Your Attention Span Is Dying — This Is How You Save It

A researcher explains why our attention spans are dying and how to regain control of them. (Stick with us here!)

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A man holding a baby while sitting on a couch and looking at his phone.

Our attention spans are failing us. We scroll through social media, barely registering one post before we’re onto the next, and are constantly diverting from real work tasks to checking email. “This is a problem. We know that there’s a correlation between attention-shifting and stress,” says Gloria Mark, Ph.D., a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who has been studying attention span for nearly 20 years. A constantly shifting attention also leads people to be less productive and make more mistakes.

It’s not just our perception that attention spans are decreasing; research shows that they truly are plummeting. Back in 2004, Mark showed that people kept their attention on a screen for an average of 2.5 minutes before looking away. In 2012, she clocked the average attention span at 75 seconds. Now, that time has been reduced to 47 seconds.

Here, Mark explains why our attention spans are dying, how we can regain control of them, and how doing so benefits our mental health and wellbeing.

Why have our attention spans been decreasing?

There's a lot of reasons. Of course, notifications play a role and targeted ads play a role in grabbing our attention. We can't deny that. But it also turns out that people are just as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by any kind of external distraction — 49% of the time, people self-interrupt.

We are hardwired in our social natures to seek social rewards. We seek what's called social capital. We are concerned about our identity. All of these social dynamics play a role in luring us to social media, email, Slack.

Personality plays a role. There are individual differences. People who score high on a personality trait called neuroticism have shorter attention spans than other people.

There's also a parallel trend: It's a chicken and egg problem. TV and film have shortened in length. Commercials have shortened. We don't know if that's causing our attention spans on computers to be short. We don't know if film directors and the editors believe that this is what people want to see and therefore they keep them short. We can't make any kind of causal connection.

So how do we regain control of our attention spans?

The best protection against distractions is to keep your goal in mind. What is your main goal when you go on the internet? Because attention is goal-directed. Depending on what your goal is, that's what your attention will follow. I've done some research with colleagues where we found that if people were reminded of their goals at the beginning of the day — this was using a conversational bot software that would query people on their goals — people did stick to their goals, but just for a short period. This suggests that people need to constantly be reminded of what their goal is. It's so easy for goals to slip from our mind.

Another very important thing people can do is make sure that our limited attentional resources are maintained. How do we do this? Well, getting consistently good sleep is very valuable. In my research, I also show that when you accumulate sleep debt, the higher the sleep debt, the shorter attention spans are. And people tend to do lightweight activities like social media because they just don't have the capacity to focus.

It's very important to design sufficient breaks into your day. We tend to schedule tasks back to back. You might have one Zoom meeting after another, and this doesn't provide any kind of transition to the next meeting. So it's really important to be proactive and schedule breaks. That should not be time to catch up on other work, but it's time when you go away from your work.

The best thing you can do is go outside in nature, but not everyone can do that. Weather may not permit. Or people might be in an office building where it takes 10 minutes just to get to the exit. So if you can't do that, walk around. Exercise is really good.

If you can't do that, some people have simple rote activities that they can do that relaxes them, that calms them. Some people have a golf club in their office and they will putt. Some people do simple crossword puzzles. Whatever works for you that's rote, that enables your mind to relax. And we do know that when people do this kind of rote activity, they feel more positive. Because it helps calm them, and it can help ideas incubate at the back of your mind.

So I would say whatever works for you, but you have to do it strategically to be able to get back to work. You can't do rote activity all day. You have to set a timer, or do what I call a hook, which means I might take a 10-minute break before I have a meeting or a phone call, and that phone call is the hook that gets me out of doing this rote activity.

But we can also gain agency by learning to become aware of our actions. You can do this by probing yourself and continually asking yourself, am I still getting value out of this break? Do I feel relaxed? Do I feel replenished? If you do, it's time to go back to work before you get distracted. And before you have an urge to check news or check social media, ask yourself, why am I doing this right now? Is it because my task is boring? Is it because I want to avoid doing the work? You can make these kinds of automatic actions more conscious, and when they're conscious, you can examine reasons why you're responding to these kinds of distractions.

And of course, if you're prone to external distractions, turn off your notifications. That's the easiest thing to do. Bury the app you turn to in a folder where it takes you time to look for it, and that will create some friction for you getting to it so easily. That will give you time to reevaluate whether you really need to use it.

Another aspect of practicing agency is called forethought, and that means imagining how your current actions will impact your life later in the day. I mean, it could be any time in the future, but I think what's most useful is at the end of the day. And so if you feel like, oh, I'm just going to spend an hour reading the news or going on social media, imagine what you're going to be doing at 10 o'clock at night. Are you going to be done with your work and you can relax and watch your favorite show? Or are you still going to be working on that report because you weren’t focused earlier?

Is there a rule for how many breaks you should schedule throughout the workday and when?

Some people have rules. There's something called the Pomodoro Technique, which says, take a five-minute break after every 25 minutes of work. But I believe that people have to become more in tune with their own level of cognitive resources. When you start to feel like you're getting tired, that's the time to take a break.

People have rhythms of attention. There are times when people are at their peak focus and other times when they're not. Learn to pay attention to those. When you have full capacity, the Pomodoro method will interrupt you. And maybe it's better for you to rather utilize your capacity, utilize that time well. But make sure you take a break when you start to feel tired.

You were talking about trying to finish the task at hand rather than jump between tasks. Why is this sort of multitasking bad for us?

Decades of research in the laboratory shows that when people multitask, stress goes up, their blood pressure rises. I've done research where we use heart rate monitors and show that the faster people switch their attention, the higher the stress. People make more errors when they multitask. That's been shown for decades in the laboratory. It's also been shown in real-world tasks, like with doctors, nurses, pilots. And we also know it takes more time. Every time people switch their attention to a different task, there's something called a switch cost that they incur. That's the time it takes to reorient to a new task or to pick back up what you were doing when you switch back.

In the blurb for your book, you talk about attention relating to happiness and wellbeing. Can you talk about that a little bit more?

The whole premise of the book is: Let's reframe our goals when we're using tech. Instead of thinking about how we can use it to the utmost to enhance our productivity, let's think about how we can use tech and maintain our wellbeing. Because when we feel positive, we can do more. And there are studies that show that when you feel positive, you have more energy, you're more motivated, you can generate better ideas. When you're exhausted, it hurts you, it hurts your productivity. So it's important to not get exhausted, not get burnt out.

8 Ways To Increase Your Attention Span And Be Less Distracted, According To Dr. Mark

  1. Write down your goals for the day — and keep reminding yourself of them.
  2. Get good sleep because the higher the sleep debt, the shorter attention spans are.
  3. Take breaks throughout your work day. Never schedule back to back zoom meetings.
  4. Walk around aimlessly, or better yet, exercise, or best of all, get out into nature.
  5. Do a rote activity like crossword puzzles or breathing or anything that relaxes you.
  6. Probe yourself. Ask, am I getting value out of this break? How do I feel?
  7. Turn off notifications. Just do it.
  8. Do. Not. Multitask. Science shows it’s a stressful and ineffective activity.

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