Let Us Help you to Focus Like It’s 1990

Smartphones, pings and Insta-everything have shortened our attention spans. Get some old-school concentration back with these tips.

In 2004, Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, watched knowledge workers go about a typical day at the office. Using a stopwatch, she noted every time they switched tasks on their computer, moving from a spreadsheet to an email to a web page to a different web page and back to the spreadsheet. She found that people averaged just two and a half minutes on a given task before switching.

When Dr. Mark repeated the experiment in 2012, the average time office workers spent on a task had dropped to 75 seconds. And it has continued to drop from there.

“Our attention spans while on our computers and smartphones have become short — crazily short — as we now spend about 47 seconds on any screen on average,” Dr. Mark wrote in her new book, “Attention Span: A Groundbreaking Way to Restore Balance, Happiness and Productivity.”

Anyone who’s tried to study for an exam, write a report or read a book knows how hard it is to concentrate for significant chunks of time. Typically, digital devices are to blame for the disruption. The internet is omniscient, our phones omnipotent, and together they demand and destroy our concentration. Even when we really try to focus on a task, we often find we can’t, our eyes glazing over and our thoughts drifting.

Fortunately, there are ways to wrest back control of your attention. They don’t require swearing off technology altogether, but you do need some self-restraint and a few well-timed alarms.

First, understand what’s distracting you.

Notifications are one major source of distraction — those pings and dings pull you out of your work and prompt you to check your texts, email or Slack. Because our brains are evolutionarily designed to pay attention to novelty, these alerts are almost impossible to ignore. And if you try to, you’ll likely find your anxiety mounting.

In one diabolical study, psychologists brought heavy and moderate smartphone users into the lab under the auspices of a different experiment. They hooked the participants up to skin conductance monitors, which measure levels of arousal, and took away their phones, telling them that they interfered with the research equipment. Then the researchers texted the participants multiple times; the phones were close enough to hear but too far away to check.

When their phones buzzed, the participants’ arousal levels spiked. “They felt like they needed to answer that text or at least see who it was from, and they couldn’t,” said Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and a co-author on the study. “And that gave them anxiety.”

Turning off notifications is a good way to reduce distractions — indeed, it’s a classic tip — but it won’t completely solve the problem. In her research on office workers, Dr. Mark found that external distractions accounted for only half of the interruptions in focus. The other half were prompted by an internal motivation to switch tasks. Most interesting, Dr. Mark observed that when the number of external interruptions waned, the number of self-interruptions rose.

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