Twenty years ago, it didn’t seem like a burdensome task to write a handwritten letter to a loved one. Fifteen years ago, it wasn’t a big deal to write a long email to a friend. Today, it can feel hard to motivate yourself to tap out a two line response to a text.
The feeling that your attention span has been shrinking over time isn’t just in your head. Research by today’s guest shows that it is empirically getting shorter and shorter.
Dr. Gloria Mark is the world’s preeminent researcher on attention and the author of Attention Span. If you’d like to get a handle on your diminishing powers of concentration, you have to understand how attention works, and that’s what Gloria explains in the first part of our conversation. We then get into how multitasking is like drawing on and wiping off a whiteboard and why it makes us feel so frazzled. Gloria then shares the way that personality influences your attention span, including why people who are more neurotic have the shortest attention spans and why conscientious people may not want to use distraction-blocking apps. We then get into how the internet and the shot lengths of modern movies reinforce our short attention spans. In the last part of our conversation, Gloria makes the case that fighting the hindrances to our attention by trying to be focused all the time isn’t possible or desirable, and that our goal should be balanced focus rather than hyper focus. She explains how to achieve that balanced focus by leaning into your unique productivity rhythm, taking breaks without guilt, and developing a sense of agency over your attention.
Resources Related to the Episode
- AoM Article: How to Effectively Manage Your Attention
- AoM Article: 11 Exercises That Will Strengthen Your Attention
- AoM Article: 12 Concentration Exercises from 1918
- AoM Podcast #420: What Makes Your Phone So Addictive & How to Take Back Your Life
- AoM Podcast #553: How to Become Indistractable
- AoM Podcast #768: Become a Focused Monotasker
- AoM Podcast #832: The Power of Unwavering Focus
- Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. 20 years ago, it didn’t seem like a burdensome task to write a handwritten letter to a loved one. 15 years ago, it wasn’t a big deal to write a long email to a friend. Today, it can feel hard to motivate yourself to tap out a two-line response to a text, the feeling that your attention span has been shrinking over time isn’t just in your head, research by today’s guest, shows that it is empirically getting shorter and shorter. Dr. Gloria Mark is the world’s preeminent researcher on Attention and the author of Attention Span. If you’d like to get a handle on your diminishing powers of concentration, you have to understand how attention works, and that’s what Gloria explains to the first part of our conversation, we then get into how multi-tasking is like drawing on and wiping off a whiteboard and why it makes us feel so frazzled. Gloria then shares the way that personality influences your attention span, including why people who are more neurotic have the shortest attentions spans, and why conscientious people may not wanna use distraction blocking apps. We then get into how the internet and the shot short lengths of modern movies reinforce our short attention spans.
In the last part of our conversation, Gloria makes the case that finding the hindrances to our attention by trying to be focused all the time isn’t possible or desirable, and that our goal should be balanced focus rather than hyper-focus. She explains how to achieve that balanced focus by leaning into your unique productivity rhythm, taking breaks without guilt, and developing a sense of agency over your attention. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/attention.
All right, Gloria Mark, welcome to the show.
Gloria Mark: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist and you’ve spent your career researching and writing about the impact of our digital devices on our lives, particularly our attention, and you got a new book out called Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity. And what you’ve done is you’ve taken the research you’ve done, for your entire career, and synthesize it and presented it in a very readable fashion for a lay audience on how we can help improve our attention, ’cause I know a lot of people are concerned about it. So let’s start off with some statistics you’ve uncovered in your research, what’s the state of our attention spans these days?
Gloria Mark: So let me start off by saying, I began studying this back in 2004, and I used empirical methods, at the time, we would use stopwatches and we would shadow people, we would time every time they switched screens, so we could try to get as precise as possible the amount of time they were on a screen. Back in 2004, we found an average of two and a half minutes, over the years, we continued measuring this, computer logging techniques were developed very sophisticated and we switched to using those, and in the last five or six years, we find attention spans on any screen to reach a steady state averaging about 47 seconds, and others have also replicated these results within a few seconds, so yes, our attention on a screen is short, if you look at the midpoint, the midpoint is called the medium, that’s 40 seconds, that means half of all the observations we found were 40 seconds or less on any screen.
Brett McKay: So we went from being able to focus for two minutes on something on a screen before switching to something else, to only being able to stay with the same thing for 47 seconds?
Gloria Mark: Yes, yes.
Brett McKay: That’s like a 50% drop. More than a 50% drop.
Gloria Mark: Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely has shortened.
Brett McKay: And besides our attention span shortening, so the amount of times we focus on a screen or something on a screen, we’re also spending more time with our digital devices, how much time are we spending with our smartphones, computers, TVs now?
Gloria Mark: Yeah, so Americans spend about 10 hours a day on some screen, and this is whether it’s their phones or computers, TV screens, so we spend a good chunk of our waking hours on some kind of screen.
Brett McKay: Okay, so I think a lot of people, they wish they could have more attention and they probably recognize this, and what I hope we can do in this conversation is to highlight how our attention works and by understanding how our attention works, how this constant switching from different things on our screens can affect us cognitively, emotionally, etcetera, and then some things you’ve discovered in your lab and your research that we can do to harness our attention better. So let’s start off with some definitions, like how do researchers define attention?
Gloria Mark: So actually let me go back to where it started. So William James is known as The Father of Psychology, and this was back in the 19th century, and he defined attention as the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. So he says, everyone knows what attention is, of course we do, but as we go around the world and we observe different things, there are certain things we decide what to focus on, we select for certain things to focus on, and according to William James, we do this out of our own volition. In other words, we’re in fully control of our attention. Well, unfortunately, James didn’t get it completely right. So attention can be under your control, and when it is, it’s called controlled processing, but attention can also be automatic, so there can be things that just grab our attention even unconsciously for us, from an evolutionary perspective, we responded to dangerous signals in the environment, so people used to scan the environment, and anything that might be perceived as dangerous would grab their attention. But we’ve evolved to respond automatically to signals in our current environment, so things like blinking lights or certain words that just target very basic emotions like fear.
And of course, a lot of these kinds of stimuli are what we see in our devices, like notifications, targeted ads, so we quickly respond to them and we can’t help but respond to them, it’s the same way if you are driving, a traffic light suddenly turns red, you can’t help but respond to that, you automatically stop.
Brett McKay: So yeah, I like that there’s a top-down attention where we’re deciding where we are focusing our attention, and then there’s a bottom-up attention where the environment dictates what we’re gonna pay attention to do.
Gloria Mark: That’s right. And when it’s top-down, you’re very goal-oriented, so attention is directed to what our goal is, and when you have a particular internal goal, that’s where you’re paying attention to. We tend to think of attention as being in one place in the mind, but it’s actually a system of different networks, so you have, one network is concerned with vigilance, another one with orienting, which is choosing where to focus, and then another part is called executive control, and this manages interference, so things like distractions, it tries to guard against distractions.
Brett McKay: So there’s top-down attention, which is we’re controlling and the bottom-up attention where the environment is causing us to focus on things, if you hear a loud noise, a bright light, a notification on your phone, that’s bottom up. And you also talk about, there’s other types of attention, you talk about the difference between sustained and this idea that you’ve come up with, I like, it’s kinetic attention, what are the differences between the two?
Gloria Mark: Sustained attention is a period of uninterrupted focus, usually it’s a relatively long period. Kinetic is a term that I came up with to describe the kind of dynamic attention that we’re seeing when people are, for example, switching screens or switching devices, or when they’re scrolling, it reflects the idea that their attention is jumping around, it’s not sustained on any particular screen, or a piece of text.
Brett McKay: And I think another point you make too, is that our attention… There’s domains of our attention, so I thought this is really insightful, so let’s say someone has a goal of planning a trip, they’re, for the next hour, they’re just gonna focus on planning a trip, but you highlight when you’re planning a trip, you’re probably shifting your attention to multiple different things within that goal of planning a trip, so you’re checking kayak.com, looking at the prices, and then you’re texting your wife or here’s this date we could go, and then you’re checking your bank account, so while you’re focused on that top goal of planning a trip, you’re actually shifting your attention to different things to accomplish that goal.
Gloria Mark: That’s right. So you can think of when we do, say any kind of work on our devices, you can look at it through zooming in or zooming out, when you zoom in, you might look at it as people switching different screens, like you talked about going from kayak.com, to say, going to your bank account, to looking at different places on the web that you might wanna travel to, and when you zoom out, you’re looking at it as an entire project, this is my project of planning my trip, and then you’re switching from the project to some other projects such as working on that committee report, to some other project such as writing a chapter, so we can look at our attention at different levels, different levels of granularity.
Brett McKay: And the other thing you point out too that I thought was interesting is that, the distractions or things that could also bubble up to cause us to lose focus, that sort of top-down, can come from inside of ourselves, you’re working on a project and you’re thinking, “Oh, I wanna look up the price of whatever right now,” for no reason whatsoever, and then you go do that.
Gloria Mark: Yeah, it seems so obvious now, but when we first started studying this, we assumed that all distractions and interruptions originated from outside of ourselves, and we would be observing people, and you might see someone say, working in a Word document, and for no explainable reason they suddenly stopped and would pick up their phone, or would turn to their email, and then we realized that this is a quite common thing, and it turns out that people are just about as likely to interrupt themselves as to be interrupted by something in the environment. It was surprising at the time, and now it just seems like quite an intuitive thing.
Brett McKay: So I think a lot of people have experienced the frustration of, “I wanna focus on this one thing, but then I get distracted,” and then you feel bad. So what happens whenever we switch our attention from one task to the next and lose that sustained focus? What’s going on in our brain and why do we feel bad? Like why does it give us that, that frazzled feeling?
Gloria Mark: Everytime we switch our attention to something else, we have to recreate a new internal representation of that thing that we’re looking at, so if you’re working on a report, you have an internal representation of that report, you have a sense of what’s going into that report, what are the sections of the report, how it’s organized, and then suddenly you switch your attention to do email, and you’re being asked to provide some information, so now you have to create a new internal representation of whatever that information is that you have to send, say to your manager or your colleague, and then you might switch to something else and have to create a new internal representation, and then at some point you finally go back to that original task and you have to think of it as re-drawing that internal representation. Now, when we’re switching really fast, you can think of it as an internal white board, and every time we’re switching, we’re erasing that representation and redrawing it, and switching again, erasing it and re-drawing it, and when we do that very rapidly, this requires a lot of mental effort, now, when you talk about what happens, what are the consequences of switching so fast, there are consequences, performance suffers.
So first of all, and this has been shown from decades of research that people make more errors when they switch their attention back and forth among different things, there’s been studies shown with doctors and nurses and pilots, we also know that it takes more time to do tasks when you’re switching, remember you’re recreating that internal representation, there’s time that it takes to re-orient to that new thing you’re looking at, it’s like switching gears in our minds, and it takes time, it uses up our precious mental resources. This is above and beyond what we need for actually doing the work. Now, probably the worst thing of all, is that we get stressed, so when we’re switching our attention, and we’re multi-tasking, it’s also been shown in the laboratory that blood pressure rises, there is a physiological marker that indicates people are stressed. In my own research, we’ve had people wear heart rate monitors in their real world work environments, and we know that their stress goes up when their attention switching goes up as well, and when people report stress, their perceived level of stress goes up, all these measures are consistent and shows that people get more stressed.
Brett McKay: So this is why planning a trip can feel not great, ’cause you’re constantly shifting your attention?
Gloria Mark: Yes, yeah, you have to keep all that information in mind and you have to keep updating that information in your mind, and, yes, it can take up a lot of your very precious and limited mental resources.
Brett McKay: And I think you highlight this research that you’ve all done about task switching, so I think when people think, “Well, I’m multi-tasking,” I think everyone’s heard that, that you’re not really multi-tasking, you’re just switching from one task to the next quickly, it might feel like you’re doing two things at the same time, but you’re not. But you talk about whenever you switch to a task and then switch back to that task you interrupted yourself on, it takes a long, it takes a lot longer to get your brain going back in gear to, to that original task, what’s the kind of average time?
Gloria Mark: That’s right. So remember we talked about zooming in and zooming out, so if we look at zooming out again, and we look at switching between different projects, so you have a project of planning your vacation, then you have another project of doing a committee report, and then you have another project of, let’s say, planning your podcast, so every time you switch at that level, it takes an average of about 25 and a half minutes to get back to that original interrupted project. Now, what do we do in those 25 and a half minutes? We’re not just looking into the air, we’re actually working on other things, so we actually work on average about two and a quarter different projects. So let me explain what that means. So we get interrupted, either by ourselves or by something external to us, we’re working on a second thing, we get interrupted again, so then we begin working on a third thing, we get interrupted again, we start working on another project, and we only spend roughly about a quarter of the time compared to the others on that. And then we go back to the original task, now, if you’re in computer science, this would be called nested interruptions, that work, and what that means is you’re interrupted from your interruption. If that makes sense?
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Gloria Mark: So this is a general pattern, remember, we’re looking at averages and general patterns that we see for many people over the workday, so the main point is that when you’re interrupted, you generally don’t just work on one thing, and then go back to the original task, but there’s intervening things that you take care of before you go back.
Brett McKay: And this is why with task switching or multitasking, it takes longer to get stuff done?
Gloria Mark: That’s right, yeah. And it turns out that most people prefer to not multi-task, that’s called mono-tasking, where you work on one thing through to completion and then start something else, most people by and large prefer that, but it turns out we don’t. We work in what’s called a poly-chronic world. This is a world where multi-tasking is just thrust upon us, we have so many demands that we have to meet, email, and Slack, and phone calls, and so there are so many other demands on our time that it becomes a poly-chronic world, which means we’re switching among different things.
Brett McKay: And I like the analogy of when we switch a task, it’s like a whiteboard in our brain, so you’re working on one task, you switch to another one, so you get to erase the previous schema or mental model of that task and draw a new one. Well, just as on a whiteboard, when you erase something, there’s a residue left over.
Gloria Mark: Oh, yes.
Brett McKay: There’s a residue left over when we task switch as well, like a mental residue.
Gloria Mark: Yeah, I’m so glad you brought that up because imagine that you’re reading some really gripping story on a blog, and you’re reading about, let’s say a horrific accident, and then you go back to your work. Well, that horrific accident, it’s gonna stay with you. There’s remnants of it that will stay with you and interfere with your current task at hand. So you’re absolutely right, we can’t always erase that internal whiteboard completely.
Brett McKay: And that can just cause us to not be able to think as clearly or as effectively as we’d like on that new task, ’cause we’re still thinking about the other thing.
Gloria Mark: That’s right. Yeah, it creates interference.
Brett McKay: Okay. So I think we’ve done a good job of highlighting what attention is, how it works, you can have top-down attention, bottom up, you can zoom in, zoom out. When we shift our attention to different tasks or activities, that causes a lot of, just it’s cognitively expensive and it wears you out and it can stress you out as well. Let’s talk about what influences our ability to direct our attention or have our attention drawn to things. Let’s talk about ourselves, you’ve done research that our personality can influence our ability to pay attention. What does that research say?
Gloria Mark: It turns out that you’re right. People, we are unique beings, we have different personalities. There is a personality test that’s called the Big Five, and this is the most widely used personality test, and there are five different dimensions in this test. There’s extraversion, there’s agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. It turns out that people who score high on the dimension of neuroticism tend to have the shortest attention span. What is neuroticism? When a person is neurotic, they tend to be more susceptible to stress, they tend to re-analyze past events over and over in their mind. Let’s say you had a conflict with your colleague and you keep replaying that over and over in your mind, this kind of continuous replay in our minds uses up a lot of our cognitive resources, and when we’re using our cognitive resources in that way, there’s less resources to actually apply to looking at that information in front of you.
So there’s fewer attentional resources available to devote to the current activity. So people who are neurotics tend to have shorter attention spans. There’s another personality facet that’s called urgency, and that’s related to being impulsive. So when a person scores high in this, what’s called the urgency, they’re impulsive in the short-term, they can’t restrain themselves, they just have to react on whims, and it turns out that people who score high in this area also tend to have shorter attention spans, and one reason is that if you’re impulsive in this sense, in this short-term way, you just can’t restrain yourself from responding to distractions. Now, we looked at those results in our research, and we also looked at people’s susceptibility to stress, and we find that there is a personality trait when we put all this together that I call lack of control, and this does suggest that there is a personality trait that’s associated with distracted-ness, that’s correlated with having short attention spans on our screens.
Brett McKay: And I imagine these individuals will have to do some metacognition to try to figure out what can I do to maybe shape my environment so I’m not as distracted because I have that personality to be distracted.
Gloria Mark: That’s right. Just because we’re dealt a bad set of cards with our personalities, does not mean that we can’t change. We absolutely can change. There are things that we can do that everyone can do to increase their attention spans.
Brett McKay: We also uncovered some counterintuitive findings with personality, with people who are conscientious, so people who are conscientious, they’re very focused or they’re like person with the binders and label different colors etcetera. But correct me if I’m wrong, there are some research where people who score high on conscientiousness, they actually… I think they end up taking more breaks from work because I guess they just wear themselves out faster ’cause they’re just so focused.
Gloria Mark: Well, there’s some really interesting things with people who are conscientious. I am a conscientious person. One of the things we find is that they tend to check their email more frequently, they check it more frequently than other people, the way I would interpret that is that they’re like a sentry on duty, they don’t wanna let anything slip by, so they wanna make sure they’re just on top of things, and as a result, they keep checking their email. We did do a study where we tested software for blocking distractions, and we wanted to see how effective it was, and it turns out when a person scores very low in self-regulation, this is a person who’s very impulsive, this kind of blocking distractions can be helpful at least in the short term, but when a person is conscientious, it’s actually very harmful, why? Because a conscious person can go to some distracting site like social media, but then they can come right back to their work, so they don’t get lost in rabbit holes, but when we cut off these distractions like social media, they tend to work straight through without breaks and as a result, we find they get burned out, so when a person is conscientious, they’re very good at being able to take breaks on social media or news sites or wherever, and they’re also very good at getting back on track.
Brett McKay: And [0:25:26.5] ____ also there’s research our emotions can affect our attention. So if we’re in a positive state it’ll have positive affect, our attention, I think broadens and widens and we see things that we wouldn’t typically see, and when we get more negative, we start narrowing in on things… I think we’ve all experienced that whenever you’re getting a bad mood, just like little things just really bother you a lot, and you just focus all your attention on that, and the research backs that up.
Gloria Mark: Oh, that’s absolutely right. So when you feel positive and when you’re experiencing positive events, this can help us replenish our attentional resources, this is called The Broaden and Build Theory in psychology, and basically what that says is when we have more attentional resources available, we can focus better, we have more energy to it distractions. So these are studies done that people, they have certain stimuli that make them feel positive, like they watch a film that makes them feel happier, and then they give them a test and it shows that they can generate more ideas and better quality ideas compared to others who were given some kind of stimulus like a film that elicits a negative affect, so being positive is a really good thing when it comes to attention, it can really work for us.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now, back to the show.
So we talked about how our personality and our emotions can affect our ability to pay attention, let’s talk about our external environment, I think particularly the internet, I think that’s the thing that people are just the most frustrated. When they’re frustrated about I can’t pay attention. They look to like, Well, it’s the internet. I’m just so distracted, ’cause that’s where you go. So you started this research more than 20 years ago, that’s sort of the birth of the internet as we know it today, how has the Internet changed over that time and how has that affected our attention spans?
Gloria Mark: Well, I think we can all blame our distractions to a single individual by the name of Vannevar Bush. I’m being a little… I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but Vannevar Bush was an engineer who back in 1945, he led the US Office of Scientific Research, and he was very frustrated with the way information was organized, and at the time was organized according to the Dewey Decimal System. And he said, This is too artificial, people can’t find information like this, so he said information should be organized the way people think and people think by associations, and so he came up with this idea, it was just an ingenious idea called the memex and the memex was… It was an idea, it was never built. It was the idea that we should organize information, all our documents, our media or photos or letters of correspondence, all of that should be organized so that they’re associated together in some way, and that’s how the idea of nodes and [0:28:44.7] ____ came up. It’s a great idea, and it’s even worked a little bit too well, because the theory of how our mind and memory is organized is according to a semantic network of associations, so the design on the internet mimics the way that human memory is theorized to be organized as this the semantic network of associated ideas.
So when we go on, say, a Wikipedia page, there are so many points of entry into our mind’s network and we see an idea and this… It sets off just a fire storm of other associations in our minds, and so we start surfing through the internet, we see a link, we click on that, it sets off a whole series of other kinds of associations in our minds, we might see another link sets off other associations, and before we know it, we’re just traveling through the internet and get ourselves into a rabbit hole.
So the internet, of course, it’s grown. With its open architecture, anybody can contribute and anybody and everybody has… The internet has grown, we have… Every year, there’s more and new ways to distract us, so it’s a combination of the internet design and also how our memories are theorized to be structured.
Brett McKay: Right, those connections, I think we’ve all experienced. I know there’s a couple of… Couple of months I remember this one, I was reading an article, I don’t even remember what it was about, but somehow I ended up watching videos of the Osmans from the ’70s, and I was like, How did I get here? I don’t remember, this had nothing… And then also added to that, so the internet is distracting and it causes you to get distracted ’cause if it overlays how our mind theoretically works, but then in the past 15, 20 years, we’ve added that social element to the internet, which we’re social animals, so we’re gonna get distracted by that as well.
Gloria Mark: That’s right, we’re just social beings and our social natures just compel us to go on social media, so we see social rewards were geared to exchange social capital, which means exchanging resources and favors with other people. We spend a lot of time on the internet because we care about our online identity, we spend a lot of time building up that identity and we’re influenced by others, socially influenced by others, so all of these social forces, they interact with the design of social media platforms, and other things online that enable us to connect with other people.
Brett McKay: And then you also have the developers of these platforms and even media companies, they figured out that, Well, if you can get that quick hit, you’re gonna have people spend more time… So YouTube videos or the TikTok, they’ve gotten shorter and shorter, and that seems to cause people to spend more time…
Gloria Mark: Yes, that’s right. TikTok has an algorithm that’s very agile and it adapts to what it believes the viewer likes, and every so often when you watch TikTok, you’re gonna find some video that’s just hilarious, it’s not gonna be every video, but it’s gonna come along every once in a while, and that’s called intermittent reinforcement. And it’s enough to keep you there, it’s enough to get you stuck there, if you knew that every third video would be hilarious, and then all of a sudden that stopped. The third video came along and it wasn’t funny, you would stop watching TikTok from a psychological perspective it’s is called the behavior is extinguished, but when you have intermittent or random reinforcement, you don’t know when that next funny video is coming, and so you stick with it, because you know it’s gonna come at a random interval, and even if it might be 10 videos before something comes along that’s funny, you still know it’s coming and you wait for it. So the hardest behavior to extinguish is this kind of intermittent random reinforcement.
Brett McKay: And with TikTok, their algorithm is in a black box, but there’s… People have some ideas of how it works, and it’s amazing the things that they’re looking at to figure out which video to show to you, they’ll show certain videos to you, depending on where you’re at, whether you’re at work or at home, depending on what time of day it is in the morning or at night? They figure out, Well, now you like to watch these certain types of videos, they’re gonna show you that, they’ll look at how long are you even looking at a video, and that’s sort of an indication, well they like this one? So they’re gonna show you more of that, so it’s just more trying to hook our attention, they’re using your external environment to hook your attention.
Gloria Mark: That’s right, we leave so many digital traces on the internet that can be mined and used to capture our attention.
Brett McKay: So another thing you talk about, your research has looked at is how the way movies and television shows are edited have probably contributed to our shortening attention span. What’s going on there?
Gloria Mark: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting. It’s a chicken and egg question. We don’t know what’s influencing what… We do know that TV and film shot lengths have decreased over the years, they started out much longer, They now average to be about four seconds, that’s pretty short. We also know commercials have shortened commercials used to be a lot longer, now it’s not uncommon to see six-second commercials, so we can’t assess causality, we can’t say that short TV shot lengths caused us to have short attention spans on this screen. It could be the other way around, it could be that film directors and editors are influenced by their own short attention spans to make shot lengths short, it could be that they’re gearing and editing film and TV to what they think the viewer wants to see, they may believe that the viewer doesn’t have the capacity to watch anything longer than a four-second shot length, so it’s a chicken and an egg question, we don’t know, it’s an interesting parallel trend that’s going on, and my interpretation is that this only reinforces us to have short attention spans.
Brett McKay: And then the other thing to look at is, when we use social media, social media platforms constrain the length of our content that we can post it, whether it’s Twitter, when we text, we tend to text in very short length simply because it’s difficult to write on text, and videos like for example, on TikTok promote short videos from many different directions we’re encouraged for our content to be short.
Now we’ve experienced the difference between movies made today compared to 20, 40 years ago. So my son, he’s 12 and a couple weeks ago, you on this rocky kick, he all of a sudden I wanna watch the rocky series, and we’re like, Okay, my wife and I, are like, I don’t know if you’re gonna… Our daughter’s in, I don’t know if you guys are gonna like this ’cause it’s made in the ’70s, it’s really slow. You guys are used to watching your YouTube videos where there’s the jump cuts and people screaming and whatever, but we watched it and… Yeah, you forget how slow movies were like Rocky, there’s hardly any action in it, the boxing cap is the very end, and then the shots are just these really long shots, maybe 10-20 seconds on a single frame, and I was surprised by my kids, they actually took to it, they’ve actually enjoyed it, they actually embraced it, but it was daring to go back in time to see how movies were edited 30, 40 years ago.
So I think a lot of us, we’d like to rein in our scattered attention, we know we might have a problem, we wanna get more focused, but your research has led you to the conclusion that trying to be productive and focused all the time just is impossible, or even desirable. Why is that?
Gloria Mark: Well, that’s because we just can’t have sustained focus for lengthy periods, in the same way that we just can’t lift weights all day without stopping. So we have a limited amount of attentional resources, you can think of it as your attentional capacity. And when you just have sustained focus for a long time, imagine one Zoom meeting after another, where you really have to pay attention, we just can’t do those without getting exhausted. So what we really need to think about is taking meaningful breaks, and when we talked earlier in this program about the importance of positive affect and well-being, that’s really important to aim for, when we use our devices, because then we preserve and build up our attentional resources. When we have a full tank of attentional resources, we can actually do more. We can be more efficient, we can be more productive. So rather than focus for extended periods and just get yourself exhausted, stop, take a break, replenish, and then you’ll actually be more productive.
Brett McKay: And also one thing we should be doing is trying to figure out our attentional rhythm, just as there’s a rhythm to a day, the sun rises and the sun goes down, we have a rhythm for our attention as well.
Gloria Mark: Yes, so we did a study where we probed people over the course of the day, and we would probe them about 18 times a day, and the irony does not escape me that we interrupted them 18 times a day, but there were very short probes that they could answer in a few seconds. And we ask them how engaged they were and what they were doing and how challenged they were, and what we found based on this aggregating the results is that focused attention does have a rhythm over the day, and there seems to be two peaks. For most people, their peak focus time is late morning around 11:00 AM and also mid to late afternoon between 2:00 and 3:00 PM. And this urban flow of our focus seems to coincide with our expanding mental resources, so when we’re at our peak mental resources, that’s when we can apply them and be most focused.
So how can you find out your rhythm? Well, one thing you could do is to learn your chrono type. Most people have a good sense of whether they’re an early type, you like to wake up really early, and that’s when you’re at your best or your late type where you really need to sleep in before you can perform well, but you can actually take a test to find out what your chrono type is, or something called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire.
So that’s one thing you can do, but the other thing is to learn to get a sense of how exhausted you are, how energetic you are, you can even keep a diary throughout the day of what your level of attention is. That can help you understand what your peak is when your best performances, and why is that important? It’s because then you can begin to plan your day and save that time for your hardest work, the work that requires the most creativity, you don’t wanna waste that peak focus time doing email or doing social media, you wanna save it for work that really needs attentional resources.
Brett McKay: So this is all about… I think you make the point, I like this, it’s about developing more agency over your attention.
Gloria Mark: Yes.
Brett McKay: Instead of feeling like you have no control of your attention, you have some control and knowing when you have the most focus that can help you arrange your day and your environment to take advantage of that. Any tips on you found for self-regulating, and so even if you figure out how to arrange your schedule, so you’re working on the most attention-needed task at your peak attention time, you’re still gonna get that temptation to be distracted and do something else. Are there any tips that people can do to better self-regulate?
Gloria Mark: Yes, there are. So one of the things you can do is learn to probe yourself and gain what I call meta-awareness. Meta-awareness means being aware of what you’re doing as it’s unfolding, so we do so many things that are automatic that we talked about earlier here, bring those automatic actions to a conscious awareness, so every time you go to grab your phone, you can probe yourself and ask, why do I feel a need to do that, why do I feel a need to switch screens and go to read news or go to social media, is it because I’m bored. Is it because what I’m doing is too hard, is it simply a habit, and once you become aware of it and understand the reasons, this can help curtail it. Another thing we can do is practice forethought, and this means understanding how your current actions are gonna impact your life later in the day, so what’s your future self gonna look like at the end of the day, if I go and spend an hour on social media, what’s my life is gonna be like at 10:00 PM? Am I gonna be still working on that overdue report, or am I gonna be feeling fulfilled that I accomplished a lot today? I can relax, I can have a glass of wine.
So practicing forethought. And another thing that’s really important is keeping goals in mind, so remember, attention is goal-directed, we pay attention to what our goal is, as long as we keep our goal in mind, our attention is directed toward that. So I did an experiment with colleagues at Microsoft Research, and we used a conversational bot to remind people of their goals for that day at the beginning of the day, and people actually did perform better, at least for the short term for a short period of time, and from this we learned that, yes, it’s important to be aware of your goals, but it’s also important to continually remind ourselves of our goals. So it’s a dynamic process, it’s not just once at the beginning of the day, we have to continually remind ourselves.
Brett McKay: And the other thing you pointed out, I think a lot of people when they’re like, I wanna get better, I wanna get more focused, I wanna install an intention distracting or a blocking app. You mentioned earlier for people who are distract-able, if you had that personality for distractability, it could help. Conscientious people it could backfire, [0:44:14.7] ____ up working more, but you actually say what you really need to do, you’re better off is developing that sense of agency with that probing you do, so you can just do it on your own, you’ll be better off that way.
Gloria Mark: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then you also… I thought this is surprising. You tell people not to feel guilty about doing those sort of rote online activities that they do, like playing games or scrolling social media. Why is that?
Gloria Mark: Yeah, and it’s not just online activities, but any kind of rote activity, so first of all, people are happy as their [0:44:47.5] ____ when they do these kinds of rote activities, they can help relax us, and if we use them right, they can even help us build up our mental resources. Because we’re engaged in something, but we’re not expending a lot of mental resources, but it’s so important to be strategic about using this. We can’t play simple games all day, but it is fine for a short break, and if you have… Let’s say you feel pretty exhausted and you’ve got another meeting coming up in 10 minutes, it’s okay to just pull back, do something that’s going to calm you, and you know in 10 minutes you’re gonna have to stop. And I wanna emphasize the best break of all is to go outside and take a walk in nature, because studies show that that helps us destress, it helps us generate more ideas, it’s called divergent thinking. That’s the most important thing we can do. But if you can’t do it and circumstances don’t always allow that, then it’s okay to take an online break, but be strategic, and you have to find some hook that’s going to pull you out if you can’t do it on your own, whether it’s setting a timer or whether you do it 10 minutes before a meeting, but you have to make sure that you don’t get stuck in it, and yeah, we should not feel guilty for doing that.
Brett McKay: Okay, so if you wanna take a little break to do a quick game or do a social media scroll, or better yet, take a walk outside, don’t feel bad about that, ’cause we need breaks to replenish our mental resources, and it puts us in a positive mood. Well, maybe checking social media won’t put you in a good mood, but a simple game or walk can put you in a positive mood. And like we talked about earlier, feeling calm and positive really helps your focus overall, but you just need to be strategic about this all. Make sure it’s not something you’re gonna have… Make sure you chose an activity that you’re not gonna have trouble pulling away from. And I think the big takeaway you want people to understand is that, yes, we can figure out ways to be better focused, but it’s not possible to be focused all the time. So it’s really about learning how to follow your natural rhythms, focusing when you need to, but also allowing yourself breaks, you’re cutting yourself some slack. You want people to have balance, a balanced focus.
Gloria Mark: Yes, absolutely, that achieving a psychological balance is really the most important thing we can think about when we use our devices. Tech is not going away, some people do a digital detox, that’s fine, but it’s not a permanent solution. And for anyone to pull off completely from digital technology it only penalizes that person. If you’re a knowledge worker, you get cut off from important work communications; for all of us, even we get cut off from loved ones and friends and family, so digital detox is… It might work in the very short term, but it’s just not a permanent solution, it’s better for us to develop agency, to control our own attention, and the ship has sailed [laughter] Tech is here to stay. So let’s learn to live with it and feel positive when we use it.
Brett McKay: Well, Glory, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Gloria Mark: Yes, so you can go to my website, which is www.gloriamark.com. That’s all one word, gloriamark. My book is called Attention Span, where I cover what we talked about today, but a whole lot more, and I would be very happy to hear from you if you go to my website and would love to hear what people think.
Brett McKay: Well, Gloria Mark, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Gloria Mark: Oh, it’s been a real pleasure of mine too. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest here was Gloria Mark, she’s the author of the book Attention Span. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, gloriamark.com, also check at our show notes @AOM.is/attention. Where you find links to resources where we built deeper into this topic.
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