If Your Attention Span Is Burnt Out, a Leading Scientist’s Simple Fix Will Come as Relief
Our attentions spans are collectively in trouble. A leading brain scientist offers gentle practices to improve focus in an increasingly distracted world.
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Dr. Gloria Mark, psychologist and the chancellor’s professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine, specializes in research on distraction and multitasking. Even before we lived in an increasingly digital world, distractions were a part of life—the phone rang, someone knocked on the door, the dog barked—but what we’re dealing with now is technology that is overtly (and covertly) designed to distract.
The truth, according to Dr. Mark, is that we’re not just distracted because of our devices—we’re distracting and interrupting ourselves.
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What does the research say?
Dr. Mark studies our relationship with technology—and she wonders if we’ll ever pay attention again. Her January 2023 book, Attention Span: Finding Focus and Fighting Distraction, came out of three decades of research. She says in 2004, people averaged 150 seconds on one screen before switching to another, which sounds bleak…but today, that number has dropped to 47 seconds. We toggle between the various programs, platforms and apps that consume our days. We think we’re being efficient, but we’re not. What we are doing is increasing stress. And it’s not good for us.
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It’s sometimes hard to tell if we’re expected to be available 24/7, in both our professional and personal lives, or if we impose this conflict on ourselves. We’re not even sure if we can control it—or if we should even try—because we’re so conditioned to check messages, check email, check Slack, etc., and we think there’s a price to pay if we don’t keep up with information and messages. The fact is we literally can’t absorb every piece of information that comes our way.
There’s an overwhelming feeling of should when it comes to our phones—should we use Do Not Disturb, should we turn them off, should we leave them out of our bedrooms at night? Dr. Mark helps us understand why we have such a hard time staying focused, why we get distracted easily and self-interrupt, and why our attention shifts so much when we use our devices.
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How to reflect on your attention span
Dr. Mark has created a few simple exercises you can do to “gain better control of your attention and to experience more positive well-being when you use your devices.” Answering the following questions will help you analyze your behavior.
- What kinds of things on a typical day make you feel overwhelmed, or stressed? If this happens while you use your devices, what are you doing exactly that makes you feel this way?
- Do you feel at times that you have a hard time focusing and are easily distracted? Write down what happens when you are distracted by something external, like a notification, and when you interrupt yourself.
- Do you take enough breaks to feel replenished? Be aware of when you are starting to feel mentally fatigued, and take a meaningful break to refresh yourself. The best break of all is to walk outside (this can bring you back to present and even help prevent down-the-road dementia). But if you can’t step outside, then move around or do a simple engaging activity that calms you, that requires focused attention, and that you enjoy. After some time, check in with yourself to determine whether you are ready to resume work. Set a timer if you need to.
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How to improve your attention span
If you want to dive deeper and take a closer look at your relationship to technology and your attention span, try these things and then take not of what insights about your behavior you gained from these exercises.
Identify your goals
At the start of the day, write down your top goals for the day in terms of what you want to accomplish—examples:
- I am going to finish my report.
- I am going to present a case to my manager to work on a new project.
Put them on post-it notes where you can easily view them. When you start a new task write down short-term goals: I am going to finish reading this chapter. Try to achieve the short-term goal before you switch your attention.
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Imagine your end-of-the-day
At the start of the day, imagine how you want your end of the day to be. Answer the following two questions:
- How do you want to feel? (Relaxed? Fulfilled? Happy?)
- What do you ideally want to do in the evening? (Relax with your partner or family? Watch your favorite show? Read a book? Not answer email?)
Try to be as concrete as possible. See how your end-of-the-day matches up with how you envisioned it at the start of the day.
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Practice meta-awareness of your actions
Dr. Mark says meta-awareness refers to gaining an understanding of what you are doing as it’s unfolding. Do the following exercise for one day every time you have the urge to check social media, email, news, or something that distracts you from work. Ask yourself:
- Why do I have the urge to go to this site now?
- What value will it bring me if I go there?
- What else can I do instead that will bring me more value?
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