Addicted to distraction: How our world is robbing our ability to pay attention

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“Back in 2004, we found that attention averaged about two and a half minutes. In 2012, we found it down to 75 seconds, and then up through 2020 we found the average to be 47 seconds,” says Gloria Mark. Graphic courtesy of KCRW’s Gabby Quarante.

We live in a culture of speed, fast-paced and jam-packed with 24/7 access to information and entertainment through our devices. While we enjoy seamless connectivity and limitless entertainment options, platforms like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and constant streams of texts and emails also inundate us with a barrage of distractions. It's both a blessing and a curse: a double-edged sword of convenience and overload.

This fundamental shift in how we live, think, and work has been the focus of over 20 years of research for Gloria Mark. She’s a psychologist and professor of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California at Irvine. In 2004, when Mark started her research, the average attention span was two and a half minutes. By 2020 that number had decreased to 47 seconds - and technology has played a significant role in that rapid decline.  

“The design of the internet itself maps on so well, to our mind-wandering tendencies,” says Gloria Mark. “The node and link structure of the internet makes it so easy for us to just joyfully ride through the internet clicking on one link after another, as soon as a thought pops into our mind.” 

In her book Attention Span:A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness, and Productivity, Mark addresses how technology has significantly altered our ability to focus. One of her key discoveries revealed  that the incessant urge to check and respond to emails was a huge cause of distraction and stress. “We find a very strong relationship between time on email and amount of stress — people check email on average about 77 times a day,” Mark notes. 

The challenges of both concentration and distraction are not new to society. “It's very natural for the mind to have these different mental states," says Mark, “natural for us to have other thoughts pop into our minds that captivate us.” Because intense mental focus is hard work, Mark says her research also showed that “people are actually happiest doing very simple, easy, engaging tasks — playing mindless games and scrolling through social media, happier than when they're doing hard focused work.” In fact, Mark says there’s evidence showing that doing simple tasks helps the mind “kind of settle down and re-reset.” 

In her book, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, author Gloria Mark says that when looking for ways to be more focused, it helps to do “smaller, easier tasks -  it's almost like they're greasing the wheels before they really dive in to do hard work.” 

Contrary to a commonly held belief that people feel like they accomplish a lot more, undistracted, and working from home, Mark says that’s not always the case. “When people work remotely they have a much tougher time staying motivated. When they work in person, the presence of other people helps motivate them. People send off signals, they're working hard and it influences us to keep on our toes.” 

And though parents are all too aware of the perils of excessive screen time for their kids, Mark warns that a child’s mind is “just not ready to deal with all this media stimuli.” And that “executive function — the CEO of the mind — it's not mature yet for kids and it doesn't mature until they're about 10 years old.” 

Mark also provides guidance on reducing distractions and cultivating what she refers to as “meta-awareness.”  

“Understand when your peak focus times are. That's not hard to do, you can keep a diary over a day and mark down the times that you've been focused. And do this over a period of days to figure out what your peaks and valleys are in intention.”

Mark refers to a tip from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. “He liked to peel potatoes. That’s a very rote activity but he got his best ideas doing that, when we do this kind of simple, rote activity. It might seem like we're doing nothing but there's a lot still going on in our minds. If you have a really tough problem, one of the best things you could do is step away.”

“For most people, they have a peak mid-morning and then another peak mid-afternoon,” says Gloria Mark, “but it takes people time to ramp up into that state of deep focus.” Photo credit: Gloria Mark.

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  • Gloria Mark - Author; Professor, Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine


Andrea Brody