The “new year, new you” trail is everywhere now. With new resolutions, January is traditionally the time of year when many strive to get things done.
But if you’re feeling like you’re having a hard time completing your to-do list, you’re in good company. The clicking headlines of recent years are proclaiming that the average human attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. And while it may not be entirely accurate, many of us definitely find it harder to focus. A study by King’s College London found that 49% of respondents believe their attention spans are shorter than before, compared to 23% who do not.
What is really going on, and is there anything we can do to improve our focus? A new book called Focus: An Innovative Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity addresses these questions and more. Author Gloria Mark, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of California, Irvine, spoke to the Standard about why our attention spans are shrinking and what we can do about it.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: People are increasingly noticing that their attention spans are getting shorter. But what does the data say about our ability to concentrate?
Gloria Mark: Well, the data shows that empirically, attention spans are indeed shorter. So let me explain a little about how we got the data: we use computer logging techniques so that we can get very accurate measurements of how long people are on the screen. We found that, on average, people spend 47 seconds on any computer or phone screen before switching. In fact, this value has decreased over the years – we started measuring it 15 years ago and found it to be 2 1/2 minutes. But it’s rejected.
To be completely frank with you, I’m a bit surprised – that 47 seconds or so sounds like a long time compared to what I’ve noticed, especially among the many kids I see around the house; it always seems to be a click and give it about 15 seconds and move forward. Do you think it’s still accelerating? And I’m wondering to what extent do you blame technologies like tablets, smartphones and the like?
Well, we can’t entirely blame notifications and targeting algorithms, because it turns out that people are just as prone to interrupting themselves. And this means that if you are watching someone, then out of the blue, for some inexplicable reason, they suddenly stop what they are doing and switch to checking email or social networks. So we are self breakers. It’s not just technology.
I saw several articles that said that the pandemic had a bad effect on our concentration. Did you catch it, and what do you think of this statement?
Well, you know, one thing about the pandemic is that people are working from home a lot more. And that means they spend more time on screen. And, you know, I assume that people will also become more sedentary. We found that people in the office spend about 90% of their sitting time at a desk, and at home it could be even more. We haven’t measured this, but we do know that people spend more time on screen. There are scheduled calls in a row, so there is less time for breaks. So there is an impact.
You mentioned four types of attention states. Could you briefly touch on each of them?
Of course. So you can think of it in terms of how much you are involved in something and how much difficulty you have in what you are doing. So these four accounts are:
– Focused: You are highly engaged and challenged.
– Pay attention: you are busy and do not dispute at all.
– Boredom: You are not challenged or engaged.
– Disappointment: you are very worried, but you are just not busy.
Does knowing these four different states help improve the ability to focus?
Yes, it can, because we can’t maintain focused attention for long periods of time, just like we can’t lift weights all day without rest. And that’s why it’s important to create a balance. So, you know, if you spend a lot of time in constant concentration, take a break; retreat. Do something by heart; do something you do but you just don’t get challenged. Gives your mind a chance to replenish and restore its mental resources.
I think a lot of the talk about attention span and focus comes from neuroscience or some sort of clinical psychology perspective. Why did you want to study it in terms of human-computer interaction? And I’m wondering to what extent that influenced the way you approached this book, you know how you feel about concentration?
Well, you know, we live in the digital age and people spend most of their day on their devices, be it computers, phones or tablets. And I don’t think we can separate our interactions with technology to understand attention. So, you know, when I first started looking into this, I thought there must be an influence; There must be some connection between how we use technology and how we pay attention to it. So I just found that it’s just impossible to separate.
So I had to look at how people use technology in the wild, that is, in their real environment. You know, many people study attention in the laboratory, and you can get very important results. But I thought the best way to really understand the state of our attention these days is to look at what people actually do when they use their computers in their real environment.
You mentioned a couple of things that people can do, and one of them is of course to recharge if you have a sleep deficit and also not to overdo it when you have a task that you need to focus on. What other tips can help you minimize distractions and improve your concentration?
Oh, of course, there are many ways that people can influence their behavior. You know, one practice, and you can really learn it as a skill, is to explore yourself, the reasons why you do all these automatic actions. Why are you checking your phone? Why are you on social media? Why are you checking email? Ask yourself; try to understand these reasons. Are you going because you’re bored? Because your task is too difficult? Because it’s a habit? Once you understand the reasons why you do something, you will have a chance to correct your behavior.
And another thing that people can do is to practice what is called foresight, which means imagine yourself in the future later in the day, and what you are doing now and how it will affect you in the future. So, if I’m going to be on social media for 30 minutes or an hour, how will that affect me at 10:00 pm or midnight? Am I still going to work on this deadline?