UCI Podcast: If you can’t pay attention, you’re not alone
Gloria Mark explains why we’re distracted and how to fight it
People all over the world are taking notice of Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, a new book by UCI’s Gloria Mark, Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics. For over two decades, Mark has studied human-computer interaction, examining how the increase in our society’s use of technology has altered people’s attention spans.
Mark says this book is not targeted toward academics but rather a general audience: “It’s for anyone who uses a computer or a phone – even for those who think they have good self-regulation skills – and wants to better understand the science behind attention and better understand themselves.”
In this UCI Podcast, Mark explains different types of attention and various myths about it. She also offers suggestions on how to find better balance, which could lead to improved productivity and well-being.
This episode of the UCI Podcast was recorded in the podcast studio in the ANTrepreneur Center. Music for this episode of the UCI Podcast, titled “Socialite Mugshot,” provided by Verified Picasso via the Audio Library in YouTube Studio.
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From the University of California Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to the UCI Podcast.
Our guest today has written a book that has people talking all over the world since it first published in January of this year. The title of the book is Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity. The author is Gloria Mark, Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. Professor Mark’s research area is human-computer interaction. She studies how technology affects people’s attention, mood, and stress level. Thank you for joining us today, Professor Mark.
Thank you so much for having me.
I really appreciate that we’re both screen free for this conversation. That’s a rarity in today’s technological times, and that’s really at the center of some of the questions that your book is trying to answer around our capabilities to get anything done with so many different tasks and devices that demand our attention. How would you describe the research that went into writing Attention Span?
I’m trained as a psychologist and typically psychologists bring people into a laboratory. And laboratory studies are great because you can control all the things that you don’t want to study, and you just focus on that variable of interest. So, what you’re doing is you’re setting up an abstract model of the world. But you know we use technology in all aspects of our lives. We use it at work, we use it at home, and a laboratory just can’t possibly simulate all the things that happen to us in real life, right? It can’t simulate the amount of stress we feel or the relationships we have, or the conflict you just experienced or the things that make us laugh. And so, to that end, I decided that it’s really important to go where people are – to go in their natural environments and study their tech use. So, I set up what I call “living laboratories” and I use a variety of different methods. I use sensors. I use computer logging techniques to see exactly how long people are on each screen. I use probes where people answer very short questions when they pop up on their phones or computers. I do surveys. And I use all of this information together to create a holistic understanding of how people are using their devices.
What drew you to studying this topic?
My own experience. I was living and working in Germany and in the year 2000, I came back to the U.S. and I started out as an academic – as an assistant professor at UCI. And in contrast to where I was working in Germany, which was a research institute and where I only had to focus on a single project, here I am in academia and, all of the sudden, I have multiple research projects and multiple people. Everything was very exciting. It was very hard to say no – to turn anything down. And I found that my attention was just switching from project to project, from screen to screen. But at the same time, I also found myself glued to my screen. For me, grabbing lunch was just a very short break to grab food, come back and get back in front of my screen. And I began to wonder, “Is it just me or are other people experiencing this as well?” And I decided, “You know, I’m a scientist, I can study this.” And that’s what started me off.
I remember the first article that I read about your book. A pair of numbers made my eyes pop out of my head. Those two numbers are 47 seconds and 25 minutes. This is your work – your groundbreaking work. So, can you please share with our audience the significance of those two numbers?
For the 47 seconds, let me start by saying we first started studying people’s attention span on their screens back in 2003. And, at the time, we found that people’s attention averaged about two and a half minutes on any screen before switching. And that first study was published in 2004. The paper had a funny title – it was called “Constant, Constant Multitasking Craziness,” which we thought described pupil’s experiences. We kept tracking attention spans. In 2012, we found that they averaged 75 seconds on any screen before switching. And in the last five or six years, we found that they averaged 47 seconds. It’s not just my work –others have replicated it. One person found 50 seconds on average. Another person found 44 seconds. The midpoint is called the “median” and that’s 40 seconds. And what that means is that half of all the observations we found were 40 seconds or less. So, people’s attention when they use their devices just flits around from screen to screen, from device to device. I call this “kinetic attention.” Kinetic means dynamic – and that’s exactly a way to describe what we observe with people.
Then remind us what 25 minutes refers to.
I also thought maybe it’s not so bad to switch so frequently if you’re working on the same project. So as an academic, when I write papers, I might be reading something. I might be writing in a word document. Maybe I’m checking email about something to do with this project. So, it all concerns the same project.
So, what we did was we clustered our observations into projects. And first of all, we found that people spend about 10 and a half minutes on any project before switching. And if a person is interrupted – and you can be interrupted by something external, like a notification. You can also be interrupted by something within yourself. And we are as likely to interrupt ourselves as to be interrupted from something external to us. So, you’re working on a project, 10 and a half minutes on average. You get interrupted, you work on something else, on average about 10 and a half minutes. And then something else. You start to work on yet another project, and then you go back, and you pick up that original interrupted project.
That’s the general pattern of behavior that we find for information workers over the course of the day. So, it takes about 25 and a half minutes to pick up that original interrupted project. There’s a lot that happens in between. And one thing to consider is that every time we get interrupted, you’re focusing – or should be focusing – on some other activity, and then you switch, turn your attention to something else. This can leave a residue. So, imagine I’m working on my article and then I check news and then I read something horrifying in the news – that can leave a residue. And I try to go back and focus on something else, but I keep thinking of this horrible accident. It creates interference. There’s a lot that goes on when we’re switching tasks.
I have long recognized in myself that I have varying levels of engagement depending on the activities that I’m doing. And I want to thank you because in the book you actually break down that there are different types of attention. How do you describe those?
You know, most people think that there are only two states of attention. We’re focused or we’re unfocused. And, you know, I began to think about this some more and I realized that there’s some things we do where we’re deeply engaged in it, and it requires a lot of mental effort. If I’m reading an article, I really have to use some effort to try to understand it. But other things we do, we can be deeply engaged in it – like watching a Netflix film or if I’m playing some game on my phone, right? I’ll be very engaged in it, but I’m not exerting any kind of effort at all. So, the first kind of attention with effort I call “focused attention.” It’s a label, right? The second kind of attention where you’re deeply engaged and not at all challenged, I call “rote attention.” Now, you can also be neither engaged nor challenged. I call that a “state of boredom.” You can also be very challenged and not at all engaged. Like, if I have a tech problem and I just can’t solve it, but I have to – if I want to get any work done – I call that a “state of frustration.” It’s a label that I use. So, we have these four types of attention.
That makes perfect sense. Your book also details some myths about attention. What are they?
The first myth comes from a popular narrative. We hear this all the time. And that is, when you’re using your computer, you have to be focused as long as possible. You should feel guilty if you can’t focus. You see phrases like “how to achieve nonstop focus,” “how to focus for 10 hours.” It turns out that it’s just not the way we as humans are set up to be able to focus for lengthy periods of time, especially if we don’t take breaks. It’s just not natural. We can’t focus nonstop – in the same way that we can’t lift weights nonstop – without getting ourselves exhausted.
What I also found is that people actually have rhythms of when they have focused attention, and it corresponds with the ebb and flow of the attentional resources that we have. And so, there’s times when we’re at peak focus – where we have a lot of attentional resources that we can use for tasks – and for most people, this actually happens mid- to late-morning. Then there’s a second peak, which is in the afternoon about 2-3:00 p.m. You know, it’s important to understand what these rhythms of peak focus are – as opposed to thinking about just spending nonstop focus for many hours at a time.
The second myth is that the ideal state of attention that we should strive for is the idea of flow when we use our technologies. Now, flow is a term that the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi came up with – he discovered this. And flow is really… it’s a state of high creativity and people are just unaware of the passage of time.
Now many people have experienced flow, so they understand what this means. I started out as an artist – I used to experience flow regularly. If you’re a person who plays music or plays sports or you have a hobby that you’re passionate about doing – say carpentry – you might be able to experience flow quite regularly. But for most people who do knowledge work, which means the primary task that they do is dealing with digital information, it’s just not realistic to expect that people will get into flow. It’s about the nature of the task.
We have to think about having just the right balance of challenge and using our skill and having the right conditions for intrinsic motivation to really get into a flow state. And you can do that with any kind of artistic or music or sports endeavor, but it doesn’t happen magically when we’re using our devices. And unless you’re playing computer games or you’re a computer coder who writes really complex coding – they get into flow.
The third myth – and we hear this quite often – is that the reason why we’re so distracted when we use our devices is primarily because of the notifications and targeted ads that we receive when we use our computers and phones. Well, it’s true. They are responsible for some of our distractions, but it’s not the full story.
We do not use technology in a vacuum. We’re part of what I call a sociotechnical world. What that means is that there are all kinds of social influences. There are other technical influences that affect our attention.
For example, people may not realize that the very design of the internet was set up to mimic the way that our memory works. We think in terms of associations – that’s a theory of how semantic memory is structured. The internet, which comes from an idea called the Memex from Vannevar Bush back in 1945, was originally conceived as way to organize information in terms of associations. So, we go onto some internet page – let’s say a Wikipedia page – we start reading it and there’s so many entry points into our mind’s network. And we see an idea, we click on that link, and it sets off just a firestorm of associations inside of our minds. Then we see another link that’s associated with something we’re thinking of… before we know it, we’re down the rabbit hole.
45 minutes later… (laughs)
Yes. And of course, there are social influences. We’re social beings. We check email because we want to maintain a balance of social capital. So, I’m going to answer your email because I’m hoping you’ll answer mine, right? So, we exchange in social capital. There are all kinds of other influences as well: there’s power, there’s maintaining online identity. So, there’s just a host of reasons why we’re distracted. It’s not just notifications and targeted algorithms.
The fourth myth is that when we do some kind of rote activity – remember, this is the activity where you’re really engaged and you’re not at all challenged – that when we do that, it has no purpose for us. It’s wasting our time. We shouldn’t play mindless, silly games because they’re taking away from something more important. And I argue that they serve a purpose for us.
So, first of all, our research finds out that when people do this kind of rote, mindless activity, they’re actually happier. Why? It has a calming influence on people. I have a game – a simple anagram game – that I play on my phone. Now, we can use these kinds of activities strategically to help us step back from hard work. Help our limited attentional resources replenish, right? It’s a way to calm us. Now we have to be strategic. You know, you can’t do that if you know that you’ve got to prepare for a meeting in an hour. Of course, it’s not a good idea to do it. But if you have a few minutes before a meeting that you know is going to be difficult, you can just kind of sit back, you can do some mindless activity for a few minutes and then you know, you have to stop.
We can create what I call hooks to pull us out of these rabbit holes. An example of a hook is knowing you have an appointment coming up. Another hook is you’re doing a commute and you know you’ve got to stop doing this activity to get off on your stop – hopefully you will stop. But we can look around us and we can create hooks – you know, external events that can help pull us out of these rabbit holes. In other words, we can allow ourselves a few minutes to do this kind of mindless rote activity. And it can help us. It might even make us happy.
I really appreciate the idea of the hook creation because it’s the first of what I call several solutions that your book kindly offers to help us free ourselves from the shackles of these device distractions. What are some other solutions that you recommend to help improve our attention span and, if anything, kind of our psychological interpretation of how we’re doing in that fight with our attention span?
A lot of what happens when we get distracted is that we are drawn to things automatically. So, we use automatic attention. So, a notification that flashes on our screen, we respond to that automatically. That’s just the way humans are wired. We have some inner thought or some urge or some memory. We respond to that automatically. So, we have this urge, we want to check news. So, we switch our screens and check news.
The point is to become aware of these automatic actions, to bring these unconscious actions into a conscious awareness. And if we can do that, we can be intentional. And this comes from a social psychologist named Albert Bandura, who wrote a lot about the idea of how people can achieve self-efficacy. So, for example, in stopping smoking or stopping substance abuse. We can make our actions intentional when we use our devices. And when we do that, we can change. Now how do we do that?
During the pandemic, UCI offered a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, and I found it to be so useful. And mindfulness is about keeping your focus on the present. And I realized, you know, maybe I can somehow apply that to what we do on our devices. And so, I came up with this idea that I call “meta-awareness,” which is being aware of what you’re doing as it’s unfolding.
How can we do that? We can probe ourselves. We can learn to recognize when we have these urges that you want to switch screens and go to social media or go to the news or, you know, you see something fleeting across your screen. You can become aware of that. Probe yourself and say, “I don’t need to pay attention to that.” Or, importantly, we become aware of signals inside of our minds that tell us you’re fatigued – it’s time to stop, pull back, take a break.
So, the idea is to become more intentional and aware of what we’re doing. It’s hard, at first. But for me, it’s now become second nature. It’s like a skill that I can develop and now it almost has become automatic for me to probe myself.
So, another thing I’ll mention is called practicing forethought. And that means understanding how our current actions can impact our future selves. The timeframe that I think makes the most sense is our future selves at the end of the day. So, if I have this urge – like I want to spend 30 minutes checking the news because there’s a lot going on in the news right now – I imagine where I want to be and how I want to view myself at 7:00 p.m. or even 10:00 p.m. Am I going to be relaxed and feeling fulfilled and feeling rewarded that I’ve finished my deadline or am I still going to be working on that deadline?
The more concrete you can make that visualization about your future self at the end of the day, the easier it is for you to go back, pay attention and work on that deadline.
Now, there are also collective solutions. One solution is helping people detach from work at the end of the day. So, psychological detachment is really important because we need time to be able to build our attentional resources back up. The stress we experience during the day has carryover effects. We bring it home and yet when we still keep working – when we don’t stop work in the evenings – it adds to that stress. And it can become chronic. And there’s all kinds of negative health impacts when we experience chronic stress. So, it’s so important to psychologically detach. And so, I do think workplaces need to do things to help us detach.
Some countries even have policy, which is called “right to disconnect” laws. France has a law called the El Khomri law, where workers are not penalized if they don’t answer electronic communications after work hours. Ireland has right to disconnect policy. Ontario has right to disconnect policy. Believe it or not, New York City tried to enact a local law for this, but that didn’t work.
I was going to say, I bet that fell apart.
That completely fell apart. And in fact, my favorite organization that argued against it was the New York City Bureau of Tourism, which said, “We are the city that never sleeps. That’s why we’re the number one tourist destination in the world. So, we can’t possibly have our workers turn off.”
But I do think it’s really important for people to psychologically detach. You have to remember we’re all in this interconnected web of information and if someone sends us a message through email or Slack or texting or phone, we feel obligated to respond. Right? We’re just caught up in this web and I think that organizations can play a role in stopping this kind of practice to give us a chance to step back.
I’d love to see that kind of change. That’s very hopeful and optimistic and, like you said, something that could happen. What would you really like people to take away from the reading experience of Attention Span?
I would say the first is that we have limited and very precious attentional resources. And use them wisely. Understand that when we’re switching our attention so fast, this tank of resources that we have leaks because it requires additional effort to reorient to new tasks every time we switch. So, I would say use our resources wisely.
The second thing is that I would say you can develop agency to manage your attention. You know, there are a lot of doomsayers out there that say, “We can’t do anything, we’re helpless. It’s those targeted algorithms that are just, you know, holding us hostage, holding our attention hostage.” And I argue, “No, you can do things. You can develop agency. You can develop control over your attention.” And I talked about some reasons why.
I would say the last thing is that we hear about this goal that we need to be productive when we use our devices, especially in information work or whatever kind of work a person does. And I would say it’s more important to have a goal to achieve well-being and make that the number one goal. When we have well-being – when we feel positive – we can be productive. If you’re stressed to the point of exhaustion, we’re just not accomplishing very much. The quality of our work is not very high. But if we think about putting well-being first, that gives us the resources and the power for us to be productive and to do our best.
I think that message of putting well-being first is the perfect final thought. Thank you so much for your time today.
Oh, it was my pleasure.
Listeners, look for Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity wherever you buy or borrow books.
For the latest UCI news, please visit news.uci.edu. I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation, which we recorded at the studio of UCI’s ANTrepreneur Center. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.