"Like a frog in boiling water": How Big Tech stole our ability to focus

An expert explains why letting your mind wander is good for your brain, and how to regain your lost attention span

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 26, 2023 7:30PM (EDT)

Friends at a pub all on their phones (Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen)
Friends at a pub all on their phones (Getty Images/Henrik Sorensen)

Twenty years ago, Chuck Palahniuk published the short story "Guts," in which he challenged readers to hold their breaths for the duration of the time it took to read it. Now, I feel like I can't even go the length of a story without checking my email. As psychologist and researcher Gloria Mark notes her new book "Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity," "People's attention span on any screen in recent years has reached a steady state of about 47 seconds." 

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

We have been conditioned for distraction: the ping of a text, the knock-knock of a Slack message, the itchy urge while doing one thing that we ought to be doing something else. We know that the churning desire to always be multitasking is not good for our brains, bodies or mental health. We also live in a world that is not going to slow down for us.

So Mark has a different approach. Indeed, "Attention Span" explores how we got to this state of un-focus and why our tanks feel so drained so much of the time, but her book also recognizes that we can't just make all the noise go away. Our minds don't need a formula for drilled down focus, they need space to wander. The secret is learning how to wander well. 

Salon talked recently to Mark about why we keep throwing ourselves into "attention traps," the myths of sustained focus and learning how to find the "empty time" in our distracted days while still living in our real and infinitely diverting world.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I love the phrase that you lay out very early in the book — this idea of "attention traps." I certainly feel vulnerable to that. Tell me what the attention trap is, and why we keep falling into it every day of our lives.

Oh, there are many. It's not just one. You can think of it as patterns of behavior that keep us glued to different parts of the web. I talk about, for example, the rote attention trap. There's things we do like playing mindless games, social media, where we're very engaged in doing it, and it's just so hard to pull away. 

You make distinctions between attention traps and the concept of productivity. There is this sense that if you're not being "productive," in turn you have less value. I read recently a few of reviews of audiobooks, and the person added to the reviews the speed at which they had listened to all of them. None of them were at the normal speed. Because why would you enjoy hearing the person's actual voice in a normal speed when you could read eight books in that same amount of time? 

It's like the frog in boiling water. We don't notice it. Then all of a sudden, the culture around us has changed so radically. I straddled both the pre-internet and the internet generation. I used to read books, I still do. But you would never have thought of trying to get through as many books as possible. You savored books. Now there is a feature that has been developed that enables us to listen to books faster. It's a little more stressful for us, but we can finish more books.

I feel like something else is always grabbing my attention. Part of it is stressful, but then part of it is also exciting. Talk to me about that, the way distraction hooks us.

"We're sitting in front of the world's largest candy store every time we open our phones."

Humans are just naturally curious, and we're sitting in front of the world's largest candy store every time we open our phones or computers. There's always something to consume. That's the beauty of the internet. Anyone can contribute. There's always something different, new, and exciting. News that can happen anywhere in the world, and you can be among the first to hear — you and 300 million other people. We're used to these experiences of having this newness all the time, and that's what makes it exciting.

A phrase you use that really helps me is "limited cognitive resources." I can't drive a car that doesn't have any gas in it. The idea that we've only got so much attention is hard for a lot of us to get our heads around. Explain to me what that means, and why we need to understand that and accept our limitations.

I use this metaphor of a tank. If you get a really good night's sleep, you start with a full tank, or close to a full tank of resources. But so many things we do throughout the day drain our resources. It's the individual tasks we do. There's also the amount of time since we awoke, that also will drain resources. You have this underlying tiredness that keeps happening throughout the day.

Other things we do can replenish our resources. Taking a really good break can replenish them. If a person really feels exhausted, stressed, burned out, taking a vacation can really help reset that tank of resources. This has been studied in laboratory research for maybe 50 years. What they find in laboratory studies is a person will be given a very hard task, and at the beginning of the hour, they perform very well. But as the hour goes by, their performance gets worse and worse, because they're getting mentally tired. The underlying theory is that their mental resources are draining. Then at the end of that hour, they just can't perform at all. They're just completely drained. We can extend that idea throughout the whole day. A lot of things drain our attention.

Even holding sustained focus can really drain us. There's a limited amount of time that we can sustain focus. It's like you can't lift weights all day without getting exhausted. 

You make a clarification in the book between the difference between the ways in which our attention wanders and, I would say, the way in which our minds wander. We need to let our minds wander.

The statistic that I use in the book is 47% of the time, our minds wander. It's natural. Even at a really micro-level tested in a lab, people don't always pay attention every second. It's a part of who we are as humans.

I give the example of the chemist [August] Kekulé, who, through mind wandering, came up with the shape of the benzene molecule.

"Mind-wandering can be very beneficial."

And yet we don't live in a system now that expects or allows you to go out and have that hour-long walk, or that hour-long lunch break. You really get to the heart of this in the book — you can't also do this by yourself.

For any individual to pull away is very, very difficult. In a workplace setting, any individual who decides to cut themselves off will be penalized. If you're cut off from your loved ones, from friends, family, workplace, essential organizational communication, from colleague communication, this is all bad and ends up hurting the individual.

We've gotten into this huge interdependent web. The only way we're going to get ourselves out is through some collective solution.

We do have to live in this world. We do have to multitask. How do we make a plan for ourselves so that we're able to sleep at night, and function and recognize and work with our own cognitive limitations?

The ship has sailed. We are in a technological world and we can't drop out. There are so many digital detox solutions that are proposed. There's books, there's eco-resorts. In fact, I can't believe how much they charge so that you can go there and get away from your technology. It's really a money-making business.

It's the Ozempic of attention. You can pay to not eat. You can pay to not pay attention. 

It's exactly like a crash diet. You go on it, and then you end up eating the way that you always did. A digital detox stops, and then you go back, and you have the same habits and behaviors you had before. 

We have to do other things. We can't just pull ourselves away with a detox. Even regular detoxes once a week, you still go back the rest of the week. So what do we do? I'm a great believer that people can develop agency. People have developed agency to stop smoking and to stop substance abuse and other kinds of behaviors. I believe that people can also develop agency to have control over their attention. 

I draw on the work from social psychologist Albert Bandura. He talked about self-efficacy. I look at the ways that people can gain agency. The first is this notion of being intentional in what you do. A lot of behaviors that we do on our phones and our computers are automatic. If I see my phone, I have this automatic tendency to just grab it. When I'm on my computer, I might see a tab for news, and it's an automatic tendency to click. Or even if I don't see a tab, I might have a thought to go to social media. That's automatic. We have to bring these kinds of automatic actions to our conscious awareness. When we do that, then we can act on them and we can change.

How do we do that? I learned that I could become a professional observer of myself of my own behavior. I was inspired by a mindfulness course that my university offered during the pandemic. I thought, this is really interesting, because that teaches you to focus on the present. I can apply this same idea when I use my computer to really focus on what I'm doing in the present. I do this by probing myself. Whenever I have an urge to check social media, I will first probe myself and say, "Do I really need to check this now? Why do I need to check?" It's usually because I'm bored, or I'm procrastinating. When I recognize that, then I can say, "What can I do to make this task more interesting?" I might start thinking about the goal. I can finish, and I'm going to be so happy. 

If I do allow myself to take a break and read the news, then I also probe myself. Am I still getting value? If not, okay, it's time to stop and get back to work. I've developed this as a skill, and it becomes second nature to always probe myself and keep these unconscious actions more in my conscious awareness.

Another thing we can do is to practice forethought. Forethought is imagining how our current actions will impact our future selves. If I want to read the news, and I have a pressing deadline, I can visualize what my end of the day is going to look like. The end of the day is a good timeframe to think about your future self. At 10 pm, am I going to be relaxing and feeling fulfilled and reported that I finished my deadline, or am I still working on that deadline? That visualization is enough to help keep me back on track. 

It's about being realistic, and understanding that these are muscles that you have to build. It's also it's only going to be so good in the context of a world where you do have to keep your phone, where you do have to check your email, where someone is going to interrupt you. 

Another thing we can do is to be goal oriented. I did a study with folks at Microsoft Research that was led by Alex Williams. He developed a conversational software agent, a bot that people would use every morning. It would ask people, "What is your task goal for the day? What is your emotional goal for the day?" Simply prompting people to articulate their goals for the day actually helped people stay on their goals better. However, here's what we discovered — it's only short term. People have to continually keep reminding themselves what their goals are. Whatever works for you, if it's a post-it note or a notification, whatever works for you as an individual to help keep reminding you of your goals. It's a dynamic process. It's not a one-time thing where you write down your goal at the beginning of the day. 

But it's also important to think about your emotional goals for the day. Do you want to be calm? Think about how you can meet that goal as well. Keeping goals is the best shield that we have against distractions, because our attention is goal oriented. It's really protection against being distracted. 

One of my favorite things is this notion of Yohaku no bi. It's a Japanese expression that refers to the beauty of empty space. One of the things that people do that brings them to exhaustion is they just don't take good breaks. It's this notion of packing in as much as you can. We work ourselves through to exhaustion. It's so important to intentionally schedule empty time, time that you can use for contemplation for meditation for taking a walk, exercise. It's just it's time that can be used to help replenish our attentional resources. 

"We need to think how we can live with technology and still achieve well-being."

I'd like to reframe our goals that we should really be thinking about positive well-being, and productivity will come along the way. The common narrative is, "Yeah, then just do a detox. Just completely pull out." But I think we need a different narrative. We need to think how we can live with the technology and still achieve that well-being. 

A lot of us have FOMO about every single thing in the world. We have that fear that we're not going to know that thing that everybody is talking about. We're going to go out to lunch and we're not going to appear productive. What would you say to us about that anxiety? How to make space for just maybe a little something else within that?

I would say, slow down. So many of these fears are unrealistic. Just be aware that, okay, if you miss some news, it's fine. The world isn't going to come to an end.

I want us to be able to thrive in this world. Put your happiness first. Put the happiness of your friends and family and loved ones and colleagues first, in front of that personal fear. Fear is usually an individual experience. But when we look outward instead of just inward, then there's probably less fear. Looking outward and giving attention to other people certainly releases a lot of those fears that are just not realistic.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Attention Span Gloria Mark Interview Neuroscience Psychology Smartphones