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How to Focus Like It’s 1990

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How 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.

The New York Times,

5 min read
4 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

If a phone chimes and no one checks the notification, did it really make an alert at all?

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Imagine sitting at your desk in your office. You pull up a spreadsheet and start working. Then you check your email. Back to the spreadsheet. Now you open a web page to get some information. Is your phone on silent? Better check for a message then. What were you doing again? Ah, the spreadsheet. How do you think your concentration compares to that of a typical knowledge worker? Do you think you switch tasks more often than you did 10 years ago? In this New York Times article, science writer Dana G. Smith describes the inattention of the digital age, along with some possible solutions.


Human attention spans are shortening, and mobile devices are the likely culprits. 

Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, entered an office building back in 2004, armed with a stopwatch. Her mission? To calculate how frequently a typical knowledge worker switches tasks – for example, flitting between web pages, spreadsheets documents and emails. She found that workers switched tasks every 2.5 minutes on average.

Mark repeated the research in 2012 and found that the average time that workers spent engaged in a task had dropped to 75 seconds. By 2022, just 47 seconds. It’s no coincidence that the precipitous drop in attention coincides with more engaging versions of the internet and more powerful phones.

Turning off your notifications alone won’t deter you from checking your device.

In a study of moderate and heavy smartphone users, research psychologist Larry Rosen took his subjects’ cellphones, placing the devices close enough so the participants could hear the chime of notifications...

About the Author

Dana G. Smith writes about science, health and society. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The New York Times, Popular Science, The Atlantic, STAT, Vice, and other publications.

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