made, but I think that’s the right direction to go. An early study that I did back in 2012 showed that when email was cut off for a work week, people significantly increased focus and their stress level went down. Of course this is not a feasible solution.
But on a societal level, there are also things we can do. Some countries have enacted what’s called the “right to disconnect” law, so employees aren’t penalized for not answering emails before and after work hours. France has the El Khomri Law, Ontario has its Workers Act of 2021 and Ireland has its Code of Practice Act. These are good models to consider. New York City tried to enact a right to disconnect bill, and that’s a very interesting case study because businesses were against it, and the bill didn’t pass.
Do you think this inability to disconnect was made worse by the pandemic?
There aren’t studies that I’m aware of yet, but of course we know that people were spending more time online. So my best guess is that the answer is yes.
One thing that we do know, and this was a study that I did, is that when people started the stay-at-home orders, they experienced a slippage into their natural chronotypes. What that means is, if you’re an “early” person, you slip into your natural rhythm of starting work earlier and ending early. If you’re a “late” type, your natural tendency is to start work later and end later. And so we saw this slippage, and it was particularly manifest in teams, so they had less overlap time. We looked at teams who were in greater alignment with their time at work, versus less alignment, and found that there were, of course, differences. When there’s more slippage, people are getting email and Slack messages over a longer period of time. We already know this from when we work with people across different time zones. I get up and already have messages from them. They may not realize that I’m in a later time zone, so they’re expecting me to answer. So yes, I think COVID probably exacerbated some of that.
The book includes a survey to help people identify their own natural rhythm. Can that help us better organize our daily work?
Absolutely. I found in my research that people tend to have times of peak focus. For most people, it happens in mid to late morning and also mid to late afternoon. If you’re an early type, your peak focus would be earlier, and if you’re a late type, your peak focus would be later. But this coincides with the ebb and flow of our cognitive resources. You can’t have sustained attention for a very lengthy period of time because your cognitive resources will just drain. We know that from decades of laboratory research.
So if you can identify when your peak focus occurs, you should plan to do your hardest and most creative work around those peak times. And before and after those times, you should take breaks to replenish your resources. You don’t want to be exhausted by 10 a.m. Consider that we have limited attentional capacity, and use it wisely.
Can you also talk about the four myths presented in the book?
One myth is this idea that we should be as focused as possible when we’re on our devices. A popular narrative is “let’s be as focused as we can for as long as we can,” but it’s just not realistic. We can’t lift weights all day without getting exhausted. People need to take breaks. This is the same. We don’t want to see people getting burned out, so you have to pull back.
Another myth is that so-called mindless activity is terrible. And the short answer is, yes, it’s not good to get into a trap where you’re stuck on social media or playing a mindless game all day. But if we can use these kind of activities strategically to help us replenish, that’s not a bad thing. The best kind of break is to go outside and take a walk, but sometimes it’s just not practical. And getting up and stretching is always good, but it’s also okay to do some kind of mindless activity to help us refresh. We can give ourselves permission to do that strategically, as long as we don’t get stuck. That’s the key.
Another myth relates to “flow,” which is when you’re at an optimal point of creativity and lose track of the passage of time. If you’re an artist or musician, or if you play sports, people commonly get into the flow of what they do. Everyone says “oh, yes, we should strive to be in flow most of the time,” but it turns out that for the kind of work that many of us do, knowledge work, flow is just not realistic. We can be focused, but that’s not the same as flow. Focus requires effort, and most of us in our type of work use an analytical mindset. So I would say that instead of striving to get into flow, let’s instead strive to be aware of our natural rhythms of when we can be in peak focus.
The last myth is that notifications and targeted algorithms are solely to blame for our lack of attention. They absolutely play a role, but we’re nearly as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted from some targeted or algorithmically designed notification. The point is, we live in a world that exerts so many other influences on our attention. There are individual factors, but there is also our nature. We’re social beings who want to exchange social capital. Even the design of the internet, with its node and link structure, mirrors so well the way human memory is theorized to be organized. There are so many entry points into the internet that it’s really hard to stop surfing once you start. We also need to be aware that we’re in a media environment that’s much bigger than just our computers and phones.
So, who is the target audience for your book, and what do you hope is their main takeaway?
I would say it’s across the spectrum. I’ve not studied the attention span of kids younger than 18, but from college-age up through to knowledge workers of all ages, attention spans tend to be short, so they’re all the target audience of this book. My goal was to communicate the science so it would be accessible to all these readers.
And I hope the book gets people to develop conversations about our behavior — our attention behavior in our digital culture — and to understand the science behind the distractions. I’d like people to start thinking about how we can make a cultural shift, and what I’m introducing is a new language for thinking about that phenomenon.
— Shani Murray