A book on the crisis of focus, by Dr. Gloria Mark, Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, visiting senior researcher at Microsoft Research, and a leading expert in the fields of attention, multitasking, and human-computer interaction.
The Surprising Science of How We Focus, Why That’s Changing, and How Rhythm Became the New Flow
by Gloria Mark
Hanover Square Press, early 2023
(via Park & Fine)
The modern crisis of focus is not simply a matter of increased distractions that can be solved with a digital detox. It is a mental health crisis. It is the reason why Adam Grant’s recent New York Times piece on languishing gained so much traction. We feel it now especially, after a year of working from home, but it is a crisis that has been building for decades.
Dr. Mark’s work is unique in that she has been studying, observing, and experience sampling people in their real workplaces for 30 years, alongside the rise of the internet itself. And she has been able to empirically track our rapidly declining attention spans: in 2004, she found that office workers focused on one screen or tab for about 2.5 minutes on average before switching; in 2012, that time was only about 75 seconds; by 2017, it had gone down to 47 seconds. Now, it’s about 43 seconds. Popular media likes to focus on these statistics alone, but what Dr. Mark finds more pressing is the effect this trend is having on real people—dwindling attention spans, multitasking, and rapid task switching have all been associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout.
When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience was released in 1990, the world was a very different place—and Dr. Mark was just getting ready for one of her first jobs in the field, observing the effects of networked conference room computers on productivity (a study that now seems quite quaint). A lot has changed since then, and the way our minds work has changed with it. We need a new model for understanding what optimal experience looks like today.
In ATTENTION SPAN, Dr. Mark will introduce that new model: kinetic attention. Kinetic attention is attention that is dynamic or fleeting, and is now the dominant form attention in the modern world. Dr. Mark has found that flow—which requires lengthy periods of sustained focus—is extremely rare, especially when working on a computer (see: where most of us spend the majority of our time). But maintaining focus for long periods of time comes with its own drawbacks, too, and it requires a high degree of cognitive resources. So, just as constantly switching tasks can make us stressed, so too can long sustained periods of focus. What Dr. Mark recommends instead is to work with our tendency toward kinetic attention, not against it, and learn to focus in strategic rhythms that allow us periods of deep focus, but also less focused periods in which we can replenish our cognitive resources. This model also has the benefit of being more realistic for the demands of the modern workplace.
Dr. Gloria Mark is Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, visiting senior researcher at Microsoft Research, and a leading expert in the fields of attention, multitasking, and human-computer interaction. Dr. Mark has spoken on stages that include SXSW, Talks at Google, Microsoft Faculty Summit, and the Aspen Ideas Festival, and her work has been featured in The New York Times, Fast Company, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, NPR, Quartz, Slate, and more.