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Paying Attention to Your Attention Span
Focus isn't unlimited, but you can get more of it — if you're thoughtful about attention management
Last year, I had to get a few stitches in my head. It wasn’t a big deal, but, for a brief period, I was supposed to move my head as little and as slowly as possible so that I wouldn’t stretch the area with the stitches. I quickly realized that I’d taken for granted how much I normally whip my head around.
I had to slow down everything I was doing. It was annoying, and uncomfortable. And yet, one day during this period — while pacing my living room with an icepack on my head — I stopped to wonder why I was feeling so happy.
I started writing in my journal about what I was doing every day to see if anything jumped out. Something did. My conclusion was that, despite the discomfort, it was the forced slowing down that had a salutary effect. Everything I did, from brushing my teeth to working on my computer, was slower. I could only focus on one thing at a time — again, whether that was brushing my teeth or writing. When the stitches got really uncomfortable, I’d take short breaks to walk around my home at about 1 mph with an icepack on my head. So I had a number of brief, slow walking breaks sprinkled throughout the day.
In the aftermath, I realized that I very rarely have a problem with not being able to work quickly enough, but I constantly have a problem with not being able to work slowly enough. When I slow down, my work is better; in the long term, I’m more productive. And, importantly, I feel better. Festina lente, as the adage (in Latin) goes: “make haste slowly,” the idea being that slowing down can be the fastest way to get to where you’re trying to go. The Navy SEALs mantra “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” rings a similar note.
I think the stitches experience is one reason that Gloria Mark’s book, Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity, which came out earlier this year, resonated so deeply for me. Mark is a psychologist and professor of informatics at the University of California-Irvine, and she’s been studying people’s work rhythms for two decades.
In the book, she goes into fascinating detail about how she conducted her research, from the early days when she sat behind people at their desks, holding a stopwatch and logging their tasks, to more recent methods where she can monitor work computers remotely. She has been a visiting researcher at Microsoft, where she studied work habits, and once convinced an organization to shut down email for some employees for a week to see what happened. Two interesting results: stress decreased (as measured, in part, by monitoring heart-rate variability), and some managers changed their behavior. As Mark writes in Attention Span:
“Another participant, Rich, described that before his email was cut off, his supervisor interrupted him often, delegating work to him via email. When his email was cut off, the supervisor suddenly stopped delegating work though he could easily have walked down the hall and done it face-to-face.”
Below is an edited conversation I had with Mark about topics in her book.
David Epstein: You write about people who come to feel crushed by their work schedule, and particularly by asynchronous communication and distractions. Was there anyone in your research who was particularly emblematic of that?
Gloria Mark: There was one guy I was observing who felt he had absolutely no free will in the digital world. His perspective was that the internet and computers are doing this to me, and he had just completely surrendered. I found that so interesting. … He would sometimes verbalize what was going on, you know, “That damn email,” or he would just express frustration. And when we interviewed him, he said: “I let the sounds of the bells and pop-ups rule my life.”
DE: Wow. I was just recently reading about how mid-19th century factory workers felt ruled by bells for work and meals.1 Was he a young person who was overwhelmed early on, or more into his career?
GM: He was probably around 50. But I’ve also heard similar things from people who are 25. I’ve heard them expressing a complete loss of control.
DE: That’s a good segue, because to me a lot of your book is about not getting swept away by the flow of work and task switching. I really appreciate the utility of email; at the same time, I can never nearly answer all my email, so anytime I close my inbox my parting thought is how much I left undone. And that feeling will stick with me and distract me. So I have to stay away from my inbox during periods where I need to focus. I just can’t easily toggle from intense focus to email and back. I didn’t realize email stress was so widespread, though, until I read your work.
GM: It’s one of the most robust findings we have: email causes people to get more stressed. The results are so consistent. It’s a symbol of work, basically, but it still comes after the workday. And there’s an imbalance between the sender and the receiver of email. The receiver is often the one who has to do the work, and the sender gets the benefits.
DE: That issue of email flooding in after the normal workday is interesting. I left my last “normal” job — with a defined workday — a bit before the pandemic, and one big adjustment for me has been finding a way to end the workday. I took a tip here from your book. You write about the “Zeigarnik effect,” this finding that, when a task is interrupted, whether by some other task or the end of the workday, “it creates a state of tension from that unsatisfied need to finish it, which stays with us and serves to remind us—over and over and over again—to return to the task.” It’s like a sticky note is left in the brain. Because of your writing on this, I now try to find a natural stopping point to end the workday, where I’ve finished some segment of something or some chapter of reading. You also discuss research in which people were directed to write (or record a voice memo) in detail about their most important unfinished tasks, with a plan for next steps. You write:
“When you write it down, you are transferring all that unwanted tension from your mind onto something outside of yourself.”
And you note that people who did this fell asleep faster at night. So I’ve been doing this too, and I like it. It feels like it helps put some closure on the day.
GM: That’s good, because the borders of work and home life are just so blurred, with working from home, but also electronic communications in general have just blurred this division of work and personal life.
DE: Probably my single biggest personal takeaway from your book is that I’ve been proactively paying attention to my own rhythm during the day. I’m taking some notes on it, and noticing patterns — times or tasks where I tend to focus easily, or have trouble focusing. This has led me never to start my day with email, because I find myself easily overwhelmed first thing in the morning, and, as I mentioned above, I find it hard to fully transition out of email — perhaps because of the Zeigarnik effect. I start the day with reading, or editing, where I’m locked in on one thing, and that really works for me. I can see in my own notes that, when things aren’t going well, I regularly refer to my brain as “overheating,” particularly when I’m trying to balance multiple tasks.
GM: Yeah, that’s being overwhelmed, basically.
DE: And that happens when I’m trying to hold a lot of different things in my head, and particularly early in a project where my ideas are amorphous, and I’m trying to make connections between things, and trying to remember this or that citation and schedule some interview, and I get frustrated. So the change I’ve made, now that I’ve noticed this pattern, is that before I get all the way to that “redline” where my cognitive engine is overheating, I stop, and do something slow. And I do feel like I’ve been less frustrated, or at least I haven’t gotten to fully “overheated.”
GM: Remember the metaphor I use about our tank of attentional resources: we feel overwhelmed when that tank starts getting low. We just don’t have the attentional capacity to handle all these multiple things. It’s a good metaphor to always keep in mind. I always keep it in mind. I think: “What is the level in my tank? I’m starting to get exhausted. Okay, it’s time for me to pull away, take a break.” It could be a significant break, or maybe it could just be a quick break, but I have to think about getting that tank to a higher level.
DE: On the one hand, this sounds eminently sensible. On the other hand, I can definitely remember times when I’ve had a deadline looming and been like: “And now I shall focus intensely for twelve straight hours every day this week!” And it might work briefly, but not for long. And then it’s like a runner burning out. I get more work done overall if I avoid crashes. An implication I took from your work is not only does this managing-of-rhythm have value for performance, but also from a stress standpoint — taking breaks proactively instead of waiting until you’re fried.
GM: Yeah, yeah, because sometimes we just lose track of things. And I've had this experience, and really experienced burnout, where I would just work without stop, without a break. Now I'm so much more intentional, and I actually feel like I've never been more productive. Because I feel I can devote more attention to better quality things, to thinking deeper. Whereas when you just push yourself to the point of exhaustion, you just can't think deeply, right? You just lack the resources to be able to come up with new ideas. I'm sure you've had the experience where you're searching for a word when you're writing, or searching for a way to formulate things, and then you step back, you do something else, or maybe you come to it the next day and all of the sudden it’s crystal clear. Because you've got this fresh set of resources that you can devote to it.
DE: Oh yeah, I’ve soaked several iPhones with an urgent need to record a voice memo about some writing idea in the shower. That’s presumably part of that incubation effect (or “shower effect”) that most people have experienced at some time or another, so maybe there’s a focus-shift and recharging aspect to it. Interesting. And again it goes against this idea that I’m going to sit down and focus for ten hours straight and get so much done. Or, like Elon Musk saying repeatedly that he’s not sleeping. I have no clue what he’s really doing, but I think the cultural message is clear.
GM: It’s a badge of honor to talk about how you don't sleep, how productive you are. I've seen that so much. I visited workplaces, and it's bragging rights to say how long you've worked. Even in academia, we see that all the time in academia. We don't see people bragging about, “I had a really good experience today because I was relaxed, I was able to think clearly.” We don't hear that.
DE: You just reminded me of the Japanese word inemuri, which translates to “sleeping while present,” or sleeping at work. And I was once told that it’s seen as a good thing, because it means you worked to exhaustion. …Speaking of, I mentioned I’ve been keeping a little journal, sort of a running log of when I’m feeling overwhelmed or totally exhausted, looking for patterns. Do you keep one yourself, or recommend anything for people to become better scientists of their own attentional rhythm?
GM: This was an exercise that I actually gave my students, because I held a seminar on this topic, and programmed random probes on their phones. And every time the probe would go off, they would simply write down how challenged and how engaged they were. And then they mapped it out over the course of the day. And they were able to get a sense of what their own personal rhythms were. I also had them take the morningness/eveningness questionnaire, which tells them what their chronotype is. Most people know if they're an early or late type; it's their natural biological rhythm. And so you put all this information together, and then you can get a sense of what your peak focus time is. But it's also really important to become self aware, and to keep probing yourself. You're not just relying on some week-long experiment with a random probe, but really it's what I write about as meta-awareness in the book. I constantly probe myself. If I have an urge to check the news, do I really need to check the news right now? Why? Usually it’s because I'm procrastinating, or maybe I'm bored. And usually the answer is that I don't need to do it, so I can continue working a little bit longer. So I think it's an important skill, to be able to learn to probe yourself because it makes you more self aware. And it brings your unconscious actions to a conscious level. And in that way, we can be more intentional about what we do, right? When something is conscious, you can analyze it, and then you can change.
DE: Speaking of the news, I think I’ve been reading somewhat less of it lately. I read a diary note that Tolstoy wrote, in which he was recounting how, in preparing his Calendar of Wisdom, he was laser focused on reading great works of the past. In the diary entry he wrote, simply:
“For two months I did not read anything else, neither newspapers nor magazines, and I felt so good.”
I don’t at all advocate being an uninformed citizen, but when I scroll headlines, they’re all so appealing! I feel like I need to know what’s in most of the articles. But in viewing my attentional tank as limited, I’m increasingly asking myself: “If I take the time to read this rather than the paper or book on my desk that I proactively selected, will it have been worth it? Do I really need to know what’s in this article?” And the answer is often probably not.
GM: Probably not, yeah. And I talk about forethought, where it's really important to imagine your future self. And I think that the timeframe that makes the most sense is the end of the day. Because your current actions have more of an impact at the end of the day than they will a week from now. And so thinking about what I want to do at 10pm tonight — I want to feel fulfilled and rewarded, and I want to watch my favorite show or read my favorite book. So that can be a way to keep us on track.
You know, it’s interesting, because in [Johann Hari’s best seller Stolen Focus], it's based on the premise that we can't focus anymore. But his definition of focus is actually based on a paper where a group of researchers were looking at how long news topics remained in the public consciousness, as measured by how long they were on Twitter. And it showed that they stayed in the public consciousness shorter and shorter over time. That’s really not a measure of our focus; it's a measure of the media driving news cycles. So when you were talking about, “Well, is it worth it to read this headline or to keep track?” I think it's really important to keep in mind the fact that the news cycles are deliberately being changed so rapidly, and maybe it just doesn't make sense to try to keep on top of things. It's a bit artificial, right? You’re in the media, you know this better than I do. Having that kind of understanding helps curtail my checking news constantly. And I'm a super news-junkie, but I don't do it that often.
DE: One heuristic my brother came up with that I’ve adopted is not to click on an article if there’s a question mark in the headline, because the answer will always be ‘no.’ And that’s not always the case, but once he pointed that out, I realized it is usually the case.
Switching topics a little, you write about how having numerous goals within a given day can be difficult for people, because again there’s basically a residue left on the brain when they try to switch between goals, which makes it difficult to fully switch and sustain attention. I don’t know if it’s realistic, but is there any practice you recommend to deal with this, or perhaps for trying to stick to one goal for a given period of time?
GM: We did a study at Microsoft, which I write about in the last chapter of the book, where we had a [digital] conversational agent that asked people at the beginning of the day what their task goal was, and what their emotional goal was, so what they want to accomplish and how they want to feel — maybe that’s rewarded, or fulfilled, or calm. And it had an effect; people stayed on task longer, but it was a short-term effect.
DE: How short?
GM: An hour. People performed beautifully the first hour, and then they just had a hard time staying on task. Goals are dynamic, and you have to keep reminding yourself of your goal.
DE: One last thing. You emphasize in the book that there’s a need, when doing absorbing mental work, to toggle between extreme focus and easier activity. You use this beautiful analogy from Maya Angelou, in which she’s describing her work process in the hotel room she rented to do her writing. She didn’t let the hotel staff in, and she took the paintings off the wall to get rid of distractions. Pretty extreme. And yet, she brought her own distractions! Playing cards, crossword puzzles… As she said, she had a “Big Mind” and a “Little Mind.” The Big Mind could do the deep work of writing, but she needed to turn to her Little Mind to recharge. I loved how you used that to talk about the different types of attention, and how we need to wield both.
GM: I also love that analogy. So, yes, let your Little Mind work for a while when you need it.
Thank you to Gloria Mark for her work and her time. For more, check out Attention Span. I really enjoyed the insights and descriptions of how the research was done, and it made me much more conscious of my own work rhythms.
As always, please feel free to join the conversation in the comments below the post. I haven’t managed to respond to all of them lately, but I respond to many, and I read every single one.
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Until next time…
P.S. I recently enjoyed a podcast episode with Adam Grant and John Green, in which they discuss paying attention to your attention in order to better understand your own interests and values.
This was in a book called The Great American Hall of Wonders, put out by the Smithsonian American Art Museum: “‘Mill girls’ came to loathe the sound of the bells and often complained about the incessant interruptions.”