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Q&A with Gloria Mark, Author of “Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity”

Gloria Mark is a Professor of Informatics at University of California Irvine. She is the author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity. I had the pleasure of chatting with her about how our digital world has dramatically shortened our attention span. We explored what that costs us, and how we can strike the right balance between focus and the multiple demands for our attention.

Gloria Mark is a Professor of Informatics at University of California Irvine. She is the author of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity. I had the pleasure of chatting with her about how our digital world has dramatically shortened our attention span. We explored what that costs us, and how we can strike the right balance between focus and the multiple demands for our attention.

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Our dramatically shortened attention span

Annie: Can we start with a brief explanation of your field, informatics, and its connection to attention span, the subject of your new book?

Gloria Mark: Informatics is the intersection of people and computing. When we think of computer science, we think of designing systems without necessarily including people into the mix. I work in an area called human-computer interaction. We are living in a digital age, a world where people are so involved in computers. On the flip side, computers are embedded in our lives. Let’s think about this mix, this integration of people and computing. Informatics includes the design of computing and AI and social media, but it also integrates psychology, sociology, anthropology, and organizational behavior. It’s a very interdisciplinary field.

Annie: I think we all have the general intuition that computers are bad for our attention span. Is that intuition is correct?

Gloria Mark: I would say it’s partly correct, and it’s not just our computers that are affecting our attention span. It’s much broader. There are many aspects in society that are also affecting our attention spans. For example, even film and tv and the way that’s designed is helping reinforce us to have short attention spans. I think it’s not so much the computer per se, but the fact that we have access. We’re in such close proximity to being able to access information from anywhere and at any time. We’re carrying around supercomputers in our pockets. I think it’s just the lure of being able to access so much information.

It’s also, it turns out from my research, that we are just as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted from some notification. There’s a common narrative that, “Let’s blame the algorithms, let’s blame the notifications.” That’s just part of the story about what affects our attention. But there’s so much more to it, and a lot of it is just ourselves.

Annie: If we look at it historically, when did we start having good science about attention span? And how has it shifted since we’ve been measuring it?

Gloria Mark: I don’t know of anyone who’s measured attention span before I started doing it, and that was in 2003. Digital computing came about in 2003, when we started studying it. We used stopwatches. That was the only technology we had. We would click on stopwatches while following people around. The early studies were done in the workplace, and every time people shifted their attention to anything, we would click, and note the time and the activity. At that time, people averaged two and a half minutes on a screen before switching.

Then, the invention of computer logging software came along, and so we could automatically detect when people were switching screens. In 2012, the average was 75 seconds on a screen. There have been about five studies starting from 2014 through 2020, and not just my studies, but also replicated by others showing attention span declining to between 44 and 50 seconds. In a 2016 study we did, the average attention span was 47 seconds, and the median was 40 seconds, which means half of the observations we found were 40 seconds or less, nearly half of what it was in 2012.

A 3-fold problem: The adverse effects of a lowered attention span

Annie: I have the intuition that is probably bad. What are the adverse effects of that lowered attention span that means switching screens, moving back and forth between tasks?

Gloria Mark: There are three types of adverse effects. First, we know that errors increase. There has been a long line of laboratory studies that show that performance worsens when you switch back and forth between tasks as compared to doing tasks sequentially.

Second, it takes longer for people to do things. Let’s say you have two tasks and you’re switching your attention between them. It takes longer to do either task than if you were to finish one in sequence and then move on to something else. The reason it takes longer is that every time we turn to a new task, we have to reorient to that task. We have a mental model, and we have to summon up that mental model again and apply it to this new task.

Annie: The sum ends up being worse than the parts.

Gloria Mark: Exactly. But the third thing, and this is something I am very concerned about, is that we know, from lots of laboratory studies, that switching causes stress. Blood pressure rises, both diastolic and systolic pressure. There’s also a physiological marker in the body, secretion of immunoglobulin A reactivity, that shows that stress increases.

When I have looked in the field, in research in 2015 and 2016, we’ve had people wear heart-rate monitors. They’re walking around their office with heart rate monitors, and that can provide a measure of heart rate variability, which is an indicator of stress. We have timestamps for what people are doing on their computers. We have timestamps from the heart rate monitors. We see a correlation that the faster the switching, the higher the stress is as measured by heart rate variability.

Subjective measures of people in the field also indicate that at times when their attention is shifting that psychologically they feel more stressed. I did an experiment back in 2012 where we cut off email in an organization for a workweek, and we found that there was less switching. In other words, people could focus longer because that’s the flip side: If you’re not looking at frequency of switching, you can look at length of attention duration. The length of attention duration on any computer screen increased without email. As a result of cutting off that email, people’s stress went down. We can actually see a causal relationship.

Annie: Is this reduction in attention span changing our brains? Is there fMRI data on that?

Gloria Mark: There are some studies that show that there are effects. There was a really nice study done by Gary Small at UCLA. He recruited participants (age, 55-76) with minimal internet search engine experience. Before and after introducing them to the internet, he did fMRIs on their brains and found changes in their brains.

“But I happen to be very good at multitasking”

Annie: This is all bad news: We have 25% of the attention span that we had two decades ago. It is making us make a lot more errors. It’s slowing us down because there are switching costs. It’s adversely affecting our health, increasing stress levels. It’s changing our brains. But then we hear people all the time say things like, “I happen to be very good at multitasking.” Are we ever truly multitasking? And if so, is it actually realistic that all those people think they are great at it are great at it?

Gloria Mark: The answer is complicated. Yes, we can be good at multitasking, but only as long as one of those activities uses automatic attention. I can drive and have a conversation with a passenger because driving is generally automatic, but as soon as a car tries to swerve in front of me, I stop talking.

If two or more tasks involve controlled processing, we are not really multitasking in the sense of doing things in parallel, at the same time. We’re switching our attention back and forth. When people switch their screens, they are using controlled processing because they’re looking at what’s on that screen. Maybe, to some extent, if you’re surfing online, you might tend to do that automatically. But if you’re reading any content on that page, then it is a kind of controlled processing.

Annie: So that means “multitaskers” will make more errors, be slower to complete tasks, and be more stressed since they aren’t actually doing things at the same time but, rather, switching back and forth.

So, if we are so bad at multitasking when doing two tasks which require controlled and sustained attention, then why do people think they’re so good at multitasking?

Gloria Mark: It’s a badge of honor to show that they have this great skill. And don’t forget, we live in a world where multitasking is considered a great skill to have because the scope of work has expanded. People have so much they have to deal with. If you can say, “I’m a great multitasker,” it’s like saying, “Yeah, I can handle this work.”

I will say there’s a really small portion of the population, exceedingly small, of people who are super-taskers, people who are really good, very efficient at switching tasks. But it’s such a small proportion. I don’t believe that all the people who say they’re good are really super-taskers.

Uninterrupted: focus, deep thinking, and flow

Annie: Maybe we should stop thinking about multitasking as something to brag about. If we really understand what it’s doing to our attention, would be better if we aspired to say, “I am a bad multitasker, but I’m great on focusing on one thing at a time”?

Gloria Mark: That would be what you could brag about.

Annie: Can you tell me what are some of the advantages to getting your attention onto one thing at once?

Gloria Mark: It enables us to get into deep thought. It takes some time to get acclimated to a task. If you’re spending more than 47 seconds, then you have that time to really dig in and go deeply into something. I know for myself, if I spend time on something, I may not have a new idea right away, but in spending time with it, ideas will come.

The epitome of deep engagement is known as “flow,” which describes total immersion in an activity. Flow is this nice mixture of being challenged at something and being able to use the skill. Let’s say you’re a pianist. If you’re playing a simple tune, you’re not going to get into a flow state. You’re not being challenged and you’re not really using your skill.

But if you’re playing something that’s too challenging, then you’re probably not going to get into flow either, because you’re struggling with it. It’s the sweet spot of challenge and skill that gets people into flow. Someone is playing soccer and the team is just perfectly coordinated. Your eyes are on the ball. You can get it into flow. Before I went into psychology, I was an artist. I would get into flow very easily because a lot of it was just the nature of the work. It’s work that’s inherently creative, and you can get deep into it really fast and really be challenged. Another characteristic of flow is that you just become unaware of the passage of time. You’re so immersed in something that you’re not paying attention to time.

There’s a lot of hype about, “let’s get into flow states at work!” That’s not really flow. The kind of work I do now is more analytical thinking. I design studies. I do experiments. I do writing. Once in a while I might get into flow, but for the most part, it’s a kind of analytical thinking. It’s not necessarily a flow state. And that’s not bad. I think that the term “flow state” is just overused.

Annie: Is there also a downside to becoming preoccupied with achieving a flow state or trying to do hour after hour of intense, uninterrupted analytical thinking?

Gloria Mark: Having recognized the benefits of focus, it’s important to be aware of the level of cognitive resources that people have – your attentional capacity. If you let it drain too much and get yourself cognitively tired or exhausted, we can’t perform very well. If you look on the internet, and it’s really interesting because I’ve done some internet searches on this, you see this hype all over the place: “How to focus 10 hours at a time.” “How to achieve uninterrupted focus.” “How to focus all day.”

We can’t do that. We’re humans. We have limited capacity. We need to be aware of what our limitations are. We get ourselves into a terrible cycle when our cognitive resources are drained. When that happens, we become even more susceptible to distractions, even from ourselves. Then, we get distracted, our attention shifts, and our resources drain even more because when you’re shifting your attention, this tank just drips, drips, drips away these resources. It is important to keep our tank of resources replenished.

States of attention and individual rhythms of focus

Annie: I know you elaborate in the book about a theoretical framework of attentional states. Clearly, concepts like focus and attention have more than the two dimensions of good/bad or seek/avoid. Before we get into strategies for addressing these challenges of the digital age, can you explain that framework?

Gloria Mark: I’ve done several studies with colleagues at Microsoft Research. In one of our initial experiments, we would probe people in the workplace 18 times a day. The irony is not lost on me that we were interrupting them. We had people answer two quick questions. This probe would come on their computers or phones. “For the thing you were just doing, how challenged were you and how engaged were you?” They would click on these answers and then continue.

Before the study, I came up with this framework. I’m defining “focus” as being challenged and engaged. If you’re really engaged in something and you’re challenged, you’re in a “state of focus.” But if you’re engaged in something and not at all challenged, that’s rote activity. Like playing Candy Crush. If people reported being really engaged and not challenged, we call that being in a “state of using rote attention.” And if you’re neither challenged nor engaged, you’re bored. It’s a “state of boredom.” If you’re challenged, but you’re not engaged …. Like, when I have a tech problem, I have to fix the tech problem. I’m just not engaged in doing it. And it’s so frustrating. I call that a “state of frustration.”

Based on that, we were able to map when people experienced these four states: focus, rote, boredom, and frustration. There seemed to be rhythms during the day when people reported experiencing focus. There was a peak time at mid-to-late morning. And again, there was peak time at 2-to-3-p.m. Because we’re humans, we have variability. If you’re in an early or late chronotype, your rhythm of attention might be different.

But I would say it’s important for people to think about designing your day based upon your own personal rhythm of when you have peak focus times. People generally don’t design their day around their rhythms; they have a to-do list. At 9 a.m., I’m going to finish this. At 10 a.m., I’m going to finish this. At noon, I’m going to finish this. That doesn’t correspond to people’s level of attentional resources. I’m saying people need to understand their own personal rhythm of when they’re at their peak.

We found that people don’t generally jump into being focused first thing in the morning. They need time to ramp up to it. They do email and read news and other things. It’s almost like warming up before you exercise. That’s what we found that people tend to prefer.

Strategies: Balancing focus with taking (the right kinds of) breaks

Annie: You mentioned earlier that it’s important to keep our tank of resources replenished. I’ve heard people talk about “cognitive snacking,” and I do this some myself. Maybe there’s Wordle or some other puzzle that you like to play or something like that that can give you a little break. Would it be better if we, instead of switching in 40-second blocks, expanded by a lot the blocks of time that we focus on something that does take our attention, and then have small breaks in between to maintain focus? Is that fair?

Gloria Mark: That’s very well said. In the book I talk about this idea of “rote activity” and the value of rote activity, and that’s exactly this idea of cognitive snacking. I have an example in the book about Maya Angelou. She talked about having her Big Mind and her Little Mind. Her Big Mind was what she used for writing. She would go deep into thought in her writing, and then she would pull back and let Little Mind take over. Little Mind was playing crossword puzzles, doing this kind of snacking. That’s exactly what I say can work for rote activity.

It turns out from our research that people are happiest when they do rote activity. Why? Because it’s engaging. It’s easy. It’s calming. They get very quick gratification and stress goes down. You get quick gratification because you’re killing the zombies or solving the Wordle or whatever it is. That’s great for replenishing. I’ve gotten flak from this because a lot of people say, “Stay away from activities like that.” I’m saying, no, it’s fine. You can do it. The problem is if you get stuck in a rabbit hole. You don’t want to end up doing these activities for 2 hours, but it’s perfectly fine to do them for 10 minutes, calm yourself down, get yourself happy, and then go back and do your task again.

Annie: It sounds like it’s much more about intention. Let’s say we’re doing something that’s relatively mindless, killing zombies. We don’t want to mindlessly do the mindless thing. Be intentional about doing the mindless thing. How long are we going to do it for? When are we going to do it?

Gloria Mark: Yes, absolutely. I also talk about the idea of probing ourselves to become more aware of what it is we’re doing because so much of the time we just do these automatic actions. We see that tab for social media and we click on it, or we see the phone and we grab it. That’s automatic. We’re not consciously thinking, but if we probe ourselves, we can become aware of doing these automatic actions. When we become aware, then we can be intentional and we can make a plan. We can say, “I’m going to work for 20 more minutes and then I’m going to go to social media.” It is about learning to understand these automatic impulses and being able to reflect on that and form a plan.

Annie: Let’s think about these plans. You mentioned, for example, that you had done work where you cut off email and that created more attention. I also know, for example, when we’re having family dinner, nobody’s allowed to have the phone at the table. We’re removing, in a classic Ulysses contract kind of way, the thing that would distract us. I know from Cal Newport, his work on deep work, he talks about how he would, in the most extreme case, book an international flight where he knew he would have no internet to make sure that he was going to attend to whatever writing he was doing. From an individual perspective, what we can be doing to make ourselves less distracted?

Gloria Mark: I talked about this idea of probing yourself as one example. There are other things that people can do to gain agency. I’ll give an example. Being aware of goals is really important because attention is goal directed. In one of the studies I did with colleagues at Microsoft Research, at the beginning of each day we asked people, what is your task goal? What is the thing you want to accomplish today? Then, we asked them what their emotional goal was, how do you want to feel today? It’s important to not neglect emotional goals.

People were very good at answering those questions, and they were very good at sticking to those goals. However, goals slip, and they only stuck to those goals for a very short time. Then, life intervened and they began to do other things. It tells us that it’s really important to keep goals in mind, and to keep reminding ourselves of our goals. This could be done by something external. I mean even writing them on post-it notes or having some message on your phone that’s reminding you of what the goal is that you want to achieve today.

Annie: What ideas in terms of company culture would help us be less distracted?

Gloria Mark: There are some companies that have quiet time where electronic messaging can’t be sent during a certain period. The reason this is good is it takes pressure off people. We’re social creatures. If a colleague or your manager sends you an email or Slack message or text, you feel pressured to respond right away. This removes that pressure so people would have a period of time to be able to work.

In some countries – for example, France, Ireland, and Ontario, Canada – they have right-to-disconnect policies and laws so that people are not penalized for not answering work communications after work hours. This gives people a chance to psychologically detach from work. Psychological detachment is so important for mental health. That’s one of the biggest problems: that people are just not able to psychologically detach. If you can detach, you can better reattach the next day because you’ve restored your resources, you hopefully can sleep better, you can start your day fresh.

There’s this notion of presentism in the workplace, which is not just showing up for work, but really being engaged and motivated. That’s the real key. We don’t want people to show up exhausted. And that’s a trend we’re seeing in workplaces.

Annie: It sounds a little bit like you’re saying that we need to construct an environment where we’re getting the benefits of disconnection and the benefits of connection at the same time while trying to reduce the cost of both of those things.

Gloria Mark: Yes. I, by no means, advocate giving up technology. That ship has sailed. We live in a technological world. We can’t just go back. What I’m arguing for is how we can live intelligently in the digital age. How we can think of our computers and phones as tools to help us, but we should not be subservient to our tools, which is in a lot of ways what’s happened.

The Zeigarnik effect: Carrying the tension around of your interrupted tasks

Annie: One last question. We’ve talked about the general problems from interruptions as well as the benefits of certain kinds of interruptions – whether we call them cognitive snacks, rote activities, or Little Mind. In the book, you described an interesting aspect of tension from interruptions known as “the Zeigarnik effect.” Can you explain that and how to relieve that tension?

Gloria Mark: Bluma Zeigarnik did a really interesting study in 1927 (published in English in 1938) where she found that people remembered interrupted tasks better than tasks that were finished. The reason, she explained, is an interrupted task creates this tension to finish this task. I talk about the Zeigarnik effect in the book and the idea that if you don’t get to your email, it lingers in your mind. For any kind of interrupted task, it lingers in your mind.

One consequence of carrying around the burden of your unfinished tasks is difficulty falling asleep. A technique found to work really well is to write down your interrupted tasks before you go to sleep. You are offloading them onto external memory, taking them out of your mind.  In 2018, Michael Scullin and colleagues at Baylor University studied participants who came to a sleep laboratory. Those they had write down their unfinished tasks fell asleep significantly faster than those they had write down only their recently completed tasks.

Annie: I know someone who could use that piece of advice. I’m going to pass that on. You’ve actually brought up several pieces of advice worth passing on. This has been great. Thank you so much for your time.

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