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Attention Spans – Gloria Mark

Gloria Mark

A lot of people think that multitasking is doing two different tasks at the same time, and that’s just not humanly possible. But what people are actually doing when they multitask is they’re switching their attention rapidly back and forth. 

Dr. Gloria Mark – Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine

In this episode we speak with Gloria Mark. Gloria is Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She received her PhD from Columbia University in Psychology and studies the impact of digital media on people’s lives. Her new book, Attention Span is the culmination of years of research, understanding attention, distraction, and how to live with digital devices.

In this episode, we discussed the important arguments of her book:

  • that there are different states of attention
  • controversially, that a flow state is not always optimal nor achievable
  • that different people are more or less susceptible to distractions, and,
  • that it’s not just our devices that are degrading our attention spans.
  • finally, we discuss a number of ways in which we can reclaim control over our valuable attention.

Find out more about Gloria and order her book here:

Follow her on social media:
Twitter: @gloriamark_phd

Freedom Matters Host and Producer: Georgie Powell 

Sentient Digital

Music and audio production: Phil Amalong | Toccare 

Philip Amalong


Gloria: What we found interestingly was that the number of external distractions predicted the amount of internal distractions in the next hour. So, if you had a lot of external distractions at, say, one o’clock, and then those distractions went down, your internal distractions kicked in, and all of a sudden, you had a lot more internal distractions. 

And the way I explain it is it’s conditioning. And if we’re not being interrupted by some external source, then we turn on ourselves and we begin to interrupt ourselves because we’re so used to being distracted and so used to being interrupted that we continue the pattern. And so if the pattern doesn’t come from something outside of us then we further the pattern by drawing on distractions from inside us.

Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.

This week, we’re talking with Gloria Mark. Gloria is Chancellor’s professor of Informatics at the University of California in Irvine. She received her PhD from Columbia University in Psychology and studies the impact of digital media on people’s lives. Her new book, Attention Span, is the culmination of years of research, understanding attention, distraction, and how to live with digital devices. 

In this episode, we discussed the important arguments of her book, that there are different states of attention, controversially, that a flow state is not always optimal nor achievable, that different people are more or less susceptible to distractions, and that it’s not just our devices that are degrading our attention spans. 

Finally, we discussed a number of ways in which we can reclaim control over our valuable attention. Gloria, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. Thank you so much for joining us today. It really is a privilege to talk to you. 

Gloria: It’s my pleasure to be here. 

Georgie: To get started, and it’s a big question, but just to help our listeners get a grip of it, how do you understand attention? How would you define attention? And you talk in your book a lot about the language of attention, which I think is also really interesting because there’s a currency of attention as well.

Gloria: Yeah, that’s a big question. The father of psychology, William James, over a hundred years ago, defined attention as everybody knows what attention is. In other words, we all know what attention is. From like a neuroscience perspective, there are changes in blood flow in the brain when people focus their attention. 

There’s a long standing theory of attention, which has to do with the idea that people have mental resources or attentional resources. And these are limited, they’re very precious. If we spend too much time in long sustained attention we’re going to use these up, they’ll drain. 

And so we have this limited capacity and some things we do can replenish our resources. Like, getting a good night’s sleep or taking a break, going outside for a nice long walk. 

And other things we do drain these resources or drains our attentional capacity. These are trying to concentrate very hard on something, multitasking, switching your attention very quickly, being interrupted, having to reorient back to your task. These are all examples of things that drain our attentional resources. 

The other thing I’ll say about attention is that it’s goal directed, which means that you pay attention according to what your goal is. If my goal is to look up the US election results because today we happen to be having an election, I’m going to put my attention on that. 

If my goal is to see if my cat is eating his food because he’s having some eating issues and he’s sitting right over here, I will direct my attention to my cat to see how he’s doing. So, whatever our goal is, and it could be very high level goals, it could be really tiny small goals. But we direct our attention according to what our goals are. 

Georgie: And often they’re goals that we don’t actually recognize as goals. Right? 

Gloria: Yes. 

Georgie: Okay, fascinating. And I have to thank you, by the way, because I had never realized that William James and Henry James were brothers. Right? 

Gloria: They are, yes.

Georgie: That is amazing. I always thought of the surname, but my history is terrible, and so I had never really connected the dots on that. But what a family? 

One of the concepts in Gloria’s book which brought great clarity to me when understanding attention is her framework for understanding different attentional states. I asked her to talk us through her quadrant. 

Gloria: Sure. Let me start by saying that people have always regarded attention as two states, you’re focused or unfocused. So, people have always seen these two binary states. And when we started looking at attention, we realized that there are certain dimensions that are really important to consider. And one of these is how engaged is a person. Of course, you think of that as being focused or unfocused. You’re engaged or you’re not at all engaged. 

But a second dimension that we thought was also very important was the idea of how challenged a person is in what they’re doing. Because some things we do are very challenging. If I’m trying to read a legal textbook that might be very challenging for me. But other things we do are very easy and non-challenging like playing solitaire. 

So, we added another dimension, challenge, to understanding attention. And we asked people throughout the day using a technique that’s called experience sampling; how engaged are you in what you’re doing right now and how challenged are you in what you’re doing right now? And we collected the answers throughout the day for multiple days. 

And we take these answers and we can map it onto four different dimensions. When people are very challenged and very engaged, we call that a state of focus. Because when you focus on something, it does involve some kind of challenge. You have to put in some kind of mental effort. 

When people are engaged in something but not challenged like playing solitaire, it’s very little mental effort, but you can be totally engaged or totally engaged in playing a game like Candy Crush that are just not challenging. We call that rote attention. When people are not at all challenged, and not at all engaged. Of course, that’s boredom. We call that boredom. 

And when people are challenged, but they’re not at all engaged, we call that a state of frustration and think of it, you’re a software developer you’ve challenged and trained to solve a bug, you’re just not engaged in it, but you have to do it. Right? So, that’s a state of frustration. 

And we have these four intentional states and it turns out, strangely enough, hardly anyone reports being frustrated. This is a knowledge workplace, so we found that very interesting. But throughout the day, there’s times that they’re focused, times that they’re engaged, not challenged, doing rote activity. And then, of course, people are also bored. 

Now, it turns out that we find that people’s focused attention occurs in a rhythmic way. So, there’s a peak focus that people tend to have late morning, about 11:00 AM, and then another peak focus about 03:00 PM in the afternoon. And so people’s attention seems to follow a rhythm. 

And the underlying reason for it is that people are building up their attentional resources like I talked about earlier, and then they’re draining and then they build them up again. And people might take a break to replenish them or they might go to lunch or they might do some rote activity; surfing the web or going on social media, and that also replenishes their attentional resources. 

So, we have these different potential states that people use throughout the day. 

What I think are the two most interesting attentional states are being focused and also the rote attention. 

Georgie: I found this so interesting that rote activity is important and that we’re equally engaged when doing it, just not challenged to the same extent as we are when we are focused. This relates to another of Gloria’s key points, that flow is not actually a state that we should be striving to achieve all the time. 

This counteracts a lot of productivity advice, which exists to optimize opportunities for flow. Gloria, however, thinks flow is largely an unrealistic target state for most knowledge workers. 

Gloria: So, let me start by saying, before I studied science, I actually studied art. And so I started off being a visual artist. And I used to get into flow quite frequently, and I actually knew the conditions that could get me into flow. I would be in my studio, I would have many hours that I could just spend painting uninterrupted. And it would take some time and then I would get into flow state. 

And flow is defined as being unaware of the passage of time. You’re so immersed in what you’re doing that nothing else seems to matter. Like other artists or dancers or people who play music or people in sports, or people who do hobbies like woodworking, these individuals know what it’s like to get into a flow state. Right? You are challenged in what you’re doing, but you’re also using a skill. 

And I want to point out that contrary to what some people claim, playing Candy Crush is not being in flow. Although, if you’re in a — playing a complex video game, you might get into flow through that as long as there’s some skill involved. 

In knowledge work and I’ve studied many knowledge workers over the years, they seldom get into flow. They seldom report having a flow experience. And I realized it’s because of the nature of the work. The nature of the work requires analytical thinking. And, of course, it requires focused attention at times, but that’s different than being in flow. 

And I recently spoke with a friend of mine who’s a manager in a tech company. And he said when he was a coder, he used to get into flow quite frequently. But now as a manager, it’s more like spinning plates. And he said he might get into flow if he’s in a brainstorming session with other people. But for his day to day job flow is not realistic. And that seems to be true for most of the knowledge workers that I’ve spoken to. And so it’s the nature of the job is very important in determining whether one gets into flow or not. 

Georgie: And talking about the context of the workplace, I think what’s really interesting in your book and it comes up in a lot of different places is the context of the individual themselves as well. And how when we talk about attention, we talk about distraction and distractibility. 

We talk about the cost of multitasking, which we can come back to those things a little bit more. But how we are all affected very differently by those forces depending on our personality type, and I find that really interesting. 

Let’s talk about multitasking and the effect that multitasking can have on our brain depending on the type of person that we are. And perhaps you can explain a little bit more about what you found in those studies. 

Gloria: Sure. So, first of all, let me explain what multitasking is not. A lot of people think that multitasking is doing two different tasks at the same time, and that’s just not humanly possible. But what people are actually doing when they multitask is they’re switching their attention rapidly back and forth. 

And even if you’re on a Zoom meeting, and trying to do your email, that’s not multitasking because you’re actually switching your attention. Right? You might be doing your email and you fail to hear your name being called to answer a question or maybe you do hear your name called and then you have to ask people to repeat it, and that’s because your attention had been diverted to doing your email. 

So, multitasking happens a lot, and people have preferences for whether they multitask or not. And people who prefer to multitask, they’re called polychronic people. And people who prefer to work on one task through to completion and then starting another one is called monochronic preference. That’s how I am and that’s how most people are. I think about 80% of people prefer to be monochronic. 

The problem is that we are in a world that promotes polychronic activity. And so we have all these monochronics who are working in polychronic ways, and it just doesn’t fit. It’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. The knowledge workplace is very much a polychronic workplace because people are getting demands from all places. 

They have to answer emails and Slack and maybe text messages, phone calls, they have multiple tasks that they’re working on. So, people are multitasking even though that’s not their preference and that’s not how they work best. I can also say that some people believe that they can do more when they multitask, that they can accomplish more. But — when you — where you had left off. 

And so doing a bit of redundant work, and every time we switch our attention, we have to reorient, do this redundant work, and it’s not efficient. And people actually perform worse. And the other consequence is that stress goes up. 

And this is measured empirically with measures like heart rate variability, blood pressure actually goes up. There’s a release of a hormone associated with stress that increases when people multitask. And then subjectively, people report feeling stressed and pressured when they multitask. 

Georgie: It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Because one of my favorite pastimes is sitting on public transport and observing over the shoulder of whoever sitting in front of me or next to me or whatever, the way that they’re using their phones, the rate at which people move from app to app, to scroll — to screen, to message, and I find it exhausting just to watch. 

But this is the kind of de facto behavior of our day. Is it possible that monochronic brains could actually evolve to become more capable of becoming more like polychronic brains, or is this a fixed characteristic? 

Gloria: So, I don’t think it’s a fixed characteristic. The preference might be stable. I think that people can develop a skill to become better at switching their attention. 

There’s actually some work with gamers who are called Supertaskers. And these are people who have this extraordinary ability to be able to switch their attention very fast and perform very well on these games. But they’re pretty rare and there seems to be some special innate ability that these individuals have.

I think that people have developed more of a skill for multitasking simply because they’re doing it more. And they’re reacting to the demands of their workplace to have to switch their attention more frequently. But again, the result is stress. Right? 

They might be better able to switch attention and make fewer mistakes, although a lot of research has shown that multitasking causes errors. We’ve seen that in a number of studies. But it’s possible that individuals can improve their ability to multitask and make fewer errors if they do it long enough. But I’m not sure it’s a desirable thing, especially in terms of stress. 

Georgie: Interesting. On the topic of distraction, Gloria shows how people can be more or less susceptible to distraction depending on their personality type. Additionally, distraction is not just triggered by externalities, it may also be internal. 

Gloria: Yeah. So, as you mentioned, people can be almost just as easily distracted from something within themselves, as from something external, some external stimulus. And we discovered this when we started noticing just through observation that people would be looking at typing on a Word document and for some unexplained reason they suddenly stopped and picked up their phone or they stopped and checked email. 

So, obviously, there’s some internal trigger. It could be a memory. It could be they were queued from something on their desktop or some thought or some urge led them to switch their attention and interrupt themselves. Some people do have a better ability at self-regulation than others. And they were dealt a better set of cards, perhaps you can think of it that way. 

So, they have better self-regulation ability, they tend to score higher in a personality trait called conscientiousness. It’s part of the big five personality scale, and they also score low in a trait that’s called impulsivity. Basically, people who are conscientious and not impulsive, they’re very good in self-regulation. 

But of course, there’s people who are not dealt such a good deck of cards who have less of an ability for self regulation. And in fact, it’s a continuum. It’s not your — you can self-regulate or not, but it’s really a continuum. And of course, it’s also contextual as well. There are some contexts where people are better — where an individual for themselves might be better at self regulating. 

Let’s, just to throw this out, maybe someone who’s a gamer might have a strong ability to focus for a long period of time in a game that they’re playing, but may have very short attention span if they’re trying to pay attention, say, to a lecture or to someone speaking. So, there are individual differences in these abilities and, of course, it’s also contextual as well. 

Georgie: Yeah. And how able you are to regulate your distraction. Would that also correlate with things like how easy you find it to regulate your food intake or whether or not you are good at making yourself go for exercise? 

Gloria: That’s a really good question. I would say on the whole likely, but not necessarily. And so if you have a good skill for self-regulation, it should apply to different kinds of context, but not necessarily. 

Georgie: And how are digital devices and the way that we use digital tools changing the nature of distraction? 

Gloria: Yeah. They provide us increasingly more sources of distraction. And every year, there are new sources of distraction that are being developed. There’s a bit of a paradox here because on the one hand, you’re glued to your screen. 

And at the same time, it’s hard to pay attention to any single thing that’s on that screen. So, our computers and phones are just a gateway to information and people in the world outside of us. And the lure of accessing all that information in those people is very strong. 

Georgie: All the candy. And I’m interested, as the digital products continue to improve and evolve, is that balance between internal triggers and external triggers for distraction shifting? Do you see that people are being more distracted now by external triggers than they were prior to, say, the advent of some of the more recent apps and products that are out there? 

Gloria: I haven’t seen any huge change, but I will say that there is a connection. Between internal and external distractions. So, we looked at the data on an hourly basis. How many internal distractions were there? How many external distractions were there? And then we look to see whether there was any kind of relationship between these different types of distractions over time. 

And what we found interestingly was that the number of external distractions predicted the amount of internal distractions in the next hour. So, if you had a lot of external distractions at, say, one o’clock, and then those distractions went down, your internal distractions kicked in, and all of a sudden, you had a lot more internal distractions. 

And the way I explain it is it’s conditioning. And if we’re not being interrupted by some external source, then we turn on ourselves and we begin to interrupt ourselves because we’re so used to being distracted and so used to being interrupted that we continue the pattern. And so if the pattern doesn’t come from something outside of us then we further the pattern by drawing on distractions from inside us. 

Georgie: That’s fascinating. What I couldn’t get from the book and what I’m really interested to understand from you is talking about these themes of multitasking and the distraction that’s quite prevalent today. How you feel daily attention, how that’s shifting over time, but how on a societal level, it’s therefore shifting and the impact that you think our changing attention might be having at a societal level? 

Gloria: Yeah. That’s such an important question. We have been tracking attention spans objectively since 2004. And we found that the duration of attention on screens has been shrinking. 

And when we first started measuring this back in 2004, we found attention duration at any one time was about two and a half minutes on average and we were astounded. We thought, “Oh my gosh. That’s so short.” And then over the last five or six years, it seems to have reached a steady state of about 47 seconds on average. It’s quite short. 

Now in the book, I argue that there’s many things in society that reinforce short attention spans. So, it’s not just the fact that we spend a good chunk of our day on our computers, but there are so many other forces as well. 

We’re social beings and we have social natures and we want to accumulate what’s called social capital, which are the resources we get from other people. And the Internet is just a marketplace of social capital. And I’m going to answer your email because I expect someday you’re going to answer mine. And I’ll follow you, you’ll follow me. And so that’s an exchange of social capital and it leads people to continually check their communications. 

There’s, of course, algorithms. Everybody talks about algorithms becoming more sophisticated and knowing how to grab our attention. The very design of the Internet itself inadvertently has been designed to attract and distract our attention because the node and link structure of the Internet maps on so well to how human memory is structured in terms of a semantic network of concepts. 

And people go back and forth, you’re surfing the Internet, clicking on links primes you to think of other ideas. It’s like neon light that’s blinking in your mind. You click on that. And so there’s this back and forth process between what’s inside of your mind, making connections with concepts, and what’s digitally going on. 

Of course, our emotions have something to do with it. We are happiest when we do rote activity, things like playing Candy Crush or playing these simple games. Why do people do it? Because it makes them happy. And our attention is attracted to those things that make us happy. 

And that’s what my research showed, is that people are happiest — even happier than when they’re focused. Why? Because when they’re focused, it’s work, it’s mental effort. People are stressed when they’re focused, and people prefer to do what’s easy and makes them happy. 

Also, what people don’t realize is that our broader media environment, film and TV, they’re structured in such a way that they also reinforce us to have short attention spans. And in the book, I talked about how film and TV shots have declined in duration to an average of four seconds. 

And so if you’re watching a movie or TV, you’re going to see these shot changes happening very fast. They used to be much longer when film and TV started out. And in the book, I show a graph that shows how they’ve declined over time. 

And it’s not just that, music videos change even faster. I think about every two seconds that scenes change. And the screens are changing fast, so it’s not under their willful control as if you’re on your computer or phone, it might be your willful control to switch your attention. When you’re watching film and TV, the directors and editors are making those choices to switch the screens for you. 

And of course, our attention spans are reinforced by choices that tech companies have made, for example, in constraining the length of our tweets, of social media posts. And so all of these things together reinforce us to have short attention spans. 

And the question you asked about societal effects is really a chicken and egg problem because our film and TV directors and editors creating these short scenes because they believe that’s what will hold people’s attention. Or are they influenced by their own short attention spans because they think this is what should be? 

So, many things in society are also shortening in duration, and they serve to reinforce us. 

Georgie: Is a shortening attention span a problem? 

Gloria: The question is – it depends what you want to do. So, if you want to produce meaningful work, then yes, it’s a problem. When I was writing my book, if I were switching my attention every 47 seconds, I would not have gotten very much done. 

It takes me probably a good 10 minutes just to get into a kind of deep thinking mode before I can even begin to write. But if you’re bored and you’re surfing the Internet or you’re doing rote activity, and your goal is not to produce a book chapter or report, then maybe it’s not bad. 

Georgie: I think what I’m trying to get at, my concern is that as society, we need to make sure that we have the space for meaningful connection, relationships, thinking, reflection. 

Gloria: Yes. 

Georgie: And that we don’t, because at the individual level, our attention spans are degrading, that is becoming increasingly difficult. 

Gloria: Yeah. Let me mention, how many times have you ever interacted with a person face-to face and then as you’re talking to them, they start looking at their phone? This has happened to me so many times I just can’t even begin to count them. 

This is an example of a societal effect that people just — they can’t stay away from their phones. And even when there’s a human being in front of you, there’s still this urge to look at digital information. 

Georgie: Yeah. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Okay. Moving on to the future though, because your book finishes quite optimistically about how actually there might be changes that can be made to technology in order to improve attention span and to look at our attention in more sympathetic ways. 

To wrap up today, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the future of attention and what positive changes you think can be made to help us there? 

Gloria: Yeah. I think there’s a lot of interesting things that can be done. There can be changes on an individual level, an organizational level and societal level. And I talked about that in the book. So, on an individual level, people can develop agency in their behavior. So, how you can have the agency with your attention. 

And there are certain very specific things people can do. Just to throw out one of them, the idea of practicing forethought. And forethought means imagining how your current actions are going to affect what you do at the end of the day or even in a few hours. 

And so going on social media, if you ask yourself, how is this going to impact my end of the day? What’s your end of the day going to look like? Are you going to be up at two o’clock in the morning still trying to finish that report or you’re going to be asleep in bed? 

The important point here is to be aware of your own rhythm of attention so that you know when it’s your peak performance, what to schedule to do when it’s your peak performance. And when your attentional resources are being drained and knowing to pull back and to replenish, that’s very important. 

I do think that people can achieve agency in their attentional behaviors. At an organizational level, there are things that can be done. For example, organizations can send out email just at certain times during the day. 

Let’s say, first thing in the morning, maybe after lunch, maybe at the end of the day. And what this would serve to do is to rewire people’s expectations. And it can counteract conditionings. And we found empirically that people check their email on average 77 times a day. So, instead of 77 times, let’s reduce it to three times a day. 

And now on a societal level, there are things that could be done. I’m a very strong proponent of the right to disconnect. And so what this law would do is give people a chance to psychologically detach from work. And it gives people a chance to replenish their attentional resources, to relax, in the world. 

France has an El Khomri law. There are laws in Ireland and Ontario. And I do think that these kinds of right to disconnect laws, it’s a human right. 

Media literacy programs for young people, I think, is really important. And there are some media literacy programs, for example, the state of California. But most of these media literacy programs have to do with teaching young people about what’s appropriate content on the internet and what’s not. 

But I also think that what should be built into these programs are ways to use it, to access the Internet, to use it and teaching people the importance of focusing and staying on one page and turning off distractions. And practicing things like forethought to understand how their current actions affect them at the end of the day. 

And teaching young people to ask themselves questions about what they’re doing online, what I call meta awareness in the book, which helps people gain a better sense of what they’re doing and questions why they’re doing things. Like getting into rabbit holes or surfing the Internet when they should be doing work. And I do think that these programs are important. And in fact, these programs could also be training programs in the knowledge workplace as well. 

Georgie: Yeah. The more we can be asking questions about how and why we’re using the internet at every single moment, the better we’ll be at remembering that it’s a tool and it’s there to make us be better not to necessarily take away from what we could be doing in that particular moment. 

Gloria, you’ve been a fantastic guest on the Freedom Matters podcast. Thank you so much for sharing all your wisdom with us. I think we just scratched the surface in terms of the amount of research that you’ve contributed to this field. So, thank you so much for all the work you’ve done. Thank you for your time today. It really has been a pleasure. 

Gloria: Well, thank you so much for inviting me and giving me a chance to talk about it.

Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.