What’s in it for me? Reclaim your agency in a digital world.

Here’s a question: How many times did you pick up your phone today?

Over the past two decades, we’ve developed an unbreakable bond with our digital devices. We spend hours each day in front of screens, jumping between different websites, apps, and posts.

This has come at a cost. Our attention spans have shortened, and we feel more stressed than ever. In fact, with our phones abuzz with notifications, emails dropping in every few minutes, and companies preying on our most primitive desires, it can feel like our attention is completely out of our control. Yet disconnecting is impossible – at least if you want to keep a job or have a social life.

So what can you do? Hopefully, this Blink to Gloria Mark’s Attention Span will help. We’ll break down her research on behavioral science to explain how the digital age has changed the nature of our attention. Then we’ll explore how we can use that knowledge to regain control – not in the name of more productivity, but in the name of better well-being.

So with that, let’s get started.


Declining attention spans in the digital age

Let’s be honest: we don’t need scientific data to know our attention is waning.

You’ve probably noticed it in yourself – the constant urge to pick up your phone, the Reddit rabbit hole you can’t seem to pull yourself out of, the countless hours spent on TikTok.

The digital world commands our attention like no other human invention before it. As a consequence, it has changed the way we live, work, and think.

Gloria Mark has studied people’s relationship with digital technology for almost as long as it has existed. Much of this research was conducted in “living laboratories” where researchers observed people in their everyday workplaces. Stopwatches, clickers, and notes were used to record their behavior.

Here’s what the research found. On average, people in the workplace spend about 3 minutes on a task before switching to another. But on the computer, they switch attention – from one website to another, for instance – every 2.5 minutes. Or at least they did in 2004. By 2021, they’d started switching their attention every 47 seconds.

Not all of these attention shifts are conscious and purposeful. Some happen out of boredom, some out of habit, and some happen when the internet does what it does best – pull us into a rabbit hole of link-wandering.

Another concerning finding? When people get interrupted during a work task, it takes them 25 minutes to get back to their original task. Sometimes these interruptions are external, such as an incoming phone call or a colleague eager to chat. But often, they also happen internally when a question, memory, or important task pops into their head.

To be clear, attention-shifting, multitasking, and interruptions have existed long before the internet. Our brains are actually pretty good at dealing with these scenarios. But every time they do, they use up quite a bit of mental energy. And the more it happens, the quicker our resources are depleted. No wonder we feel more stressed, exhausted, and burned out than ever before!

These basic findings about our attention spans should come as no surprise. But some of the results that scientists have uncovered actually run counter to the narratives we tell ourselves. That’s right – we’re about to bust some of the common myths about attention.


The rhythms of attention

Let’s rewind a little: What is attention, anyway?

Psychologists define it as the ability to consciously process certain things in our environments while excluding others. There’s no specific part of the brain responsible for this. Rather, the attentional system consists of a bunch of different networks. These networks coordinate skills such as sustaining awareness, prioritizing tasks, using working memory, and practicing self-regulation.

Depending on how engaged and challenged we are by the object of our attention, we can distinguish between four attention types.

When we are highly engaged and highly challenged by something, we are in a state of focus. This is what happens when you’re engrossed in a work project. When we’re highly engaged but not at all challenged, we’re in a rote stateflicking through TikTok videos or playing Candy Crush. When we’re not engaged and also not challenged, we’re in a bored state. And when we’re not engaged but highly challenged, we’re in a frustrated state.

There’s a myth that in order to be productive, we should strive for focus above all else. But every attentional state has its purpose and value. In fact, even rote digital activities like playing Candy Crush can be good for us. That’s because we can’t sustain focus forever. Different attention types ebb and flow throughout the day. For most people, focus is highest at 11:00 a.m. and again at 3:00 p.m., while boredom peaks shortly after lunch.

The reason we can’t sustain focus forever is that it uses up a lot of our cognitive resources – and these resources aren’t endless. In order to replenish them, we need to take breaks. Apart from good sleep and nice vacations, low-effort mindless activities can provide daily mini-breaks that help us recover our energy. People tend to be happier during rote activities than in a focused state, which means they have an additional benefit of boosting our mood.

Then there’s the myth of flow: an elusive state of deep focus in which you are so engaged with a task that you completely lose track of time. Artists frequently experience flow when they’re painting or making music. But “knowledge work” – jobs that include a lot of communication, research, and analysis – simply doesn’t offer many opportunities for this state.

That doesn’t mean that people in these jobs can’t be happy, engaged, and productive. They just need to learn to flow with their natural rhythms of attention. We’ll get back to this later, when we discuss different tips and tricks for guiding your attention.


The hidden costs of distraction and multitasking

By now, it should be clear that not all attention is under our conscious control. In a state of focus, we’re directing our energy to serve a specific goal – like writing a paper. But our attention is also driven by external distractions – someone shouting our name, for example, or the ping of a notification.

When people are frequently interrupted in their work by such distractions, they report more frustration, pressure, and stress. No surprise there – as we know, it takes us about 25 minutes to get back to work after an interruption. What might surprise you, though, is that people interrupt themselves almost as often as they are interrupted by outside forces.

Researchers found that 44 percent of the time, people switch their attention without any visible trigger. You’ve experienced it: You’re in the middle of an important task when suddenly, the urge to check Instagram overcomes you. Or you need to know when Prince died. Or you remember you really have to schedule that dentist appointment.

The more we are interrupted from the outside, the more we start interrupting ourselves. These interruptions can be soothing. They give our minds a little break from the hard work and help us manage stress. But they can also cause lingering emotions, use up cognitive resources, and lure us into scrolling spirals.

How well we cope with interruptions depends on all kinds of social, environmental, and genetic factors. Women are slightly better at picking up interrupted tasks than men. They also tend to handle simultaneous working “spheres” more easily.

This means there might be some truth to the old trope that women are better at multitasking. But don’t fool yourself: the percentage of supertaskers – people who can multitask without sacrificing mood and performance points – is very small. For most of us, paying attention to two things at once is only possible if one of them is very automatic. For instance, you probably have no problem talking on the phone while walking. But if both tasks demand conscious effort – like having a Zoom call while writing an email – we’re not really paying attention to both at the same time. Instead, we’re rapidly switching our attention. And that takes a lot of resources.

But straining to resist distractions can also use up resources. Self-control is like a muscle – if we use it too often throughout the day, it eventually gets too weak to function. And some people have bigger self-control muscles than others.

Surprisingly, very conscientious people spend more time on entertainment websites than their peers. You’d think this would make them get distracted more, but they actually have an easier time pulling themselves back to work. This allows them to use these activities as conscious breaks from their work. As for the rest of us, we’ll have to keep training that self-control muscle little by little.


Surviving the attention economy

There’s another modern myth surrounding our attention. It’s that we succumb to distractions, interruptions, and multitasking due to a lack of discipline. We tell ourselves that we’re just not making enough of an effort to sustain our attention.

But this view ignores that our behavior is shaped by the culture, technology, and attitudes of our time.

The internet is everywhere today. And the reason it has become so popular is that its network structure perfectly mimics the structure of our mind. Hyperlinks allow us to indulge our curiosity by following associative connections, much as we do when mind-wandering on our own. We can start reading about Leonardo da Vinci, seamlessly transition to an article about the Mona Lisa, and end up learning about French history.

Our attention may start as goal-directed – we want to look up something about Leonardo da Vinci – but it then gradually becomes more open and opportunistic. Our brain knows that a new reward lies behind every link: more information. So we click, often not even conscious of our choice.

Companies figured out how to capitalize on this effect a long time ago. They use algorithms to collect data about our personalities, attitudes, and behaviors to predict what kind of links will get us to click. And as you probably know from experience, they’re getting freakishly good at it. Today, your smartphone can even use its sensor data to detect whether you’re a runner.

Because they want you to see as many ads as possible, social media companies also have an interest in keeping you scrolling. They do this with algorithms promoting content that elicits emotional reactions such happiness, surprise, fear, disgust, and even anger.

And as our attention spans have been getting shorter, so has the content. Or vice versa – this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. But we know that TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook all limit the length of content that can be uploaded. Even most online ads run no longer than 10 seconds. It’s not just the internet either. Movies today cut between shots every four seconds. Back in 1980, cuts occurred about half as often.

Such fast-paced video content has been shown to increase our heart rates and impulsivity, and drain our cognitive resources. If you add the fact that the average American spends nearly 10 hours a day on some kind of screen, you really start to see the bigger picture.

When it comes to taking control of our attention, we’re up against some powerful forces. So what can we do?


Reclaiming your attention

If companies are so good at manipulating us that we’re not even conscious of our online choices, how much control do we have?

We could get into a lengthy philosophical debate about free will. But most psychologists subscribe to a view called soft determinism. This view holds that our conditioning shapes our behavior but doesn’t completely determine it. Reclaiming our attention therefore begins with developing more digital agency.

For this, we first need to develop a meta-awareness of our digital behavior. This means recognizing our habits, understanding what forces are trying to manipulate our attention, and learning which distractions we are worst at resisting.

We can cultivate this awareness by getting into the habit of asking the right questions. For instance, before you go on Instagram, ask yourself, What will I gain there?

And when you’re already on Instagram, ask yourself, How much time have I spent here? What am I gaining here? You can also visualize the end of your day – when you come home from work, how will you feel having spent two hours in a YouTube rabbit hole?

The more often you remember to ask these questions, the easier they’ll come to you next time. Remember: self-regulation is like a muscle.

It also helps to get in tune with your natural rhythms of attention. Most people focus best around 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and have the biggest dip after 1:00 p.m., right? Knowing this, you can structure your day to complete your hardest tasks during those times of peak focus.

You should also learn to recognize when your attention is low, and schedule deliberate breaks of rote activity for those dips. This could be scrolling through social media, but it could also be taking a walk. A good time to shift your attention is during a natural pause in your workflow – for example, right after you’ve finished reading a chapter or sent off an email.

When you go for a rote digital activity like playing Candy Crush, plant a hook that will pull you back to work. For example, schedule the break activity 10 minutes before a call. Just make sure you don’t miss the call!

Ultimately, a healthy relationship with technology requires change on the individual, organizational, and societal level. Companies can designate email-free hours, for instance, and governments can support programs for media literacy education in schools.

Because for as much as technology has changed us, we should also remember that the digital world is shaped by us. Once we start understanding our behavior, we can begin to leverage our new kinetic attention to our advantage.


Final Summary

Digital technologies have changed the structure of our attention. As our reliance on screens has solidified, our attention spans have shortened – the average worker now spends just 47 seconds on a screen before shifting attention. Our habit of self-interruption and multitasking is impacting our performance and, most importantly, our well-being.

It’s not all our fault: the internet is perfectly designed to engage our minds, and online companies have become experts at manipulating our attention. If we want to reclaim our digital agency and take control of our attention, we first need to understand these forces acting on it. Only then can we begin to flow with the natural rhythms of our attention while protecting it from distractions. We don’t need to get off the grid, or even uninstall Candy Crush – we just need to be smarter than our smart devices.