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Find Focus, Fight Distraction- Dr. Gloria Mark

October 3, 2023

Join us today for a riveting conversation with Dr. Gloria Mark, Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine and a leading authority on human-computer interaction. Dr. Mark is also the author of the thought-provoking book, “Attention Span.” In this discussion, we delve into her groundbreaking research that examines how digital media influences our daily lives, from the intricacies of multitasking to the psychology of interruptions. Learn how technology is actively shaping our attention span and what it means for our future. Don’t miss out on this enlightening episode!


  • Attention span and its impact on productivity. 0.00
  • Attention spans and digital age distractions 5:11
  • ADHD in the digital age. 11:42
  • Balancing attention and cognitive resources 15:29
  • The myth of multitasking and its negative effects. 22:58
  • Multitasking and its effects on mental health. 26:49
  • Goal setting and memory techniques. 34:58
  • The effectiveness of writing down goals and the “sticky note fallacy” 38:30
  • Goal-setting and attention management 40:13
  • Managing attention and focus throughout the day. 42:35
  • Productivity techniques and digital detox. 47:42
  • The impact of AI on attention spans and cognitive resources. 51:39

Dr. Mark 0:00
Attention is just so vital to everything we do. Right? We we learn by paying attention. We have social rewards from paying attention to other people. And you know, conversely, when our attention spans are short, we miss out, right? We can’t be productive. We can’t, you know, fulfill our potential. Welcome

Intro 0:28
Welcome to the Invigor medical podcast, where we sit down with medical professionals and discuss a full spectrum of health related subjects. It all starts in 3,2,1.

Natalie 0:40
I’m so excited. We’re back this morning recording with Dr. Gloria Mark. We’re so honored to welcome her. She’s the Chancellor’s professor of Informatics at the University of California Irvine, and a renowned expert in human computer interaction. She’s also the author of the insightful book Attention Span. Dr. Marks groundbreaking research explores the impact of digital media on our lives, unraveling the complexities of multitasking, interruptions and how our attention span is being shaped by technology. I am so excited for this conversation, because it is something I feel that is coming up more and more. So welcome, Dr. Mark, thank you for being with us this morning.

Dr. Mark 1:17
Thank you so much for having me.

Natalie 1:19
I have to be honest, I was listening to you on as a guest on some other podcasts. And I was fascinated by your research and all you’ve studied and so excited for this conversation. So I already know a little bit that you didn’t get started in this field. But you actually started started in art, is that correct?

Dr. Mark 1:37
That’s right. Okay, I started out as an artist never thought I would do anything else.

Natalie 1:43
I mean, that’s quite a departure.

Dr. Mark 1:44
It was. The reality of trying to make a living in art. And I really didn’t want to do a day job to support art. So I wanted my day job to be my primary job. Right. So I started, you know, thinking, what can I do with an art degree. I was good at science and math. And I ended up going into the field of psychology. I was very, very interested in psychology didn’t immediately get involved with looking at computers and technology. That came a little bit later. But when I did you know, I had the psychological background to try to understand how people use devices.

Natalie 2:40
Hm. That’s really interesting.

Derek 2:42
You know, in your book, I was listening to it and kind of your journey. And I thought that the interaction that you had with that, that one professor where you’re like, hey, I really want to get into this program. And he’s asking you about your credentials and all that. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? I’m sure that you can tell a way better than I could.

Dr. Mark 2:58
Sure. So, you know, I went back to graduate school. And I, you know, I had, I had absolutely no experience in anything except art. But I needed a job. And so I saw an ad for a job as a research assistant for an Information Science professor. I had no idea what information science was. And so I went in, I applied for the job. And the professor, his name was Manfred Cochin. I think he assumed I, you know, knew a lot more than I did. And so he started asking me, do I code? know? Do I know queueing theory? No. I know, fuzzy network theory. No. I didn’t know anything that he asked me. So I just picked up my backpack and said, Thank you, I started to walk out of the room. And he called after me and he said, Well, wait a minute, what can you do? And I said, Well, I can paint and draw. And he told me to come back and sit down. And then he said before he got his PhD in math at MIT. He took classes at the Art Students League in New York City.

Natalie 4:21

Dr. Mark 4:22
And so we started talking about art for like, almost two hours. And at the end of the conversation, he said, You know, I have a grant to study the discovery process. Do you think you could write about and study the discovery process of artists? And I said, Of course I could. I mean, I was very, very young, very naive. You know, probably overconfidence. I knew how I knew how artists make discoveries. Of course you did. What I didn’t know was how to put it into a language of science. And so that that started me off on this, this journey of studying cognitive psychology, studying attention, and so on.

Derek 5:11
That’s incredible. So I have a follow up question with that. So attention is something that’s kind of a big topic that I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on and trying to learn about myself, because at an early age, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, right. And so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. One question that I have for you is, in that situation, I feel like I’ve been in a similar situation like that, where I’ve had to pivot, kind of my life goals and trajectory to follow a different path. And a lot of times, that means in your case, especially like learning a new subject, learning something that’s totally different than what you were learning before, I would imagine that when you’re doing art, you had a lot of passion, and a lot of a lot of energy that was going towards that. And so it made it very easy to pay attention to those kinds of things. When you started diving more into science and getting into, you know, coding and fuzzy statistics and all that. I’m sure that it was very challenging at times, what role that passion play in helping you keep attention to learning that and like, does passion play a role?

Dr. Mark 6:16
Passion absolutely plays a role. And I have to say, I was very passionate about studying cognitive psychology. You know, I had no idea what it was. But what I was passionate about was, was just learning something completely new. Right? It was so foreign to me. And it’s like, you know, walking into this completely new world of things that you can learn about. So, but you really made a very good point, in that, it’s so important to have intrinsic motivation for what you’re doing like to be intrinsically motivated from within, to do something. Because if we rely on extrinsic motivation, so that’s things like, external rewards like money. Money is a great motivator job that comes from the outside, right. And it’s, it’s so much better. And there’s so much more passion involved, when you’re intrinsically motivated to do something. So the, the, you know, the source of your interests stems from within yourself?

Natalie 7:34
Well, I think in the age that we live in with, there’s so much distraction all around, and obviously, that’s playing a role in attention. And would you tell us a little bit about the research that you, you know, started years and years ago, and how that’s begun to develop over time? And what role the digital age and our personal devices has played in that research and the results that have changed over the years since you began it?

Dr. Mark 8:01
Yeah. So I actually started studying attention when using our devices based on my own experience. So you know, I was really part of studying the digital age and part of experiencing the real rise of the digital age, you know. Even from the mid 90s. And I noticed that my attention was shifting. Very often, whenever I was on my device, it was very hard for me to stay focused on one task, you know, I kept switching applications and switching tasks. And, you know, switching to email, and I began to wonder, is it just me or are other people having this problem as well? So I started talking to other people, and other people started reporting the same kinds of problems. So I thought, okay, you know, I’m, I’m a scientist, I can study this empirically. And that’s what got me started studying attention spans. When we first started studying those, my students and I, we would actually shadow people in in the course of doing their actual work when they’re using their devices. In other words, they’re, we’re not bringing them into a laboratory, which is what a lot of psychology experiments do. But we actually went to where people were, what I call creating living laboratories. So back, this was about 20 years ago, we would follow people around with a stopwatch and every time they would shift their attention, shift their screen or shift their attention to talk to someone you know, we would mark it on a stopwatch.

Derek 9:53
I’m sure they’d love that.

Dr. Mark 9:54
You know, after a while, we people forgot about it, right? So, you know, we were just kind of flies on a wall, watching people.

Natalie 10:05

Dr. Mark 10:06
Yeah, observing every time people shift their attention, you know, it’d be start time when they started paying attention to something, when they shifted to something else would be stopped time and then start time again. And, you know, we noted down what they were doing back in, you know, 20 years ago, this was first published in 2004, people averaged about two and a half minutes on any screen before switching. Then, along came technology developments and computer logging software was invented. So we could actually track what people were doing in terms of switching their attention on screens, without having to use stopwatch. So we began using this new technology in 2012. Attention spans shortened to about 75 seconds. Well, and then more recently, last five or six years, we find that attention spans average 47 seconds.

Natalie 11:15

Dr. Mark 11:15
And I want to mention, it’s my work, but also others have replicated this. So others have found 50 seconds, 44 seconds, 47 seconds. So the average comes to about 47 seconds on any screen.

Derek 11:34
You know, the the idea, and people hear this all the time is the attention span of a goldfish. Right, what was that again? Like?

Natalie 11:42
It’s like, what a 10 second memory 30 second memory, something like that? Is that what it is? You probably know that statistic better than we do.

Dr. Mark 11:49
Yeah, I think it’s been debunked.

Natalie 11:52
Oh, interesting. Yeah. Well, it happens to be one of my favorite Ted Lasso quotes, if you ever do you ever watch the show Ted Lasso. Oh my goodness. Well, that’s, that’s for another. But he tells to his player, he says, “You know what, the goldfish has a 30 second memory. I want you to be a goldfish, because you’ve made a mistake out on the field. And so you wanted them to just forget. So that’s why I always think of Ted Lasso. So you should definitely watch that. But we’ll move on.

Derek 12:15
I’ll put it on my list.

Natalie 12:16
Okay. Okay, so I want to talk a little bit about the digital age and how it’s playing a role. I know, Derek just kind of mentioned, being diagnosed with ADHD as a child. And I feel like ATD and ADHD is one of those things that we’re hearing thrown around so much more these days. There’s more diagnoses of it. And you start to wonder, is this is this an issue of we’re becoming more aware and more able to diagnose it? Or is there actually a problem that’s creating more and more of this? Or is it both a little of both? You know, because I feel like, even for me personally, when it comes to all the devices and all the things I have at my attention, or just right at my fingertips all the time, it’s so easy to just have something to pay attention to. And like being quiet or just putting my makeup in the morning and being in silence. Like I’m always listening to a podcast, listening to music, listening to an audiobook, even when I’m driving. There’s always something and I think about that, often if what kind of a role is this playing in my ability to stay focused on any one thing? So could you speak to that a little bit about what role you believe this digital age in the personal devices is having on you know, ADD, or a perception of ADD or the tendencies of it within people?

Dr. Mark 13:39
Yeah, so it certainly playing a role. Digital devices are playing a big role in affecting our attention. You know, ADHD diagnoses are going up. But it’s unclear if it’s due to just a greater awareness, or an expansion of the criteria, or what constitutes ADHD. So it’s just not clear or whether there’s actually an increase in in cases. True cases. Certainly, the fact that we’re sitting in front of the world’s largest candy store, the fact that we’re walking around with super computers that we can put into our pockets where we can access information and people at any time, of course, that plays a role as well. And there’s so many other factors involved of you know, why we’re, we’re just drawn to checking our devices and looking at new kinds of information. You know, we’re, we’re curious being for social beings. There’s there’s a lot more that goes into that personality plays a role. All as well. So, so a lot of the way that digital devices are designed, for example, are mobile portable, we have access to, you know, just nearly infinite source of information, because new information is continually being right created on on the web. So there’s just so many factors that are involved.

Derek 15:29
You know, on top of that, I know that I’ve read a couple of books, specifically talking about this how companies a lot of companies know and have studied, you know, read a lot of the studies that I’m sure that you’ve done, and other professionals in your field have done, of how to best capture people’s attention. So not only is it that, that, you know, these devices are, you know, have a proclivity to be attention grabbing, the people that are making the apps and that are, you know, creating the things are intentionally making them even more attention grabbing, and even more of a, you know, black hole for, for our thoughts. So, that being said, I know in a lot of your work, you’ve talked about balanced attention. My understanding of this is, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, good balanced attention is essentially, you know, we don’t necessarily want to villainize technology or the phone and say this is the source of all of our troubles, throw it away. Because it does have really good applications and some sort of specific situations.

Natalie 16:29
Super necessary jobs and work and all these things. We we rely on it. Yeah, I don’t even have a landline anymore. Who does?

Derek 16:35
Yeah I don’t think anybody does. There might be a few. Right. But essentially, can you maybe dive a little bit more into this idea of balanced attention? And how it can essentially, maybe help frame our outlook on devices and how we can best deal with them?

Dr. Mark 16:51
Yeah. So So let me start by saying that people have a limited amount of cognitive resources. And you can think of the cognitive resources or cognitive capacity as being our attentional capacity. So imagine that you you wake up after a wonderful night’s sleep doesn’t happen very often. But imagine that this is the case, you’re you’re starting your day with a full tank of cognitive capacity, attentional resources, and then things we do throughout the day, drain that capacity. So focused attention actually can be draining, right, because it requires effort to pay attention to something. And we can’t have nonstop focus for long periods of time in the same way that we can’t lift weights continuously without taking a break.

Natalie 17:51

Dr. Mark 17:51
So you know, and you might see on the web, there’s all kinds of ads that say, hey, focus 10 hours straight here, you can achieve nonspeaking. Humans can’t, right? We’re right, we’re fallible beings. And so it’s really important for us to be aware of the limitations in our attentional capacity. And so we can switch the kind of attention that we’re paying to things. So we can switch from being very focused, to switching to do something, that’s, that’s easy and engaging. And it helps us restore our cognitive resources. That the best thing of all is taking a break, you know, stepping away from your computer, is, you know, that’s the best way of all to replenish. But sometimes that for various reasons, you might have 10 minutes that you can devote to something and your brain just feels fried. You were just in a meeting and it was exhausting. And you just need to kind of do something different. So yeah, you can do something easy engaging. But but here’s the key. The key is to not get yourself stuck in a rabbit hole. So you know, of course we everyone would love to play games all day, but that’s not realistic and it’s not good for us, right? It’s not good for for our mental well being to simply play games or watch movies all day, right? But, but it’s okay to do it for a short while for a few minutes. And that’s what we mean by balanced attention is that you’re you’re not experiencing focused attention, which is effortful, but you know, you’re switching and you’re doing something easy or best of all, taking a break to just give yourself a chance to replenish those those resources.

Natalie 19:58
Then being quiet and just sit in silence even maybe sometimes it’s beneficial?

Dr. Mark 20:02
That’s also wonderful to be able to just sit back to contemplate, meditate, even these are all ways that can help replenish us. There’s, you know, in my book I write about Maya Angelou was a great writer and poet, and very, very prolific as well. And she talked about having her big mind and little mind. And her big mind was what she used for doing her really important work or writing her poetry. But then she would take a break, and she would use what she called a little mind. And she usually would do crossword puzzles, or some simple game playing cards. And she did that to just kind of step back, take a break, replenish herself. And so her balance was between using her big mind and her little mind. And I just love the way she characterizes that. Because the little mind actually plays an important supporting role in helping us achieve what we want to when we use our big mind.

Natalie 21:16
That makes a whole lot of sense.

Derek 21:17
You know, that reminds me of something that might be somewhat analogous. And when when you talked about that, in your book, I absolutely love that. Because I’m, like, totally relate to having big mind tasks where I’m like, all and trying to focus, get something done. And then little mind tasks where, you know, it’s more of just relaxing. Yeah. But it makes me think I’ve heard other thoughts on this. Is it analogous to, like concrete thinking versus diffuse thinking? And to kind of dive into what I mean by that concrete thinking is like, very linear, very logical, very much like, Okay, I’m gonna do XYZ. Whereas diffuse thinking is much more creative.

Dr. Mark 21:53
Yeah. It’s different. So you’re talking about what’s called divergent and convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is when you’re you’re really concentrating and focusing. And divergent thinking is like brainstorming, right? Coming up with different ideas. Both of those kinds of attention can require a lot of effort. Right? So it’s not necessarily the case that divergent thinking where you’re brainstorming is easier, right? Because you, you can also put in a lot of effort. So it’s, I would say, you know, both convergent and divergent thinking can involve a lot of effort and download. Yeah, yeah, word or also could be quite easy. For example, if you’re very engaged in watching a Netflix show, that might involve convergent thinking, right, but it’s easy, you’re not putting in a lot of effort.

Natalie 22:58
Yeah, that makes sense to me. Well, the question that’s coming to my mind as, as you’re, as you’re chatting, is, I think that we put and you’ve probably had many conversations around this. There’s almost like this. What’s the word? Putting on a pedestal, this idea that we can multitask that it’s like, oh, well, I’ve got so many different things going on once and I’m really good at doing all of that. And I’ve got so much I can juggle, but I can do it all at once. And it’s fine, like everything’s swirling in the bowl, but I got all the marbles are staying in the bowl, none are falling out, maybe a few here and there. But it’s really celebrated in our culture. I feel like to be able, I’m juggling this, I’m juggling that, you know, I’m a single mom, I’ve got the job. I’ve got the podcast, I’m working out, I’m eating healthy, you know, it’s like this and that. So would you would you speak a little bit to to that, because I have a feeling you’re gonna tell us. That’s a bit of a farce. And that multitasking and being quote, good at multitasking isn’t exactly good.

Dr. Mark 23:57
That’s right. Yeah. Okay. You nailed it. So the, you know, yes, it’s a badge of honor that people were to be able to say, hey, I can multitask. I can do all these tasks at the same time. Well, first of all, the idea of doing things in parallel, is just not possible unless one of those tasks uses what’s called an automatic attention. So if I’m driving and talking to a passenger, the driving can become very automatic. If I’m driving a straight route, and my effort is being put into the conversation. But then all of a sudden, you know, a car flips me around me..

Natalie 24:43
Or you’re driving in an unknown city, you don’t know. Right?

Dr. Mark 24:47
Exactly. Even with GPS. GPS, so you suddenly stopped talking? Yeah, right. And all of a sudden, instead of automatic attention and dry I think you’re now using what’s called controlled processing. So you’re really needing to put some effort into your driving. So but you know, most of the time, you know, if people are working on their computers, and then they say, Well, I’m in a Zoom meeting, and I’m doing email at the same time, you know, I’m achieving, doing two tasks at the same time. Well, guess what, when when you’re working on email, your attention is on the email, and it’s not on that Zoom meeting. Yeah. So you’re, you’re actually switching your attention very rapidly between these two things. That’s not multitasking. Right. So your attention is? It’s, it’s divided by switching between these two different things. Now, is it good for us to multitask? The research says no. And there’s three reasons. First of all, there are something called a switch cost. And a switch cost is the extra time that it takes to accomplish multiple tasks when you’re switching between them, as opposed of if you were to just do one task after another sequentially. Right. So multitasking imposes a cost in time. Second, there’s a cost in performance. And we know from decades of research in the laboratory, where people are given tasks, switching their attention, trying to multitask, they make more errors. There was a recent study that was done with physicians that showed that when physicians were constantly multitasking, because they’re, they’re interrupted by patients, clinicians, devices..

Natalie 26:49

Dr. Mark 26:50
Nurses, yes. It turns out that they made a number of prescribing errors.

Natalie 26:58
Like a medication?

Dr. Mark 26:59
Medication, yeah, some of those were quite serious. So and that’s because their attention is being pulled away and then they have to try and come back reoriented to what they were doing.

Natalie 27:13
And their time is know, I have many friends and even family members who are nurses and talking about how much time their providers have with each patient and how it has to like, go, go and onto the next. And everything’s just so condensed and smushed. I cannot even imagine, I feel like, I’m going crazy in my day with all the things. Then I get home and the kids are running around, and we got to get to soccer practice and my phone still dinging from work. So that feels maddening to me, so I can’t imagine for a doctor, but and then all that pressure, you got to get medication prescriptions correct still. That’s wild.

Dr. Mark 27:44
Yeah. But the third reason that’s the nail in the coffin for multitasking, is it causes stress. And it’s not just an association with stress, but it actually causes stress. And, you know, we’ve we’ve shown this in research. We know from from others who’ve done laboratory studies, it raises both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. There are markers of stress in the body, that are that rise that indicate, you know, people are under physiological stress. And in our studies, we’ve also simply asked people in the workplace, you know? How do you feel psychologically? And they report the greater the multitasking, the more stressed they are. We’ve also had people wear heart rate monitors, which measures what’s called heart rate variability. Which is also an indicator of stress, and also shows, there’s this correlation, you know, the more you’re switching on your screen in between your devices, the greater stress you have, as measured by heart rate variability.

Natalie 29:01
Well, and you know, as you’re talking about this, I’m thinking because I think that it’s easy for us all, to kind of take this, what you’re saying, as an analogy and apply it into kind of the work life, right? It because I feel like we’re talking a little bit professionally. But as you’re talking, I’m thinking about just, you know, being at home and being on my phone and looking at a text message I just received. Then trying to work on dinner, and then talking to my daughter and then checking my social media for no particular reason other than I saw there was a notification on there. And then the TV’s going on, and my son wants me to see what he’s looking at there. And I’m starting to think about that. And I really am realizing how all that feels in my body in the moment. And it is stress. You know, I think that I’m so used to it. I don’t I’m not fully aware of it happening in the moment. And so it’s that kind of like chronic stress that we’ve talked about, like multiple times on the show, but but I haven’t really thought about it in that way as as that that Being multitasking. And I think, you know, it’s inevitable to some degree that we’re all as adults going to have some measure of multitasking within our day. Especially, I feel like if you have little kids, it’s like, there’s just no way around. But, you know, what would you say to, you know, someone in my position as a single mom working full time job, doing a side hustle, having a social life? What are some things that I could do to become more aware in the moment of when that’s happening? How I could do better at my attention? And what those benefits would then be?

Dr. Mark 30:37
Yeah. So let me let me also clarify this by saying, sometimes, we just have to react to the demands of our environment, especially for people who have kids, I’ve been there. And I know you can’t ignore your kids.

Natalie 30:57
You really can’t, sometimes you wish, you’re like, I am at max capacity here, bro. But you know, they’re yours, you gotta take care of it. Exactly.

Dr. Mark 31:06
But but it turns out that about half the time we interrupt ourselves. So it’s not just that we’re reacting to the demands of our environments, whether it’s the workplace or at home, but we just bring this on ourselves. And, in fact, if, you know, I would see this, in my research, I’d be observing someone, and they’d be typing away in a writing a report. And then for no apparent reason, they suddenly switched to their email, or they switched to social media, there’s no explanation for this, but it’s some kind of urge they have or some memory they have. But something is just causing them to switch. Yeah, that that we can do something about. So one of the the first things that people can do is to learn to understand the reasons why you’re switching. And so many of the things that we do when we switch our attention, our unconscious.

Natalie 32:10

Dr. Mark 32:10
For for example, you know, I pick up my my phone and because I see it, and I have this impulse to grab it and check it. That’s an unconscious reaction. And we can do something about that. Or, I have this urge to check your email and wonder if anyone has contacted me or check social media or check the news? Sure, you can do something about that. So, you know, during the pandemic, I took a course in mindfulness, my university offered it. It was very valuable. And I realized that some of the principles of mindfulness we can apply to when we’re using our devices. So mindfulness teaches us to be focused on the present. Yes. And I realized that if you’re really focused on the present, we can learn to become aware of when we have these urges to switch our attention. And we can, you know, and so I probe myself when, and I’ve learned to recognize that urge, and to reflect on it and to ask myself, Why do I have that urge?

It’s usually because I’m procrastinating, I don’t want to do it, or I’m bored. And, and then you can come up with a plan. So if you can reflect on it, the idea is to become more intentional in your actions and not let our automatic attention on our unconscious actions rule us, but to have better control. So that’s, that’s one thing that we can do. Another thing is to practice what’s called forethought. And forethought is about imagining how your current actions are going to affect your future self. And okay, for me, I think the future self that I think about is at the end of the day, right at seven o’clock. Where do I want to be? What do I want to be doing? I want to be sitting on the couch relaxing. Reading a book watching my favorite show, I don’t want to be working on this overdue deadline, right? Right. So if you could, you know creating a concrete visualization of yourself at the end of the day, where you want to be how you want to see yourself also emotionally think about how you want to feel emotionally. Which is probably fulfilled, rewarded, peaceful. And that can that can help also keep you on track.

Natalie 34:58
I love that and would you recommend, you know what you said about that visualization of the day? And you know, looking forward to the end of the day and like visualizing, where do I want to be? How do I want to be feeling? What do I want to have accomplished for the day? Do you recommend doing that, like when you start the day, or like, at the end of the day, the night before? I’ve heard do it the night before you go to bed, like a brain dump. And so then it’s done, and you might sleep better. But you also are saying like, your cognitive function and capability in the morning, after you’ve hopefully had a wonderful night’s rest is at its highest. And so I do feel clearer and more able to kind of do a mapping like that in the morning. But I also do appreciate the brain dump. So is it like, is this kind of like six one way half dozen the other? They both could be wonderful. See what works for you? Or what do you recommend?

Dr. Mark 35:47
Yeah, you can do both. So there are studies that show, if you write down the tasks that are unfinished from that day, right before you go to sleep, people actually sleep better. Because the idea is that if we don’t write them down, we just keep rehearsing and we have anxiety about these tasks.

Natalie 36:10
I can relate.

Dr. Mark 36:12
You’re rehearsing and so you don’t forget it. Right? Right. But if you put it onto an external memory, in other words, you’re writing it on a piece of paper, then it offloads all that work so that we don’t have to keep having this these thoughts churning around and around. And so, put it on a piece of paper, get it out of your mind, get it out of the way.

Natalie 36:39
You know what that makes me think of it makes me think of my calendar. Yeah, because once I put something in my calendar, I kind of remember Oh, yeah, next week, I have the you know, the podcast with Dr. Mark but I don’t remember what time of day. I don’t remember what day of the week. I just know. Oh, yeah, that’s happening next week. I don’t want to think about it anymore. And I don’t know why I didn’t ever think about that with tasks for a day. Because it’s exactly how it works. When I put things in my calendar. I don’t think about it till I check it again.

Derek 37:07

Dr. Mark 37:07
But it’s also a great idea in the morning, okay, to, to come up with the goals you want to achieve for that day. Yeah. So we did a study. This was with colleagues at Microsoft Research. And we ask people two very simple questions at the beginning of the day. What do you want to accomplish today? Like, what tasks do you want to accomplish? And the second, how do you want to feel today? And it turns out that these two questions can bring goals to mind. And people actually stayed on track better when they asked these two questions, because they were reminded of their goals. But we also learned that goals don’t last in memory very long, right away. And so people stayed on track, but then they kind of slipped off track. And so it’s important to keep reminding yourself of your goals. So if it means writing it down on a piece of paper, or you know, some other way to help remind yourself.

Natalie 38:15
Right. An accountability partner. I’m thinking of new year’s resolutions right now, actually, how it’s like all these big goals and ideas. And then slowly as we get into the year, that kind of goes out the window. I don’t even remember what mine were were nine months in. What did I even say I was gonna do?

Derek 38:30
Funny is one of my favorite podcasts, one of my favorite people in podcasting space, Andrew Huberman biggest fanboy. One of the recent things he did was on goals, and he actually talked about what’s called the sticky note fallacy, where essentially, a lot of people think that if you write your your your goal on a sticky note and put it somewhere where you’re going to see it every single day, that it’ll remind you and you’ll end up doing the thing. But what ends up happening is the human body is very good at like, taking constant stimulus and essentially ignoring it. Right. And so essentially, if you have this sticky note on your, on your mirror that you look at every morning, eventually your mind is just going to tune it out. It’s just going to become white noise, and you won’t see it. And so he’s like, what’s better is if you’re going to do a sticky note, write a new sticky note every day and and put it in a new place every single day. And so that way, when you see it, it’s a novel experience and, you know, cues up things in your brain that say, Hey, you need to end up doing this thing, which

That’s a wonderful idea. And what’s also really important about that is the the act of writing down the goal, yeah, causes you to process that information. Right? Whereas if you’re just, you know, let’s say you have a goal to, you know, work on some deadline. That’s due at the end of the week and use the same sticky note. You’re not processing that you’re looking at it yeah. you’re reminded of it, but the actual act of writing it down, and especially if you can write details of it, that your your mind is working, and you’re going to remember it better and pay better attention to it.

Natalie 40:13
Yeah. Well, I like what you said about how you’ve how you want to feel. Because I was thinking about if I’m thinking about a goal I want to accomplish, you know, it’s one thing to think about the goal, but then thinking about how I feel, not even not even just when it’s accomplished, but how I feel in the Achieving of the goal. And now it feels like, it feels like something I can like latch on to more like it belongs to me, rather than it’s this idea out there that I would just like to be mine. Does that make sense? And to

Derek 40:43
comment on that, too. I think that like a lot of times going back to just our society that we live in, in general, like, the goal is paramount. Right, getting to there is the most important and to exclusion of how we feel. And so, you know, does it really matter if we accomplish a goal if at the end of the day, we we feel terrible, right? And so being able to say, what do I want to do? And how do I want to feel that how do I want to feel part might actually inform the goal itself and how you go about doing this specific task? Well,

Natalie 41:15
Tony Robbins said, I heard it once years ago, and it’s always stuck with me, he’s like, setting a goal and achieving a goal is not about the goal itself and achieving it. He said, It’s about who you become in order to achieve that goal. And I was just like, Whoa, I love that was the whole moment for me, you know, especially as someone who’s kind of achievement oriented, again, how that felt. So I love your perspective on this, Dr. Mark. And, and the idea of, of visualizing, and, you know, how do you where do you want to be? How do you want to feel that just feels like such a game changer? To me?

Derek 41:48
Definitely does. Yeah. So, Dr. Mark, I have a question. So going back to kind of the idea of task switching of how someone might be working on report for like two minutes, and then suddenly just switch for no apparent reason. I would imagine that, like, boredom is a big part of that. I mean, I’ve been in situations where I’m like, I would literally be willing to do anything else. And one time, we had to, like completely rework the back end of our system, and someone’s like, hey, you know, there’s, there’s something in the back, it’s looks pretty gross, you know? And I’m like, I’ll do it, I’ll do it. I volunteer, you know, I’m just like anything, but this? What role does boredom play in our attention? And how can we kind of like, figure out how to deal with boredom?

Dr. Mark 42:35
So bored. Boredom plays a big role. And, you know, the best defense against being distracted, is to keep your goal in mind. Right? When our goals slip, that’s when other things can come into play. And when we’re bored, we’re much more susceptible to distractions. Yeah. And, you know, we’re people are bored a lot. In fact, we, you know, we measured this in people throughout the day. And, you know, boredom is kind of, you know, it happens throughout the day, it’s, you know, not just like a single point in the day, but you know, throughout the day, people experience boredom. So it’s, it’s always there, right? And it’s really important to understand it. And to reflect on it, right? We shouldn’t ignore it, but we should reflect on it and think about, okay, maybe this report is really boring, but I’ve got to do it. So let me come up with a plan that I’m going to spend 30 minutes on it, and then I’ll reward myself. Yeah, by, you know, reading the news, or, or something that’s going to make me happy.

Derek 43:48
Yeah. So it’s that kind of like Pomodoro technique. I might, I might be saying you’re wrong. Pomodoro is like where you set a 45 minute timer, and then 25 minutes, 25 minutes timer, and then it’s like another 20 minute break or something along those lines?

Dr. Mark 44:04
Yeah. Well, what I think is better than a Pomodoro Technique is for people to understand their own natural rhythm of attention. So you know, Pomodoro Technique assumes that everyone has this, you know, 25 minutes stretch of attention, that, you know, they can use, and then there’s a five minute break, and it works for some people. But there’s a lot of individual differences. And what we’ve found is that people tend to have different peaks of attention throughout the day. For most people, there’s a peak in focus between mid and late morning. Then there’s another peak mid to late afternoon. And so we talked earlier about this idea of balancing attention, right, so we can’t have focus Tension continuously throughout the day. But we can switch off, we can do things that require more focus, then we can pull back, do things that are easy but also engaging. And sometimes, you know, it’s it’s okay to be bored. But remember, if you’re bored, you’re more susceptible to distraction. So I would say, rather than a Pomodoro Technique, what makes more sense is for people to understand their own personal rhythms of attention when their attention is at their peak, a lot of it has to do with your chronotype. So if you’re an early type, you love to wake up with the dawn, your your attention is going to peak a lot earlier in the day, and someone who’s a late type night owl, you’re going to tend to sleep longer, you won’t be at your best until a little bit later. It’s time for the gears and wheels of your mind to kind of start moving. And be aware of what your personal attention type is and plan your days that you do your hardest work and the work that requires the most creativity for those times when your attention is at its peak. So really leverage that time. And, for goodness sake, don’t don’t do email during those times. Don’t do social media, but you know, use it for really doing productive work. And you’ll be at your best.

Derek 46:42
Yeah, you know, I’ve heard some people refer to those kind of those ebbs and flows of focus has like ultradian cycles, which is slightly different than circadian cycles. But I’m sure you know, way more about alternating cycles probably than I do. But one technique that some people say to try and protect that time, is to put their phone on airplane mode, and essentially be like, Okay, there’s no incoming distractions. If I need to reach out I always have the ability to, you know, turn it off and do what I need to do. But really safeguarding that time of peak attention to be able to get the hardest work done, I think, is incredibly important.

Dr. Mark 47:19
Absolutely. And environment plays a big role. So yeah, you know, put your phone in your desk drawer, if you need to. There are actually some hardware that’s being sold, where you can lock your phone up. Right, and you know, like a Faraday cage.

Natalie 47:42
Then you have no way to get it out?

Dr. Mark 47:45
Well, at some point, you do so. But also, to keep your environment clear, so that you’re not distracted by by what’s around you. And it also means your desktop, you know, turn off notifications. That’s an easy thing to do. So that you’re not always reacting unconsciously right?

Natalie 48:11
Because it just happens. Yeah, yeah. Well, I feel like most phones now have the ability for like the do not disturb or my mind specifically has a focus option where I can choose if there are certain people. I always have whoever my children are in the care of. Whether it’s the school or a family member, or whatever, that no matter what they can always break through my Do Not Disturb. You know, but otherwise, it’s incredible how it feels, when I unlock my phone, like if I actually need to look at something on there for what I’m focusing on. All of my notifications are gone. There’s no like the little red number of how many emails are gone. And I remember the first time I saw it, and I was like, Oh, wow, I feel light. I didn’t even realize how much that weighed on me. Because it does, it’s like this thing in the back of my mind. Like, I need to look at that I need to check it whoever not, you know, who sent this message or this email, and I want to get it gone. I want to respond to people and things and make sure I’m not missing anything. And I didn’t realize until the first time I used that function, what a weight that was on me. And so I want to start using it more and I’m loving your techniques or your you know, to keep in mind that, you know, multitasking is not beneficial. And it’s actually detrimental, like thinking about it being causer of stress. You know, I think that’s amazing. I’m going to keep that in mind. You talking about, you know, setting blocks of time to work and a reward for for after that. And I think the thing I’m walking away with, the most of all the things you’ve said, is to take a moment to check in and be mindful. Why am I bored right now and remind myself of my goal and how I want to feel at the end of the day. I think that’s the thing that’s going to stick with me the most from this conversation.

Dr. Mark 50:04
Let me also add to something I said earlier that the best brakes evolve, or you know, stepping away from your computer, but also going outside in nature. Yeah. And there are studies that show that just 20 minutes in nature, has this restorative quality.

Natalie 50:22
Yeah, I believe that.

Dr. Mark 50:24
You know, right now I’m living in New York City, and I make it a point every day to go to a park. So I exercise and I exercise it in a park. And is is really is rejuvenating even in the middle of New York City.

Yeah I bet. That’s amazing.

Derek 50:41
You know, I feel like that one specific tip that you just gave, there has been something that has been a common trend with so many of our guests.

Natalie 50:48
Every single guest. I feel like it’s like 20 minutes outside, walk. If you could do one thing. It’s that one thing. It’s wild. And it’s so incredibly impactful. And I think even you talk about this in your office and I talk about this in my office. Where it’s like somebody always tries to… what do you guys call them? Walkies?

Derek 51:07
Yeah, we call them walkies.

Natalie 51:08
You like halfway through the day or multiple points through the day, you know, to just be like, hey I’m going for a walk. You you want to get out for a minute, just to you know, and we’re in the city. It’s not like there’s even a park nearby. But it’s still just to get outside and walk. It’s incredible. And that kind of reset when you do get back to your computer. How it feels? And it’s rejuvenating.

Derek 51:29
Yeah, yeah. Like, I hadn’t really thought about that before. But that does make sense now that you say that that’s playing a role in my ability to focus and pay attention.

Dr. Mark 51:39
Yeah, that’s it think of this metaphor of having a tank of cognitive resources. And they’re precious resources. They’re limited. And think about, you know, what’s draining that tank, and what’s replenishing it and going going outside, especially in nature and you know, moving around, can really help replenish that tank.

Natalie 52:02
I love that the visualization of how are you replenishing? Because you’re right, I think we do tend to get in a cycle of like, oh, well, it’s endless. I can do this forever, even though obviously we cannot. So wow, I have so enjoyed this conversation.

Derek 52:16
Loved it.

Natalie 52:16
Is there any other question? I mean, I feel like I have so many other questions. But also, we can only be here for so long. Maybe we’ll have to have Dr. Mark back on?

Derek 52:24
We would we’d love to have you back. The only question that maybe this would be a conversation for another day is would love.. I’ve been fascinated recently by AI and the development of AI. Chat GPT and all those things. Maybe just could you share, like a brief thought on the effect AI is going to potentially have on, you know, our attention isn’t as individuals.

Dr. Mark 52:45
Yeah, well, I can say a lot about this. Let me just very quickly say, I worry that we will become more disconnected with information that’s important to us. So you know, we’re going to be offloading a lot of our work to AI, for example, writing news reports. And of course, a lot of things that we offload to AI might be beneficial. You know, work. That’s, that’s boring, mundane kinds of work. But at the same time, because our hands are not on that, you know, creating that content, we will become disconnected from it. Well, we’ll be producing more and more information, because we can because it will be easy, right? But at the same time, it’s going to be harder for us to keep up with managing all that information. Yeah. And of course, the AI can help us manage that information. But you know, we we still will be we’ll have a degree of separation from that information. And I worry, another thing I worry about is how it might affect our critical reasoning ability. Especially for kids, right, as AI starts to enter the classroom. And it’s being used more and more for various things I really worry about, you know, will we lose our skills in critical reasoning?

Natalie 54:27

Derek 54:27

Natalie 54:28
you’re right. That is a whole other episode.

Derek 54:30
Completely different episode but we’d love to have you come back to talk more about that.

Natalie 54:33

But Dr. Mark, thank you so much for being on our show. Where can people go to learn more about you and the work that you’ve done?

Dr. Mark 54:42
Yeah. So you can go to my website, It’s all one word glory at Mark. And you can learn more about what I do and about the book. I would love to hear from people.

Derek 54:59
And you your book Attention Span. I’m just guessing that’s in wherever books are sold. Is that correct?

Dr. Mark 55:05
It is. You can find it on Amazon. There’s also on my website, there are links to it. You can also find me on LinkedIn and on Twitter, as well.

Derek 55:19
Wonderful, amazing.

Natalie 55:20
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I found this to be very fascinating, but I also think, a very important conversation. So I hope that we were able to keep the attention of all of our listeners. And for those of you that stuck around. Thank you for being with us today and especially, Dr. Mark, thank you so much for being with us.

Dr. Mark 55:37
Thank you so much for having me.

Derek 55:40

Podcast Guests

Find Focus, Fight Distraction- Dr. Gloria Mark

Gloria Mark


Podcast Hosts

Find Focus, Fight Distraction- Dr. Gloria Mark

Natalie Garland

Find Focus, Fight Distraction- Dr. Gloria Mark

Derek Berkey


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