Is modern life ruining our powers of concentration? | Technology
How does it feel inside your head? Turn your attention inwards. Maybe you’re daydreaming, allowing your mind to wander. Or maybe it feels sharp and alert. Maybe your thoughts are forging freely ahead, a sign that you have achieved the fabled state of “flow”. More likely, however, your brain feels like a browser with too many tabs open. From the widespread reports of a post-pandemic “brain fog” and the books on “deep work” and “stolen focus” topping bestseller lists, to the soaring diagnoses of ADHD in adults and children, it seems we are increasingly concerned by our ability to pay attention.
Early last year, the Centre for Attention Studies at King’s College London found that 49% of 2,000 adults surveyed felt their attention span was shorter than it used to be. Almost as many (47%) agreed that “‘deep thinking’ has become a thing of the past”. These are generalisations and impossible to quantify – we have no consistent measure of attention or deep thinking, let alone of contrasting those through history with today’s. But the response proves that we at least perceive there’s a problem.
I have been feeling the same myself. Last year, writing – my job for more than a decade – started to feel more laborious. Unrelated to the complexity of the task, I found it hard to manage my time, or structure an argument, or see how one thought followed another. Directing my attention felt outside my grasp. I confessed to a friend that I had been Googling the symptoms of ADHD, increasingly convinced I would receive a diagnosis. Or maybe, he replied, kindly, my struggle had more to do with spending upwards of eight hours a day staring at screens, without real breaks, for weeks at a time. Maybe the mental strain I was feeling was not a sign of executive dysfunction, but an apt response.
“I’ve studied hundreds of people over the decades, and many, many people report feeling distracted and having a loss of control,” says cognitive psychologist Gloria Mark over Zoom. “But not everybody,” she adds. A professor of informatics at the University of California, Mark has been researching human-computer interaction and technology’s effects on our day-to-day lives since the mid 1990s. Now, in her first book Attention Span: Finding Focus for a Fulfilling Life, Mark brings together her findings for a lay audience, and the results are startling. It’s not as simple as flow good, screens bad. Most strikingly, it is not even the case that we should necessarily be striving to focus at all.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought on attention. The first argues that we haven’t lost our ability to focus, it has been wrested, even “stolen”, from us by technology. In this view we’re little more than lab rats lured by notifications and algorithms, pings and dings in a large-scale social experiment. We may develop strategies for resisting those dopamine dispensers, such as blocking software or switching to a “brick phone”. But the game is rigged against us.
Those in the second camp may scoff at this: they maintain that most of our struggles with focus are more to do with self-control. There is no notification that can distract us unless we are on some level willing to be distracted. Even the notion of a “shorter attention span” may provoke scepticism. Instead, could it be that you’re just not that motivated? Whichever worldview you subscribe to – that our attention has been hijacked by our devices, or by our lack of self-discipline – they share an element of fatalism: there is either little you can do, or you’re just not doing enough.
Mark believes that neither of these views is quite right. In Attention Span she dismantles common misconceptions about our attention, among them that we should always be striving to focus when at work on our computers, and that the mindless scrolling we do on screens is counterproductive. The reality is more nuanced, says Mark – but our digital lives have evolved so fast, we have found ourselves struggling to keep up or safeguard ourselves.
“That’s why I think we’ve got to this point, where we’re having such a hard time controlling our attention, because we haven’t figured out yet how we can integrate this technology in our lives, and use it wisely.”
Mark has been studying distraction since 2004, when she carried out the first of her studies on “knowledge workers” (who work primarily with computers). Shadowing them with a stopwatch, she logged how long they spent on one activity (opening their email) before switching to another (making a call). It was painstaking work – “like watching paint dry”, one of her participants said self-effacingly, of their own routine – but effectively illustrated how our attention roamed about, often with no obvious prompt.
The results showed that people shifted their attention, on average, every three minutes or so (including to interact with colleagues). When restricted to just computer activity, it was about 30 seconds quicker. At the time this seemed unfathomably fast, says Mark, but it was nothing compared to what was to come. With developments in tracking technology in the 2010s, Mark was able to repeat the study with greater precision, amassing thousands of hours of observation. In 2012, the average time spent on any screen before switching was down to 74 seconds. Since then it has declined even further. Research by Mark and others from 2016 to 2021 put it relatively consistently at just 47 seconds – “crazily short”, she says.
The result holds true regardless of job or age (though Mark studied all adults; distraction in developing minds is even less known). “Simply put,” Mark concludes in her book, “our personal use of technologies affects our ability to pay attention.” Those in the first camp might feel validated by this. But, Mark cautions, it’s not a straightforward tradeoff. “There are so many things in our culture and society that collude to make us distracted – it’s more than just targeted algorithms.”
In film and TV, for example, shot lengths have been getting pacier over decades, potentially influencing our own processing and behaviour in ways we may not be aware of. On social media, we consume and produce content in bite-size chunks, at a frenetic pace. “We are creating the culture,” says Mark. “Our attention spans have shaped the media, and the media in turn is shaping our attention.”
Further complicating the issue is that, though the world at large might seek to distract us, we are not equally susceptible. “There’s aspects of our individual natures – it’s more than just a lack of willpower,” she says. Personality plays a part in how we use the internet, and what for. Some people find it easier than others to recover from interruptions, making them more effective multitaskers. Others are innately predisposed towards self-regulation. “If they go to social media, they are pretty good at getting themselves back on track,” says Mark.
For some, individual traits coalesce with context to create a perfect storm of distraction. Mark’s research found the higher a person scores in neuroticism and urgency tests, the shorter their attention span. “It doesn’t mean you can’t change – but you’ll have a harder time than others.” Mark’s own doctor confessed to an extreme strategy for writing a grant application: to book a round-trip plane journey from California to Washington DC, and write on the plane, literally rising above earthly distractions. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “He said he has to change his environment. He has to put himself in a place where he can’t get access to the internet – and apparently he’s got the money to do it.”
The very design of the internet mirrors how we think, explaining how we can lose hours down a rabbit hole on YouTube or Wikipedia. “In terms of a semantic network, we think naturally in terms of associations, and the internet just aligns with that so well,” says Mark. Stress and exhaustion further exacerbate the problem, diminishing our ability to resist temptation. It means the line between free will and conditioning has blurred: we might genuinely want to learn more, or we might be impulsively clicking on links. Either way, our curiosity is aroused and – with the next video or webpage – rewarded, perpetuating the cycle.
The many influences Mark identifies on our attention – individual, social, environmental, technological – emphasises not only the scale of the challenge, but the limits of zeroing in on any one of them for a potential solution. Distraction isn’t a tech problem, or a people problem – it’s both, inextricably intertwined. Indeed, one of Mark’s most disquieting findings is that we have become so accustomed to being interrupted, we do it to ourselves. Mark found that email trumped social media as a source of interruptions, with study participants checking their inboxes an average of 77 times daily (one checked 374 times). But most concerning was that 41% were doing so of their own accord, without external triggers. It’s proof that even if we turn off notifications, we can’t escape those internal triggers.
“We have these 47-second attention spans, and we maintain them by interrupting ourselves,” Mark says. “I feel it myself, this tension that builds up so that I have to change my screen – go to a new site, or social media, or whatever.” Accordingly, the salve often proposed for fragmented focus is flow, the psychological state of being so engrossed in your work that you lose track of time, and even the outside world. Mark has extensive experience of flow, though not in her scientific career. Before she did a master’s degree in statistics, paving the way for her to pursue psychology and computer usage, Mark studied fine art, specialising in abstract expressionism. She abandoned her dreams of being an artist in the face of the economic reality – but years later, those hours spent in flow, painting and drawing, and thinking laterally proved valuable in her scientific research. What she discovered is that most knowledge work requires analytical thinking that precludes us from getting swept away. “You see a lot of people claim that when you’re working on your computers and in your everyday life, you can get into flow, but it’s very much about the nature of the work. Working on a spreadsheet or writing a report – it’s not conducive.” In fact, flow depends on a certain level of challenge, whereby we feel pleasurably engaged and extended, making us happy, but also causing low-level stress. “It’s a myth that we should be continually focused – it’s too stressful,” says Mark.
Equally, though mindless digital diversions like playing Candy Crush or even scrolling social media might seem like exactly the kind of time-wasting that we should be striving to avoid, it actually serves a valuable function, says Mark. That kind of easy, rote activity is not only enjoyable, it replenishes our cognitive resources, necessary for us to be productive later on.
The fact that flow is not only rare, but draining; and that taking a break to scroll a different screen or play a game on your phone can be restorative, is proof of the need for nuance. The moralising over productivity and screentime is unhelpful when it comes to finding solutions – but highly profitable as the boom in (useless) blue-light glasses and “distraction-free” tech goes to show.
Last year, writer Johann Hari’s book Stolen Focus, decrying the “huge invasive forces” corroding our concentration and championing flow as a solution, was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic. Stolen Focus concludes by calling for an urgent societal “movement to reclaim our minds” – and, in the meantime chase that flow state. (Hari himself took a months-long “digital detox” on Cape Cod.)
Like others, Mark has “concerns” about Hari’s “one-sided” argument and research. It is no more possible for us to sustain focus all day than it is for us to lift weights nonstop, she says – yet that is exactly what many of us expect of ourselves, at the expense of our own wellbeing. The problem is felt well beyond the small segment of the population with ADHD, says Mark. “People are saying we have this ‘epidemic of ADHD’, but we should hold back on making that claim.” More research is needed into any relation between ADHD and use of personal devices – but it may be that people are simply exhausted and trying, and failing to focus.
Much advice sidesteps this self-assessment through the use of productivity software that restricts access to social media. But this, says Mark, undermines our autonomy. “Especially the cold-turkey approach, it takes agency away from people – like having training wheels on your bike, and you never learn to ride the bike.”
In Attention Span, Mark makes the case for a new, evidence-based approach to attention, one that works with our tech-riddled modern world and tendencies towards distraction, instead of trying to squeeze the genie back in the bottle. “We are stuck with technology, we can’t give it up, so let’s not even talk about that – but we can use it in an intelligent way, to find the benefits.” Rather than aspiring towards flow, or always being focused, Mark suggests we should aim for a “balance of attentional states” that reflects our natural circadian rhythms.
Identifying your individual chronotype – whether you work better early, late or are a moderate type; sometimes split into lions, bears, dolphins and wolves – can help you to structure your day for ease, Mark says. “It’s a matter of understanding when you’re at your peak, when you’ve got the capacity to do hard work, to be creative – and to understand when you don’t.”
She and I are both “bears”, so are most productive in daylight, between 10am and 2pm – when lions are winding down, and dolphins and wolves are getting started. By becoming aware of those precious peaks, Mark says, we can protect that window for work requiring creativity or concentration – not “wasting” them on email. She has learned to do it herself. “I used to get totally exhausted. At the end of the day, my brain was just fried… I learned to pull back and take a break.”
Now, for her downtime, Mark will schedule undemanding admin – or revive with a walk around the block, or by playing an online word game. “I realised that I had been under so much stress for a very long time,” she says.
At the societal level, Mark supports “right to disconnect” laws to combat email overload, but says the cultural shift may have to come first. She suggests cultivating “meta-awareness” of our own attention – whether we have resources to burn, or need to refuel – and engagement with tech. “If you end up going to social media, keep yourself in the present by asking: ‘Am I still getting value out of being here?’” If not, and you’re feeling increasingly drained or, conversely, refreshed, “then leave,” Mark says. It is a more pragmatic – and even, dare I say, empowering – outlook on our technological future than many. “I am very optimistic that we can take control, and change the way things are,” agrees Mark. But the first step is accepting that our attention, like our time, is finite – and that we can choose how we spend it.
Attention Span: Finding Focus for a Fulfilling Life, by Dr Gloria Mark, is published on 5 January by William Collins at £22). Order it now from guardianbookshop.com for £19.14
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