Our technology-rich world has proven to be both a blessing and a curse. While on the one hand we have access to information or people anywhere at any time, on the other hand we find our attention constantly drawn by the rich, multisensory, technological environments. It all started with the graphical user interface that took us from the flat, two-dimensional text-based environment that operated on a line-by-line basis similar to a typewriter, to a small picture depicting an operation or program. From there it was a short hop to a completely multisensory world appealing to all of our visual, auditory, and tactile or kinesthetic senses. We now see videos in high definition, often in simulated 3-D. We hear high-definition stereo sounds that feel as crisp as sounds in the real world. Our devices vibrate, shake, rattle, and roll, and our attention is captured. It is no accident that we now attach specific ringtones and vibrations to certain people to grab our attention. When Larry D. Rosen hears that piano riff from his iPhone he knows it must be either his fiancée or one of his four children, and he grabs the phone before the end of the first few notes. As B.F. Skinner would say, he has been positively reinforced on a fixed-ratio schedule, as it is almost always a positive experience to talk to any of them. On the other hand, several people in his contact list have an “alarm” ringtone, which causes the exact opposite visceral reaction, and he reaches for the button to ignore the call.
Our technology continues to find ways to attract our attention because this is what brings “eyeballs,” and the common marketing wisdom is that eyeballs bring money. As you glance at your iPhone you see little red circles with white numbers indicating that something awaits you: four unread email messages, 10 Facebook notifications, and so many reminders that your mind is overwhelmed with which icon to tap first. Your iPad does the same, as does your laptop, which particularly taunts you with numerical notifications of unread messages, flashing icons telling you that you need to back up your computer files, and on and on.
We appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts.
Media multitasking—which is accomplished by your brain not performing two tasks simultaneously but instead by rapidly switching from one task to another—occurs in every sphere of our world including home, school, workplace, and our leisure life. And this is not just limited to the younger generation. A recent study followed a group of young adults and a group of older adults who wore biometric belts with embedded eyeglass cameras for more than 300 hours of leisure time.1 While the younger adults switched from task to task 27 times per hour—once every two minutes—the older adults were not all that great at maintaining their attention either, switching tasks 17 times per hour, or once every three to four minutes. Former Microsoft executive Linda Stone dubbed this constant multitasking “continuous partial attention.”2 Frequent task switching is something we all do, and the more often we switch, the more detrimental it is to our real-world performance.
Unless you monitor someone’s computer as well as his or her smartphone and all his or her other devices, it is difficult to know how much task switching is truly occurring. However, several studies have used different research tools to try to assess real-world task switching. For example, in a recent study Rosen’s lab observed students—ranging from middle school to college age—studying for 15 minutes in an area where they normally study. Shockingly, students could not focus for more than three to five minutes even when they were told to study something very important.3 This study replicated work by Gloria Mark and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, who observed that IT workers were similarly easily and frequently interrupted.4
Other researchers have asked people to keep detailed diaries of their daily media and technology use; one particular study of 3,048 13- to 65-year-old Dutch teens and adults found that people of all ages multitasked at least a quarter of the time—with teens dual tasking 31 percent of their day—although their most common combinations were different.5 While 13- to 16-year-olds preferred to combine listening to music with being online, engaging in social media, or viewing online videos, young adults (25 to 29) preferred combining email, watching television, and visiting websites, and older people (50 to 65) preferred combining more traditional media activities such as email and radio, television, and visiting websites. Other studies have validated and extended these results; research from Rosen’s lab showed that, when asked how easy or difficult it was to pair a variety of tasks together, members of younger generations reported that they felt that it was rather easy to pair most tasks, while those of older generations felt that only more well-practiced tasks could be easily combined.6
One interesting aspect of this penchant for combining tasks is that we seem to have lost the ability to single task. Glance around a restaurant, look at people walking on a city street, pay attention to people waiting in line for a movie or the theater, and you will see busily tapping fingers. We act as though we are no longer interested in or able to stay idle and simply do nothing. We appear to care more about the people who are available through our devices than those who are right in front of our faces. And perhaps more critically, we appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts.
People respond like Pavlov’s dogs to incoming email communication, waiting only an average of one minute and 44 seconds to open that message.
Rosen’s lab has been studying this phenomenon for the past decade and has seen a constant increase across generations in how often people check in with their devices. The vast majority of young people check their smartphones every 15 minutes or less and 3 out of 4 young adults sleep with their phones nearby with the ringer on or on vibrate so as not to miss a nighttime alert. While the typical college student owns an average of seven tech devices, older adults are not far behind.7 Where we used to read, we now skim. Where we used to write, we now use shortened fragments to convey our thoughts. Write a letter? It’s much easier to zip off a brief text or an email message. When Twitter first appeared we used to shake our head at the impossibility of putting our thoughts into “only” 140 characters. Now this appears normal and fits our task-switching lifestyle. When was the last time you read a book, a long article, or literally anything more than a page or two without taking a quick peek at your phone or web browser or without the television on in the background? Eye-tracking studies show that when we read a webpage or any text on a screen we don’t read it the same way that we read a book.8 Rather than our eyes passing from word to word along each successive line of text, we tend to read in an “F” pattern, where we read the top and left sides of the page, with a brief foray into the text somewhere in the middle, rather than the complete page line by line. Add in hyperlinks, ads, multimedia videos, scroll bars, and all of the other enticing distractions on a webpage, and it is not surprising that we have difficulty attending to anything for more than a few minutes.
We are most certainly impatient, which you can verify by watching a group of people all checking their phones every three to five minutes regardless of what they are doing at the time or who they are with. A recent study from University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Akamai Technologies demonstrated our collective impatience by collecting server data from 23 million online video views; the data showed that average viewers begin to abandon a video if it takes more than two seconds to buffer, and 6 percent more viewers click on something else every additional second of buffering.9 By these data, even a brief 10-second delay in starting a video provokes nearly two-thirds of viewers to leave that screen for another source of information. These quantitative data, collected without the knowledge of the viewers, corroborate survey and experimental data highlighting what was originally dubbed the “four-second rule,” referring to the time that an average online shopper is likely to leave a website for another if it does not download.10 More recent work has even suggested that the four-second rule may actually be closer to a “two-second rule” or even a “400 millisecond rule” (less than half a second), indicating that we are all quite impatient and prone to diverting our attention rapidly from one screen to the next if our needs are not being met instantly.11 In the next few sections, we take a brief look at research performed in a variety of typical situations where we are prone to interference.
For those of us who work with technology and are surrounded by other employees working with their technologies, interference has become the norm. We are constantly interrupted by others dropping by our desk to chat or attempting to connect with us through a variety of technological communication modalities, including the most popular workplace tool—email. A study by Judy Wajcman, a sociology professor at the London School of Economics, highlighted this phenomenon by shadowing 18 employees of an Australian telecommunications company during their entire workday.12 Wajcman selected this company because it was designed to facilitate interactions between workers with open-plan offices and other external distractors, including many large television screens mounted around the office. The employees in this study spent only half their workday on actual “work episodes,” which included any and all work-related activities. Strikingly, most of these work episodes lasted 10 minutes or less, with an average of just three minutes per work episode. And even more interesting, nearly two-thirds of the work episode interruptions were self-generated, and most of those involved some form of mediated communication using a technological device. In fact, of the approximately 86 daily changes in an employee’s work activity, the workers themselves generated 65 of them internally, with the vast majority involving “checking in” with no obvious external alert or notification. Even without the “You’ve Got Mail” notification, these workers checked their email anyway and continued to check other sources of electronic communication and information without being externally directed to do so.
Whether directed externally via an alert or notification or internally by an unseen process, it appears that in the work environment email and other communication modalities bear a major responsibility for interruptions. One field study that followed workers for two weeks discovered that they were interrupted 4.28 times per hour by email and an additional 3.21 times by instant message communications.13 And these communications appeared to have a strong draw for the employees, since 41 percent of them responded to the email immediately and 71 percent responded to an instant message immediately. On average, the workers spent 10 minutes dealing with the alerts and then took an additional 10 to 15 minutes to return to their appointed task, often visiting several other applications in the interim. Another study by the research group ClearContext indicated that more than half of the 250 workers they queried spent over two hours a day reading and responding to email.14 A study out of Loughborough University in England found that after dealing with an email, which itself took an average of just under two minutes, it took the studied workers an average of 68 seconds—more than half of the time required to read and respond to that email—to return to their work and remember what they were doing.15, 16 This study also found that people are responding like Pavlov’s dogs to incoming email communication, waiting only an average of one minute and 44 seconds to open that message. Strikingly, 70 percent of those alerts were attended to within six seconds, which is about the time it takes a phone to ring three times. And yet another study found that even without an alert, while 1 in 3 people claimed to check their email every 15 minutes, they actually checked it about every five minutes.17, 18 We are self-interrupting and not even aware of how often we are diverting our attention from our main task—in this case, our job—to another task that may be completely unrelated to work.
Many studies have examined technology use related to education both in and out of the classroom and its impact on the Distracted Mind. Today’s college students own an average of seven high-tech devices, and most students have at least three—smartphone, laptop, and tablet—in the classroom. These devices themselves tend to be used as multitasking tools. Only 1 in 5 apps on college students’ smartphones were categorized as “productivity” apps.7 In the classroom, these devices provide a ready source of interruption that has been validated in many studies. For example, one study found that 9 in 10 students used their laptop computers for nonacademic reasons during class time, while another study found that 91 percent of students reported texting during class.19, 20
We are self-interrupting and not even aware of how often we are diverting our attention from our main task.
Other studies have addressed how students use technology while they are studying outside the classroom. Terry Judd, a professor at the University of Melbourne, monitored more than 3,300 computer session logs from 1,229 students studying in the computer lab and found that the average time on task was only 2.3 minutes; multitasking was the name of the game, with less than 10 percent of the sessions being devoid of task switching to something other than studying, which turned out to be primarily checking email, texting, and social media.21 In a laboratory study, a researcher from Virginia Commonwealth University observed college students during a three-hour study session using video cameras and eye trackers and found that on average, students spent more than an hour listening to music and showed 35 interruptions of six seconds or longer, totaling 26 disrupted minutes in just three hours.22 The biggest cause of interruptions was the smartphone, which students checked close to nine times in the three-hour study session. Other major interrupting culprits included checking the Internet for information not related to the material being studied and checking email.
Another report on the studying activities of students found that the reason behind the constant task switching is a desire to feed emotional needs—often by switching from school work to entertainment or social communication—rather than cognitive or intellectual needs.23 According to the study’s authors, “This is worrisome because students begin to feel like they need to have the TV on or they need to continually check their text messages or computer while they do their homework. It’s not helping them, but they get an emotional reward that keeps them doing it.”24
More work has been done to document the impact of technology on student behavior than any other population, as technology is more readily available to these individuals and they are the first to have grown up immersed in a technology-rich environment with ever-increasing opportunities for interference. In one study, middle school, high school, and university students were observed while they were instructed to study something important for a short period of time (only 15 minutes).25 Regardless of age, students were able to stay focused and attend to that important work only for a short period of time—three to five minutes—before most students self-interrupted their studying to switch to another task. During the 15-minute study period, students were able to actually study for only nine minutes. The major culprits that spurred the constant interruptions had two sources: social media and texting. Both of these were apparently offering such important information that the studying student’s attention was transferred from the task at hand—an identified important area for focus—to another source of information through the two most popular communication modalities among the younger generations.
There are two approaches by which we can diminish the negative impact of interference on our lives: changing our brains and changing our behavior. Note that these approaches are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary, and you will likely achieve the most beneficial outcomes if you pursue them concurrently.
In terms of changing our brains, laboratories and companies around the world are now engaged in large-scale development and research efforts directed at understanding how we can enhance our brain’s functioning to improve cognitive control and thus reduce the negative impact of goal interference. Approaches include traditional education, meditation, cognitive training, video games, exposure to nature, drugs, physical exercise, neuro-feedback, and brain stimulation. Interestingly, many of them use modern technology to harness neuroplasticity and induce brain changes. We are at the threshold of fascinating times, as the technology that has aggravated the Distracted Mind is now being formulated to offer remediation. When we have no choice but to engage in a high-interference environment, we can work to ensure we are as optimized as possible to diminish the detrimental effects of distractions and interruptions.
It may seem difficult to change our habits, but at many points throughout history we have decided to modify how we interact with our environment after we’ve realized the harmful effects of a particular behavior. For example, prior to the overwhelming evidence of the dangers of cigarette use, doctors would actually recommend specific brands in advertisements. With increasing knowledge of the detrimental effects of this sort of behavior, and others such as the dangers of sun exposure, came the opportunity for us to make more informed decisions.
Adam Gazzaley is a professor in the departments of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, where he is also the founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center, Neuroscape Lab, and the Gazzaley Lab. Recipient of the 2015 Society for Neuroscience Science Educator Award, he wrote and hosted the nationally televised PBS special The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley.
Larry D. Rosen is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is a blogger for Psychology Today and the author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us and six other books.
From The Distracted Mind by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, published by the MIT Press.
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