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I’m convinced that attention is the most important human faculty. Your life, after all, is just the sum total of the things you’ve paid attention to. And we lament our attention issues all the time: how distracted we are, how drained we feel, how hard it is to stay focused or present. And yet, while there’s no shortage of advice on how to improve our sleep hygiene, or spending, or physical fitness, there’s hardly any good information about how to build and replenish our capacity for paying attention.
So for the start of the new year, I wanted to have a conversation with Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, author of the book “Attention Span,” and one of the few people who’s deeply studied the way our attention works, how that’s been changing, and what we can do to stop frittering our attention budgets away.
Below is an excerpt from our conversation, which has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to the full interview above, or by following “The Ezra Klein Show” on the NYT Audio App, Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts. View a list of book recommendations from our guests here.
EZRA KLEIN: We tend to think about attention in terms of productivity. But you want to think about attention in terms of well-being. How does attention affect our well-being?
GLORIA MARK: Oh, it affects it a lot. Yeah, I’m trying to reframe the conversation. So technology was created to enhance our capabilities. We can write faster. We can connect with people faster. We can produce more. A lot of what formerly had been done in face-to-face interaction, in meetings or going into people’s offices, it’s now being done at the desktop through email, or through Zoom or Slack. So there were some studies done in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, where the researchers followed people around and tracked the percentage of time they spent at their desks. And this was roughly about 30 percent of their day. In 2019, I did a study with colleagues, and we found that people spent nearly 90 percent of their time at their desks.
So on the one hand, we might think it’s more efficient. But there’s a cost to it. And the cost is our well-being. The cost is stress. And extended use of tech without breaks can even lead to burnout. And there’s a psychological theory — it’s called the broaden and build theory — that showed that when people experienced positive emotion, they actually produced more, they were more creative. And so the upshot is that when we experience positive well-being, we can produce more.
KLEIN: I’m going to be honest about my motivations in this conversation. I don’t want to produce more, and I don’t want to be more creative. I would like to be less tired. That is what I would like in my life. I really noticed it in parenting, that on the weekends, when I’m spending a lot of time watching my kids, the kind of sleep I end up needing to take sometimes in the middle of those days is like no nap I’ve ever taken as an adult before. I’m completely drained, completely exhausted. And it feels to me like an attentional form of exhaustion.
MARK: Yeah, you’re exactly right. The way to think about it is that we start our day with a tank of cognitive resources. You can think about it as attentional capacity. And there’s things we do during the day that deplete our attentional capacity, like watching kids, or focusing for a very long time on the computer, or multitasking. There’s other things we do that can replenish our resources, such as taking a break. And there’s a part of the mind that’s called executive function. It helps us make decisions, helps us filter out distractions, helps us stay on track. But when our cognitive resources drain, then executive function doesn’t work as well as it can. We try harder to stay on track, to stay focused. And the end result is we get ourselves exhausted.
KLEIN: So over the past year, I’ve been taking weight lifting more seriously again. And one thing you notice when you get into a real gym rat community of weight lifters is the unbelievable specificity of their language around recovery, around exertion, around varying the kinds of things you do. And it really struck me how thin our vocabulary and our teaching around attention is. It’s like, “Well, you get tired, and maybe when you get tired, you should sleep if you can. But if you can’t, you should just keep looking at your computer.” And it struck me, throughout the book, that you were framing cognitive resources as more like physical resources.
MARK: I think it’s an excellent analogy. So I gave a talk not too long ago, and at the end of the talk, this person, who sat in the back of the room, asked me a question: “Can our minds become injured if we exert mental effort for a long time, the same way that when we lift weights for a long time, our bodies can get injured?” And I thought about it. And I said, “Yes, yes, we can. Our minds can get injured. It’s called burnout. And in the same way it takes our bodies time to recover from lifting weights too much, we also need time for our minds to recover from burnout.”
KLEIN: People say this all the time, “Oh, I’m so burned out.” What is the difference between saying at the end of a day, “I’m tired, I’m burned out,” and what you’re talking about, a kind of cognitive injury?
MARK: When people are burned out, it’s really quite a serious condition. It’s when we just don’t have the cognitive and social resources to deal with the demands in our environment. And so when you’re really experiencing burnout, you just can’t deal with work, with social life, on a day-to-day basis. We just don’t have the resources available to do that.
KLEIN: I think one way of looking at the world is we live in an attentionally sick society. We’ve developed a million different things to grab everybody’s attention and speed it up, from TV to TikTok. There’s more unnatural light all the time. I mean, we live in a very unusual attentional world for human beings. Kids are getting raised in it. And we have a pretty high rise in mental health issues. Is there a reason to believe that we’re already seeing a kind of collective attentional injury?
MARK: There is some evidence that suggests that. So there was a survey done not too long ago of over 10,000 people. It was done in six countries, including the U.S. And over 40 percent of respondents reported symptoms of burnout. That’s a really high number. There are, of course, a lot of reasons that are causing burnout. But tech use is one reason that we can’t ignore.
KLEIN: What’s the evidence that tech use is driving burnout, or worsening our attention?
MARK: Now people have an additional workload on top of their other workload, which is answering email, Slack messages, texting. In fact, we find people check email, on average, 77 times a day. I did one study — it was some time ago — where we cut off email in an organization for some people for a five-day workweek. And without email, people were less stressed. And we measured this empirically with heart rate monitors. We also found that people became more social. They actually walked around and visited people in their offices. And people reported enjoying this experience a lot more. So we know that email causes stress. It’s not just correlation, but there is causality there.
And we followed people around with stopwatches in the workplace. Twenty years ago, we found that the average attention span was two and a half minutes. And then came along a very sophisticated computer logging software, and we found 20 years later that attention spans averaged 47 seconds on any screen. Switching between Word and email and Slack, which might be within the same project. When we’re thinking about a larger project, then it comes to about 10.5 minutes. But the point is, we switch our attention a lot.
And this whiteboard analogy I find to be very, very useful. Sometimes when we switch our attention, we might get really caught up in something, like the news. You read about some horrific event, and then you switch back to your project, and that event stays with you. Just like sometimes you can’t erase that whiteboard in real life completely — you see traces of what was written on it. Same thing happens in our minds, and that residue can interfere with our current task at hand.
KLEIN: This metaphor of the whiteboard and this idea that not all distractions are equal is one of the things in your book that has really stuck with me. It made me more attentive — no pun intended — to the way in which I try to replenish my attention or give it a break in ways that are pathological.
So, let’s say I’m preparing for an interview with a noted attention researcher, Gloria Mark. Then I flick over to my email, and it’ll be some terrible news about the world, or somebody mad at me, or somebody needs me to do something. And then I look over at my text messages and there’s one from my kids’ school about them needing flu shots. And then when I try to get back to reading your book, I’m still thinking about that.
So if you’re working on a difficult project, and you’re trying to focus, but you feel your attention flagging, what should you and what shouldn’t you do at that point?
MARK: If a person has the luxury to go outside and take a walk in nature, that’s the best break of all, because research shows that even just 20 minutes in nature can really replenish people. But a person can also contemplate or meditate. You can have a conversation with someone. Some people knit. Some people play simple mindless games. The great poet and writer Maya Angelou talked about her big mind and her little mind. And her big mind was what she used for her deep thought and her creativity. But she also did crossword puzzles or small tasks, which allowed her attentional resources to fill back up in the tank.
KLEIN: But if I play a puzzle game in the office, that would look like I’m goofing off at work. If I said I was going out to take a walk, nobody will stop me, but people might think it’s a little bit weird. It seems to me we’ve been taught that if we can’t be maximally productive for a period, what we want is to be minimally productive, as opposed to being nonproductive, to actually create a break. And that this is actually a little bit toxic. It means you’re never really recovering.
MARK: I think that you’ve nailed it. We’ve created a culture where to pull ourselves away signals that we’re not working. I think that managers and decision-makers need to be educated that it’s really important to give people permission to be able to take long breaks when they need them, to take walks outside, to have social interactions with other people, to create a culture where people are not penalized for not answering electronic communications after work hours and before work hours, to give people a chance to really detach from work, to restore themselves. Managers are delegating work to us without considering that people might be exhausted. And they need to understand that sometimes less can be more.
(A full transcript of the episode will be available midday on the Times website.)
This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” was produced by Claire Gordon. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Our senior engineer is Jeff Geld. Our senior editor is Claire Gordon. The show’s production team also includes Rollin Hu and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Kristina Samulewski and Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser.
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