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Attention Spans in the Digital Age with Gloria Mark, Ph.D.
Digital Workplace
Employee Experience
Guided Attention

Attention Spans in the Digital Age with Gloria Mark, Ph.D.

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14 minutes read time
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Published on May 8th, 2024
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Written by Gloria Mark, Ph.D.

Welcome back to the show, folks! In today's episode, we have a special treat as we delve into one of the most pressing issues of our modern digital lives: the challenge of maintaining focus and attention in an age dominated by digital distractions. Joining us is Dr. Gloria Mark, a luminary in the field of workplace psychology and digital wellness, and author of the recent landmark book, "Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity."

Dr. Mark's extensive research sheds light on the intricate dance between technology and our cognitive functions, offering profound insights on how our digital interactions shape our ability to concentrate, make decisions, and ultimately find satisfaction in our work and lives. Today, we will explore the concept of attention in the workplace, unraveling the complexities of focus and executive function. Dr. Mark will guide us through the psychological frameworks that underpin our daily interactions with technology and share innovative strategies for reframing our relationship with digital tools.

We will also delve into practical techniques that promise to enhance productivity, well-being, and happiness, drawing upon the rich tapestry of research and real-world applications presented in Dr. Mark's book. Join us as we embark on a journey to reclaim our attention, reshape our technological relationship with tech, and maybe rediscover the balance that lies at the heart of a fulfilling life and career.

The following has been transcribed from the original podcast interview.

[RR] Gloria, thank you so much for joining us today. Your book, "Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity," was released just about a year ago, and I have to say, I am a huge fan of your work. It was a fantastic read, truly eye-opening. For those who may be unfamiliar with your work, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and some of the work you've been doing over the last few years?

[GM] I'm trained as a psychologist, but for decades I've worked in the field of human-computer interaction. My approach involves applying psychological theories to understand how people use technology in their everyday lives. Unlike traditional psychologists who conduct experiments in laboratories, I prefer to create what I call "Living Laboratories." This means I go to where people are and observe how they interact with technology in their real-world environments.

Most of my studies have focused on the workplace, examining how people use computers, various applications, electronic communications, and smartphones. To gather data, I utilize a variety of sensors instead of relying on self-reporting, as people tend to be unreliable in reporting their technology usage. With participants' consent and awareness, we employ computer logging to track their activities. Additionally, we use sensors to measure stress levels, such as heart rate monitors to capture heart rate variability. To assess face-to-face interaction, we utilize lightweight cameras worn around the neck. Lastly, we employ a technique called experience sampling, where participants report their subjective impressions in real-time, providing valuable insights.

By synchronizing all of this data, we are able to create a comprehensive picture of people's experiences when they are using technology.

[RR] That's incredible. That methodology must have changed quite a bit over the last 20-25 years that you've been working in the space.

[GM] Yeah, absolutely! It was very primitive when we started out 20 years ago. We would follow people with stopwatches because that was the most accurate way to capture how long people's attention was on a screen at the time. Since then, computer logging software and heart rate monitors have continually improved. Now, we use a variety of tools, including wrist wearables, to track attention. Overall, there has been a significant improvement in our methods.

[RR] That's fascinating! Given your extensive experience in tracking attention spans for over two decades, some of your research can definitely raise some alarm bells. I came across a statistic that states the average attention span is a mere 47 seconds or less before we end up context switching. It's quite intriguing to think about how we reached this point.

[GM] How did we get there? Well, let's take a look at the past 20 years. Back then, we used stopwatches to measure the average time people spent on a screen, which was around two and a half minutes. But since then, technology has rapidly evolved. In 2007, the smartphone was introduced, followed by the launch of Facebook in 2003. These platforms gained immense popularity, and we also saw the rise of other platforms like Twitter and TikTok, which have become major sources of attention drain. Additionally, the growth of e-commerce and the increasing reliance on online services in various sectors, such as healthcare and government, have further integrated technology into people's lives. As a result, new habits have formed in how we use technology, with tools like Slack and email becoming significant attention drains. It's clear that a lot has changed in the span of 20 years.

[RR] It seems that the additional paths and behaviors being created are starting to form patterns in individuals, pulling them away and causing distractions. This summary captures the idea of how these patterns might affect us. How can we further explore this concept?

[GM] I think it's important to note that people today spend an average of 10 hours a day on screens, including computers, phones, and watching TV and films. This prolonged screen time has led to the development of certain habits, making it difficult for many individuals to disconnect. Additionally, there are specific habits associated with electronic communications such as email, Slack, and texting. In the workplace, effective communication is crucial for maintaining social capital and professional relationships. Ignoring messages can result in a loss of social capital, so it's important to stay on top of communication and respond promptly. As a result, the number of messages tends to increase, and email has become a popular medium for delegating tasks. Interestingly, research has shown a significant shift in work behavior over the years. In the past, people spent around 30% of their day at their desks, with the rest of the time dedicated to meetings and other activities. However, more recently, this percentage has increased to 90%, primarily due to the shift towards digital communication and remote work. Face-to-face interactions have been replaced by email, Zoom, and other digital platforms, allowing people to interact with information and each other in a digital manner. This transformation has significantly impacted the way we work and communicate.

[RR] Has the implementation of these new technologies and workflows actually resulted in any tangible benefits? Despite the advancements in technology and new work methods, productivity levels have not significantly improved. By relying on workflows, tasks, and applications to handle interactions that would have traditionally occurred between humans, have we unintentionally created more issues? Could it be that we are distancing ourselves from the essence of humanity in our work processes?

[GM] While there are certainly benefits to digital technology, it also comes with its drawbacks. On one hand, the convenience of word processors and email allows us to quickly and efficiently communicate and complete tasks. However, on the other hand, the constant influx of information can be overwhelming and taxing on our attention. Our minds have limitations when it comes to processing and managing the vast amount of information and communication that technology enables. Despite the tools and capabilities we have, it's important to recognize that our human minds still have limitations. We cannot expect ourselves to handle everything without experiencing some level of strain. It's like trying to sip through a straw or look through a telescope - we naturally narrow our focus to avoid being overwhelmed by distractions. While it's possible that future advancements, such as implanted chips, may enhance our ability to process information, it's unlikely to happen anytime soon.

[RR] Is the analogy of tension falling and getting shaken in the workplace a good one, or is there a better analogy we should consider?

[GM] I like to use the analogy of a flashlight, which comes from Don Norman's work in HCI. The idea is that a flashlight can have a narrow beam, allowing us to focus on one thing, or we can widen the beam to become aware of our environment and what's on the periphery. There are tradeoffs for both approaches. When we're focused, we may not be aware of what's happening around us. On the other hand, when we have a broad beam, we can become susceptible to distractions but gain valuable information from our surroundings.

For example, I conducted a study at the Jet Propulsion Lab, where people were designing space missions. They needed to be super focused at times, but also expand their attention to hear relevant discussions. By being flexible in how they used their attention, they were able to design a space mission in just nine hours. It was truly phenomenal and highly successful.

Overall, the analogy of the flashlight highlights the importance of balancing focus and awareness in different situations.

[RR] Was it a fortunate coincidence that they hired the right people for the role, allowing them to naturally expand on the personas? Or were they actively searching for individuals who fit the persona?

[GM] The reason they were seeking the Persona is because not everyone is suited to work in such an environment. It requires a special kind of personality, as some individuals may experience burnout due to the intensive nature of the work. In a typical workplace, shared spaces are not as prevalent. While you may share an office with someone, it is important to note that people can still experience burnout, especially when they are constantly bombarded with information through their devices. It is not feasible for a workplace to solely rely on a specific personality type to handle this kind of information. Instead, everyone should be equipped to handle it effectively.

[RR] One of the things I was curious about is what happens if our attention is constantly interrupted. If we don't give employees enough downtime or time to focus and get into a state of flow, do we end up creating a pattern that erodes what we ultimately want - people working in fulfilling and worthwhile places?

[GM] Yes, that's right. When individuals become overwhelmed, they can experience fatigue, exhaustion, and ultimately burnout. This is a serious issue as exhaustion can lead to chronic health conditions, which can negatively impact both individuals and organizations. Increased absenteeism and decreased motivation are common consequences of burnout.

One important aspect of our cognitive function is the executive function, often referred to as the CEO of the mind. It plays a crucial role in directing our attention, making decisions, filtering out distractions, and keeping us on track. However, when we are exhausted, our executive function becomes impaired and is unable to perform its duties effectively. As a result, we become more susceptible to distractions, which further contributes to our fatigue. This cycle of susceptibility to distractions and dealing with distractions can lead us down the path of exhaustion and potential burnout.

Our research consistently shows a correlation between attention shifting in different contexts and stress levels, as measured by heart rate monitors. These findings highlight the repercussions of not managing our attention effectively.

[RR] It is truly fascinating to witness the peaks, valleys, and spikes in attention as individuals switch their focus and their biometrics provide valuable data.

[GM] By syncing all this data in real time, we can gain valuable insights into people's experiences based on their device usage.

[RR] That's amazing! Is executive function something that can be innate? Are you born with it? It seems like it can obviously be eroded, but can it be trained? As a parent of two children, I worry about this. Is it something you can foster resilience in?

[GM] It is fascinating to note that executive function in children does not fully mature until around the age of 10 or during their teenage years. However, the concerning trend is that children are being exposed to digital devices at a young age, immersing themselves in a digital environment filled with various distractions. Unfortunately, their still-developing executive function skills make it challenging for them to effectively control these distractions. Consequently, children are forming habits that are not conducive to their overall well-being.

Research has shown that when children are exposed to fast-paced videos or engage in multitasking activities, their ability to pay attention is negatively impacted. This suggests that their executive function is affected, possibly due to fatigue caused by watching videos with rapid shot changes or constantly switching tasks.

In conclusion, it is crucial to consider the impact of digital devices on children's executive function and their ability to manage distractions. By understanding these effects, we can work towards promoting healthier habits and environments for children's cognitive development.

[RR] I have noticed that sometimes my daughter comes home from school and asks to watch certain shows. However, I have observed that these shows often have rapid scene changes and high volume, which seems to be more focused on stimulating dopamine rather than telling a story. As soon as I notice this, I know it's not a healthy choice for her, so I limit her viewing time to just a few seconds.

[GM] Yeah, it's great that you do that. As I discuss in my book, shot lengths in film and TV have decreased over the years and now average about 4 seconds. They used to be much longer. Nowadays, with the abundance of YouTube videos and films, people are constantly exposed to shorter shot lengths. While I'm not suggesting that this directly causes our short attention spans, I do believe that it reinforces them. Film and TV directors and editors design these shot lengths to cater to what they believe will capture people's attention. They believe that rapid changes in shot lengths create arousal, which we know to be true. As a result, we find ourselves in a peculiar cycle with all forms of media.

[RR] We're facing challenges from all sides, both in the workplace and in our personal lives. One topic I'd like to discuss is email. It's often seen as a major problem for many organizations, but it's something we have to deal with. In your book, you mentioned the habit of immediately clicking on email notifications when they pop up in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. This behavior pattern is quite fascinating. I even asked a few friends and colleagues about it, and they confirmed that they do the same thing. It's almost like playing whack-a-mole, trying to dismiss those notifications. I'm curious, why do you think this behavior is so pervasive within organizations?

[GM] Firstly, let me provide some additional information about email. According to our research, people check their emails an average of 77 times a day, which is quite a significant amount. In fact, our previous study conducted last year found a similar average of 74 times a day. It's interesting to note that people don't just check their emails in response to notifications, but they also have an inherent urge to do so. Checking email has become a habit for many individuals.

Now, let's explore the reasons behind this behavior. As mentioned earlier, email plays a role in building social capital. Additionally, it promotes randomly reinforced behavior. This means that although most of the time you may not receive any particularly interesting emails, occasionally you'll come across something truly fantastic. It could be an invitation to speak at a keynote event, attend a special occasion, or even news of winning an award. These occasional rewards are enough to keep people hooked to their email, as they anticipate the possibility of receiving something great. Consequently, individuals remain glued to their email accounts in search of these rewarding moments.

[RR] That's fascinating! It's like we're the mice hitting the lever for food. In the book, you mentioned Maya Angelou and her ability to use tools and other methods to occupy her mind. I would love to hear more about how you decompress and occupy yourself with lightweight activities to refill your attention. It's interesting how you can expand and contract your focus, but still come back to things. Could you please elaborate on this topic?

[GM] I'm glad you brought up this topic because I also love the example you mentioned. The starting point is that people have a limited amount of cognitive resources or attentional capacity. To illustrate this, I like to use the metaphor of a fuel tank. Throughout the day, our activities drain this tank, but there are also activities that can refill it. For example, constantly switching our attention every 47 seconds and dealing with emails can drain the tank, while taking breaks or engaging in enjoyable lightweight activities can replenish it.

There is a myth that suggests we should try to focus on our devices for extended periods of time. You can find articles online that claim to teach you how to focus non-stop for 10 hours. However, it's important to recognize that this is not humanly possible. Just like we can't lift weights nonstop for long periods, our minds also need rest and the opportunity to replenish their attentional resources.

Maya Angelou talked about her "big mind" and her "little mind." Her big mind was what she used for deep thought and to produce her great work. However, she also recognized the importance of her little mind. Her little mind was when she engaged in crossword puzzles or other simple activities that were enjoyable. This helped her replenish her cognitive resources. When we engage in these lightweight activities, our minds are still working, but it also gives us a chance to destress and clear our minds. Interestingly, research shows that people are happiest when they're using their so-called little minds. These activities are easy and engaging, unlike the stress involved in focusing. While focusing can be rewarding, it can also be challenging and less enjoyable.

Therefore, it's important to find a balance. Pay attention to when you start feeling fatigued, as that's the time to pull back and let your mind replenish. You don't have to do simple puzzles; you can go for a walk or spend time in nature. Research has shown that just 20 minutes in nature can significantly reduce stress and enhance creativity, specifically in terms of generating more ideas through divergent thinking (brainstorming). So, there are various ways to give yourself the opportunity to replenish. It's crucial to intersperse periods of using your little mind with periods of using your big mind, as it helps improve performance with your big mind.

[RR] One of the prevalent aspects of North American culture is the "always on" mentality. This is particularly relevant for our audience, which consists of digital workplace leaders and CIOs. How can these individuals initiate efforts to cultivate a healthier relationship between their employees and technology? It is important to acknowledge that employees cannot be expected to maintain 100% focus on their tasks throughout the entire 8-hour workday. They require breaks and moments of relief to maintain their attention and well-being. What strategies can leaders employ to foster a better balance and promote a healthier relationship between employees and their work technology?

[GM] I believe it's important for organizations to give employees permission to take significant breaks. Many people feel pressured to constantly work without breaks due to deadlines and unrealistic workloads. However, it's crucial to understand that both quantity and quality of work suffer when employees are overworked. By promoting well-being and allowing employees to take regular breaks, we can enhance their attentional capacity and ultimately improve the quality of their work.

Prioritizing employee well-being over pushing for higher output and productivity is essential. The broaden and build theory in psychology supports this idea, as it suggests that positive well-being leads to better performance and increased motivation. When employees have the opportunity to take breaks and restore their energy, they become more engaged and involved in their work.

Let's consider how we can create a work environment that promotes positive well-being and encourages employees to take regular breaks. This will not only benefit their overall motivation and engagement but also lead to better productivity and quality outcomes

[RR] Is there any emerging research on how employees are reacting to the recent changes in terms of attention, stress, and wellness? It's been quite a transition from working in an office to remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now we're navigating the trial and error of returning to the office. I'm curious to know if there are any insights on how this shift is impacting employees' well-being and productivity.

[GM] Ongoing research is being conducted to understand the optimal schedule for hybrid work. One key aspect is the importance of in-person social interaction for employees. For example, a study on motivation found that people use different types of motivation when working from home compared to when they are in person. In-person work provides social signals from others, which can enhance motivation and energy. However, when working from home, these signals are lacking. Therefore, finding the right schedule that allows employees to have in-person work for social interaction while also benefiting from the flexibility of remote work is crucial.

Hybrid work has the potential to address the need for social interaction while providing the benefits of working from home, such as reduced commuting stress. However, it is important to consider the challenges that come with it. One challenge is establishing a regular schedule for employees. Research has shown that individuals tend to revert to working hours consistent with their chronotype, whether they are early birds or night owls. This inconsistency in schedules between the workplace and home needs to be addressed to ensure employees can effectively switch between the two environments.

It is worth noting that many individuals may not be aware of their most productive hours or the importance of regular schedules. Therefore, organizations will need to find ways to support employees in establishing and maintaining consistent schedules, taking into account their productivity peaks and preferences.

[RR] One of the questions I had for you is about the concept of a digital detox. It seems to have gained popularity recently as people take breaks from social media and try to reduce their screen time. They aim to create healthier digital habits for themselves. However, I wonder if this trend is just a passing fad or if we are truly benefiting from it.

[GM] I see digital detoxes and crash diets as similar in the sense that they both offer temporary solutions. Just like crash diets, where you lose weight only to return to old eating habits, digital detoxes may not lead to lasting change. Instead, what's more important is to change our way of life and develop a healthier relationship with digital technology. We can't escape the digital world we live in, but we can strive to have a better relationship with media and technology.

Rather than relying on digital detoxes, we should focus on changing our habits and gaining what I call "Meta awareness" - an awareness of our actions as they unfold. By understanding the reasons behind our urges to use social media, read the news, or surf the web, we can take intentional action and develop a plan to improve our well-being. It's about developing a greater understanding of ourselves and our relationships with technology.

[RR] Is there a relationship between meta-awareness and framing in terms of intent?

[GM] Framing is the perspective we use when making decisions, such as browsing social media or reading the news. We can frame reading the news as a way to take a break or as a means of procrastination. Meta awareness involves understanding the framing and perspective we are using. It is important to recognize the power in understanding our unconscious actions with our devices. For example, clicking on a notification or feeling an internal urge to check something. Interestingly, people are just as likely to interrupt themselves as they are to be interrupted by external notifications. By understanding these dynamics, we can gain more control and agency over our attention, which is the central theme of the book.

[RR] Gloria, before we conclude today, could you please share where readers can find your latest work, research, and your highly recommended book? I personally have been thoroughly enjoying it, with dog-eared pages and highlighted sections.

[GM] Thank you for your support. I write a weekly column on Substack called "The Future of Attention" It is based on a significant experiment I conducted. You can find my Substack at https://gloriamark.substack.com/. Each week, I explore various topics related to our digital lives. For more information, please visit my website at www.gloriamark.com. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and X.

This blog was adapted from The Workgrid, a podcast about the digital workplace, technology, and everything in between. For the complete episode, please visit: Attention Spans in the Digital Age

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