We’ve all wondered about it. You’re not crazy: yes, our attention spans really are declining.
In 2004, people averaged 150 seconds on a computer screen before switching to a different screen. In 2012, that dropped to 75 seconds. Studies from 2016 to 2021 showed it had dropped again to somewhere between 44 to 50 seconds.
And that’s an average. So half the time it’s shorter than that.
Yes, I know, now you want a t-shirt that says, “I Read Eric’s Blog And All I Got Was A Greater Sense Of My Own Inadequacy.” Modern digital life has screwed us up more than we suspected, and we already suspected quite a bit.
Well, if you can’t focus, you can’t read these posts anymore, so out of pure self-interest I have some remedies for the problem. And the goal here isn’t just to be more productive but also to increase overall well-being. Where will we find answers?
Gloria Mark is a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She’s spent over two decades studying multitasking, interruptions, productivity and mood with the rise in digital technology. Her book is “Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.”
Does this post seem too long? Then you really need to read this post.
Let’s get to it…
You Can’t Be Focused All The Time
Here’s a tip for anyone wanting to become a machine of relentless focus: stop trying to become a machine of relentless focus. Despite the officially sanctioned fairy tales, you can’t. Your brain does not work like that. Nice theory — wrong species.
Focusing for long stretches without breaks isn’t natural. Your attention has rhythms. It ebbs and flows — and sustained focus causes stress. You cannot run the engine at full speed all the time.
You have a limited pool of attentional resources that get depleted with use. And studies show this depletion carries over to subsequent behaviors. After stressful work, we’re more impulsive. If you’ve ever wondered why you can have such good habits at the office but be such an undisciplined mess at home – this is one of the reasons.
So what do we do? First and foremost, get your sleep. Your brain is like your phone: most reliable when charged overnight. The research is clear here: “the shorter the sleep duration the night before, the shorter was their attention duration on their computers and phones the next day.” And take breaks. You need them to reset and restore capacity.
That’s all pretty straightforward. But what do we usually forget when trying to improve our attention spans?
When setting goals, don’t just think about what you want to accomplish, think about how you’d like to feel. Studies show that when people ask themselves what they wanted to achieve the next day and how they wanted to feel, that made the first hour of tomorrow more productive.
Positive emotion helps us recover from the stress of sustained focus. Negative emotion is, well, a negative. And the more drained you are, the more negative emotions affect you. Annoying co-worker + sustained focus = bigger meltdown.
What’s the most common stressor at work? Research shows Public Enemy #1 is email. It drives your blood pressure higher than a giraffe’s ears. Gloria did a study where a company actually turned off email for 5 days. Ditching it boosted productivity, increased attention spans and reduced stress. People communicated face to face more often – and felt better.
The study also showed email does cause our attention spans to decline. The added anti-bonus? She found email time is focused time. You’re wasting that high power thinky-brain energy on email instead of real work.
So what do we do? Well, in the past I’ve recommended “batching.” Checking email only during designated times rather than constantly throughout the day. But Gloria found that batching didn’t reduce stress or increase productivity. (In fact, people who scored high on neuroticism were actually more stressed when email was batched.) Gloria acknowledges batching may have other benefits like fewer interruptions but it’s certainly not a panacea.
What can we do? It’s simple: send less email, get less email. Email is like stress you send to someone — and they typically send you some stress right back. If we send fewer messages, on average, we receive fewer messages.
Another issue when it comes to mood is when we bring work stress home. Research has shown that when we have unfinished tasks, our mind tends to keep thinking about them long after we’ve left the office. This even has a name – the Zeigarnik effect.
The trick here is, before you leave the office, to write down a list of the things that still need to be accomplished. Get that Pigpen cloud of unfinished tasks out of your head and on to some paper so you don’t drive yourself crazy. This has measurable effects: “Those who wrote down their unfinished tasks fell asleep significantly faster than the other group. Interestingly, the more detailed the to-do lists of unfinished tasks, the faster people fell asleep.”
Maybe reading this post is even more stressful than email. Want some good news?
Rote Recharges You
If social media is The Great Satan, why do we do it so much? There’s a neuroscientific reason: your brain is happiest when doing light, easy, engaging activities. Rote activities (like scrolling Instagram) make us feel good.
Stuff like this makes for good breaks and restores our capacity for focus. So alternate between intense focus and something rote and mindless.
Now the Type-A’s and perfectionists might resist anything smacking of fun, so let’s amp this up a bit. Instead of struggling to resist the coyote howl of social media, use it as a reward to motivate you. Send positive messages on social platforms to get some friendly interaction and a positive emotional boost. And take the time to better design the experience. Yes, mute those shouty people on Twitter who spout negativity into your eyeholes.
Another great tip from Gloria is to use design hooks to pull you out of potential rabbit holes. We’ve all taken a 5-minute social media break that lasted two hours. So set an alarm. Or only check Instagram 10 minutes before a scheduled meeting or phone call.
And because I’m such a huge fan of beating a dead horse, let’s talk about something you probably know, but aren’t putting into action…
Multitasking Is A Nightmare
Researchers have known multitasking was a problem for nearly a century. Psychologist Arthur T. Jersild did studies showing it reduces performance back in 1927.
I know, some people are saying, “But I do fine when I multitask!” And I will hasten to remind you that the plural of anecdote is not data. Your brain cannot multitask. What you’re doing is quickly switching attention between two things and there’s a cost with every switch. Keep doing it and the “fees” add up. (And, for the record, no, women aren’t better at multitasking than men.)
How often do we switch? On average, every 3 minutes, 5 seconds. On a computer it’s even faster: 2.5 minutes. This is not how great things get done.
Every time you switch, your brain needs to reconstruct its mental model of the task. (“Where was I? Oh yeah…”) This is one of the reasons you feel drained at the end of a busy day. The more often people switch, the lower their performance on the primary task and the lower their end-of-day productivity. It makes completing things take longer and increases the number of errors. The faster people switch, the higher they rate their stress. And there’s this: “Heavy media multitaskers were found in a laboratory study to have more difficulty filtering out information not relevant to their task.”
The best way to switch tasks so you don’t build up too many “fees” is by finishing one thing before you move on to something else — just like your grandparents did. Or, if you’re working on a bigger project, stop at a natural break point, like the end of a section.
So far we’ve dealt with the stuff inside your head. But what about external interruptions?
Interruptions are bad. But if you’re looking for a new reason to avoid interruptions here’s something striking: people are almost as likely to self-interrupt as they are to be interrupted by something else (56% vs 44%). And the two are connected. The more external interruptions you experience, the most subsequent internal interruptions you cause. People keep bothering you with things and you get a double hit because you’re then more likely to distract yourself by switching to email or social media.
So what should we do? Gloria found that we work better when we have control over interruptions. Set times when it’s okay for people to bother you. Easier said than done, but the more you can set boundaries on what’s coming at you, the better you’ll focus.
Use “full screen” mode to give yourself horse blinders. If at all possible, turn off notifications. Research shows it’s hard not to respond to notifications. (Ever wonder why apps so feverishly encourage you to turn them on?) Once you’re notified, your brain must exert effort just to resist checking. It’s the Zeigarnik effect again; things linger in our minds and sap attentional resources.
Research shows that software which blocks you from accessing the internet does help. (The strokes this will cause you will be really small, I promise.) Blocking software was very helpful for people with low self-control. Those with high self-control actually got an even bigger boost in productivity – so much so that they reported feeling more tired at the end of the day. The blocking software made them relentless.
So how do we fit this all together?
Find Your Rhythm And Have A Plan
Getting control of your attention fundamentally means thinking about how you use it. Are you getting value from the things you’re doing? Attention is limited, just like money. Think about the best ways to spend it.
Before you do something, ask, “What effect will this have on the rest of my day and my goals?” Optimize not just for productivity but also for your mood. Higher productivity almost always means higher stress, so be careful about maximizing. We need to build in breaks to balance.
Instead of planning on long, unbroken stretches of attention, find a rhythm and schedule that works for you. Ask yourself:
- What’s the best thing to start my day with?
- What taxes me the most?
- What replenishes me?
- When is the best time to do that stressful thing?
- When do I have the most attention? The least?
How do these answers all fit together? This should help guide you toward a default schedule and good rules of thumb. Knowing when your best hours are for each task and allocating time appropriately can work magic.
Okay, time to round it all up and find out the single biggest secret when it comes to maximizing productivity…
Here’s how to increase your attention span, according to neuroscience:
- You Can’t Focus Forever: Stop trying. Get your sleep, take breaks, and find a rhythm that works for you.
- Moods Matter: Ask yourself not just what you want to get done but how you want to feel. Negative emotions reduce mental stamina. Send fewer emails. Email is stressful. (Except for my emails, which are like beautiful songbirds on a glorious spring day.)
- Rote Recharges You: Scrolling social media has its place. It can be soothing, like popping bubble wrap. Use it for breaks and rewards. Set alarms so it doesn’t pull you into a rabbit hole.
- Multitasking Is A Nightmare: Switching costs add up and make you less productive and more stressed. One thing at a time.
- Interruptions: More external interruptions mean more internal interruptions. To the degree you are able, control distractions or put boundaries on them. Turn off notifications. If all else fails, go full-Odysseus-and-the-sirens: use internet blocking software.
- Find Your Rhythm And Have A Plan: Sometimes the thing we know the least about is ourselves. Watch yourself work, take notes, and find a rhythm that works best for you. The more you tailor the above advice, the better it will work.
You got to the end of this post! I knight your shoulders with the Royal Sword of Attention.
So what’s the most important thing? Knowing what’s important. Tonight, designate the most critical thing for you to accomplish tomorrow. And throughout the day, knowing what you need to do next will smooth the transition from one activity to another.
And what works for your day is also true for your life. Being certain of what matters most will guide you toward accomplishing what matters most. You will move through life like the hero in an action movie before the big battle: slow-mo, backlit, as hard rock music rises in the background. But then you must act on that knowledge.
A lot of people tell me what is most important to them. I never listen.
Because how they spend their time says it all.
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