We live in an era of unprecedented access to information.
Most of us take this for granted now, but it is kind of remarkable when you step back and contemplate what this means in the context of human history.
Technology has endowed us with the ability to immediately retrieve whatever we want to see or whatever we want to read, just by tapping on a screen a few times. Furthermore, we have never had so much instant access to one another, even when we are physically very far apart.
In turn, our devices (and other people) have the ability to reach out to us. And they can seize our attention literally all the time – 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
But how does this intimate and incessant relationship with technology affect our brains?
Some researchers have begun to examine the impact of digital tools on how we think and perform – using precision tracking with sensors and biosensors to get a comprehensive picture of how digital devices influence individuals and groups of people.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results are not entirely rosy.
In this episode of humanOS Radio, Dan speaks with Gloria Mark, who is a professor in the department of informatics at UC Irvine. She studies multi-tasking behavior in information workers, and technology use in disrupted environments. Her work examines how interaction with information technology affects attention, mood, and stress, and how digital devices influence individuals, groups, and whole societies.
Much of this research has zoomed in on the impact of what we commonly refer to as “multi-tasking.” You already know this implicitly: when you are rapidly switching between two different activities, typically your performance on both tasks markedly declines. (Of course, we continue to try to do it anyway).
This area of study has also examined the impact of interrupted work, which often manifests itself in the form of digital notifications, like from email, text, or phone apps. For most of us, this is a normal aspect of our daily life. But you might not appreciate the full impact that this has on you.
For instance, in one study in which she and her colleagues continuously tracked employees at a tech company, they found that office workers who are interrupted take about 25 minutes to return to whatever task they were working on. You can imagine how this might add up over the course of a day. How much more might you have gotten done if you could just stay focused and free of distraction?
But impaired productivity may not be the only price we pay. These seemingly innocuous interruptions may take a significant toll on our well-being. Gloria’s research has revealed that these kinds of persistent disruptions not only increase subjective feelings of stress and frustration, but also ramp up markers of physiological stress.
So what can we do about this? Fortunately, through her research, Gloria has come up with some plausible ideas for how individuals and organizations can reduce the cognitive costs associated with digital distractions. To learn more, check out the interview below!
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Gloria Mark - 00:00: There seems to be a trend that attention duration on any computer screens seems to be getting shorter and shorter.
Dan Pardi - 00:07: Think about how much the world has changed in just the past 30 years or so. We live in an era of unprecedented access to information. Technology has endowed us with the ability to immediately retrieve whatever we want to see or whatever we want to read, just by tapping on the screen a few times. Perhaps even more importantly, we have never had so much immediate access to one another even when we are very far away. In turn, other people have the ability to reach out to us and seize our attention literally 24 hours a day, seven days per week. But how does this relationship with technology affect our brains? Researchers are starting to examine the impact of digital tools on how we think and perform. And the results are not entirely rosy. Much of this research has investigated what we commonly refer to as multitasking. You already know this implicitly.
00:56: When you are rapidly switching between two different activities, typically your performance on both suffers. This area of research has also examined the impact of interrupted work often in the form of digital notifications like from a text, email or phone apps. You know how common this is, but you probably don't realize the full impact. Studies that track employees have revealed that office workers who are interrupted, take about 25 minutes to return to whatever task they are working on, and these interruptions take a significant toll on our wellbeing. Research shows that these kinds of disruptions increase stress levels as well as impair our productivity. That is why I'm pleased to have Gloria Mark on the podcast today who has been closely involved with much of the research I described. Gloria is a professor in the Department of Informatics at UC, Irvine, where she studies multitasking behavior in information workers and technology use in disrupted environments. Her work examines how interactions with information technology affects attention, mood and stress. Gloria, welcome to the show.
Gloria Mark - 01:57: Thank you.
Dan Pardi - 01:58: Tell us about your background and your area of expertise.
Gloria Mark - 02:01: I am trained in psychology. I got my PhD in cognitive psychology, and right after I got my PhD, I went to work in a research institute that was involved in computer science. The idea was to design computer technology to support group work. And this was pretty futuristic at the time and as I became more and more involved in looking at the interaction of computers and people, I shifted my interests away from cognitive psychology to an area that's called human computer interaction, and I've been working in that area since.
Dan Pardi - 02:39: What is precision tracking?
Gloria Mark - 02:41: It's a term that I use to refer to the idea of using sensors to understand people's mood and behavior. And the reason it's called precision tracking is because sensors can give us very precise objective data about what people are doing. Traditionally, it studies about things like mood and behavior. People give self-reports, but self-reports are notoriously subject to memory biases and people want to impress the researcher by saying what they think the researcher wants to believe, and so precision tracking is a way to get information about what people are doing in the real world and reducing bias as an error in the information.
03:30: What's really advantageous, as I mentioned, you can track people as they move around their real world. So people can also be studied in things like multitasking, computer usage, by bringing them into a laboratory. But a laboratory can't really model all the things that happen in the real world. People have conflicts at work, there is career trajectories that they're focusing on, there's all kinds of noise in the environment, you can only really understand what people are doing in their real world environments by measuring them as they're in there. And that's what precision tracking is.
Dan Pardi - 04:11: How frequently does a typical office worker switch tasks or experience an interruption?
Gloria Mark - 04:16: The answer is quite frequently. Back in 2004, we followed people around observing them and then the observers would carry stopwatches. And every time a person would switch activities like switching screens on their computer or moving away from the computer to pick up the phone, they would click the stopwatch to measure the exact amount of time that the person spent on each activity.
04:41: Just around 2012, we've been using position tracking. So we're actually doing things like logging people's computer activity, we're using sometimes heart rate monitors to measure stress, and we triangulate these different sensor data together to get a picture of what people are doing. So that's a background about the measurement. In 2016, we found that people spent about 47 seconds on any computer screen before switching. That's the average. The median was 40 seconds. And what this means is that day in, day out throughout the day, about every 40 seconds, people are switching screens. This is corroborated by other studies. In 2014, we found it to be 48 seconds, there was another study done by researchers who found it to be 50 seconds, but back in 2004 when we were using the stopwatches, we found it was around 150 seconds. In 2012, we found it to be 75 seconds. There seems to be a trend that attention duration on any computer screens seems to be getting shorter and shorter.
Dan Pardi - 05:55: We live in the Twitter-like world where everything's a soundbite. I wonder how much in the training of the brain through all sorts of digital technologies, is shortening our attention span.
Gloria Mark - 06:05: Of course the number of notifications are increasing because people have access to more apps and they usually work on multiple devices, but there's a limit to human attention. You can't address multiple messages at the same time, but given that, our data do suggests that people's attention spans are going down, whether it's due to having one message come at you or 15 messages, we're still seeing that people's attention is shifting among different activities. I suspect very strongly it's not commensurate with the amount of notifications that people are getting.
Dan Pardi - 06:46: So we see people are switching their attention more rapidly at least as you've observed from 2004 to 2012 and even more recently with other work, what is the biggest problem with being interrupted or having to switch tasks? Is there a cost to doing this?
Gloria Mark - 07:00: Well, the cost is that we're finding a strong correlation with stress. I'll give you an example with email. When people switch to email, of course email has its own peculiarities, but you look at their stress as measured by heart rate monitors and you control for every possible thing you can think of that might cause stress. So we controlled for job role, amount of job strain, people's gender work experience, their chronic level of stress, things like that. But it's uncanny because they go on email and the stress rise, they go off email, stress goes back down. So it suggests that stress is a factor, is a cost in this.
Dan Pardi - 07:44: We tend to think of these interruptions coming from external sources like the sound of an email notification or a phone ring, but often interruptions are self-generated. Like for instance, taking a break from work to check Instagram, stuff like that.
Gloria Mark - 07:55: Yeah.
Dan Pardi - 07:56: Everyone is prone to that from time to time, but what elicits this?
Gloria Mark - 07:58: Well, that's a great question. I think there are a lot of things that elicit this and it varies according to the person. First of all, let me say that one of the most surprising things I've found in the this research is that people self interrupt almost as often as they get interrupted by some external source such as notifications. Some people self interrupt from boredom. Some people's self interrupt to reduce stress. Think of the memory as organized in a network, in a semantic network, and if people are exposed to some kind of cue, this might trigger them to think of something and it causes them to shift their attention to pursue that other thought which might mean going to a website, going to Wikipedia or Twitter or Facebook or whatever. But I also think, and this comes from our research, that a large part of self interruptions have to do with conditioning.
08:56: That people are simply conditioned to have short attention spans and there's an interplay between being interrupted from some external source like a notification, and the amount of self interruptions people have. In fact, we've measured the frequency of what we call external interruptions, that's interruptions from some external identifiable source, and self interruptions. And when these external interruptions go down in frequency for a particular hour, what happens is the frequency of self interruptions increases in the subsequent hour. It's almost as though people are just conditioned to have these short attention spans and if they're not getting interrupted by something externally, then they interrupt themselves.
Dan Pardi - 09:45: That's so interesting. Some of it can be just a stress reliever and some of it seems to be habituation to the frequency of the interruptions with work, and so your brain gets on these cycles, it sounds like, where whether it's work related or just internally generated, that we're now perpetuating through the modern lifestyle, this short focused cycle.
Gloria Mark - 10:05: I think so. I think that's a large part of this.
Dan Pardi - 10:08: Does individual ability to maintain focus change within a day?
Gloria Mark - 10:12: It can, yes. We do see differences in times of day. There are of course individual differences. In fact, we did a study to see if a particular software could get people to lengthen their focus. We found that about half the people in our sample are pretty good. They're pretty diligent about keeping focus. They do self-interrupt, but they're able to come back on task relatively quickly. And we find that these individual differences are due to two things. There's a personality trait that's called conscientiousness. If you're familiar with the big five personality traits, this is one of these dimensions.
10:57: So people who score higher in conscientiousness are able to get back on task quicker when they self-interrupt. There's another personality trait called impulsivity, and people who score high in impulsivity, they have a much harder time getting back on task. So two people who are self interrupting, one person who scores high in conscientiousness, low on impulsivity, is able to get back on task. They're able to pull themselves away from whatever they went to as a distraction or a short break. Conversely, people who don't score high in conscientiousness, who are impulsive, they can just get pulled into another site and 30 minutes can go by and they're just lost in it.
Dan Pardi - 11:45: So that was the stat that I mentioned in the introduction. How long generally does it take for people to get back on task after they are interrupted? I'd love to talk that work in detail.
Gloria Mark - 11:54: Sure. This comes from earlier work we did. This was from the observations and the timing with stopwatches because that's the best way that you can measure self interruptions. If you're doing computer logging, you can look at what websites people visit, but there is a limitation. You can't look at self interruptions where people pick up phone call, or self interruptions where someone chats with another person, but you can get that data from observing people, and we use those stopwatches to try to be as objective as possible. And we found on average, it took roughly about 25 minutes for people to get back to their interrupted tasks. I'll give you a very typical pattern that we find. In fact, the most common pattern that people are working on a project. They get interrupted, they work on a second project. They get interrupted again, work on a third project, get interrupted again, start to work on a fourth project, but then they get interrupted and go back to that original project. And the intervening time between when they were working on that original project and then going back to it, is 25 minutes and 26 seconds.
13:11: I have that figure in front of me. It suggests that interruptions are nested. You get interrupted, then you get interrupted from the thing that interrupted your task, and so on. It's difficult for people because it's not simply that you're working on a task and interrupted and go back again, but you have this cognitive shift once, twice and starting to be three times before you go back. And so this does create a cost, and this is where stress could be coming from because people have to use cognitive resources to reorient back to that original task.
Dan Pardi - 13:47: This is obviously so familiar to everybody, and I refer to the insidious nature of email where in one program, you might have an advertisement for 15% off some product that you signed up for in the past that ends today. With an email from an important client, boss, whoever, it's difficult to necessarily push out all of the more frivolous, less important ones because it's all embedded into the same program. If you're dealing with 70 to 100 different messages in a day that you have to actually attend to, it's a lot of decisions to be made and it's very difficult to then do deeper work. So we have 25 minutes before we get back onto task and email is a big culprit here. Do you know how many times people will check their email in a day?
Gloria Mark - 14:31: So we find with our logging methodology that people check on average about 77 times a day. And the high person in our sample did 405 times a day.
Dan Pardi - 14:43: Dangerous. Yeah. Wow.
Gloria Mark - 14:45: So people's day is characterized by frequent checking of the email and they spend a lot or a short amount of time each time they check email. But email is just one source of interruptions and it could be due to notifications, it could also be due to self interruptions. And we've measured that and people have different strategies for interrupting themselves. Some people do what's called batching. They have a batching strategy. So they will check their email once the morning, once before they leave work, and then once, maybe in the middle of the day, maybe before lunch, and then again after lunch. And there's others that just check it continually. The ones who are checking it continually, the average is comprised of those who have both this batching strategy and those with continual checking. So continual checkers are doing it a lot more than 77 times a day.
Dan Pardi - 15:44: I find days where I am underperforming, I'm over checking, and the nature of that is to not let work pile up. But when I do batching, I tend to perform better. I use a Mac app called Horo, H-O-R-O, you can set times of 15 minutes, 20 minutes, you put in the time that you want to focus, and it helps me form an intention of, "Okay, now for 10 minutes I'm just going to do this." It's not perfect. I will still find myself task switching here and there, but I think I do better that way when I batch.
Gloria Mark - 16:12: That's what our data suggests that too. So the more times that people check email and in fact even the longer the duration of time they are in an email, the lower they assess their productivity at the end of the day. So there is a correlation there.
Dan Pardi - 16:29: I have described myself as a professional emailer. That's what I do for a living.
Gloria Mark - 16:32: Yeah, well, a lot of people do. That's email has become a fundamental part of work.
Dan Pardi - 16:41: What happens when people totally disconnect from email for a week?
Gloria Mark - 16:46: We did a study where we found an organization that was willing to let employees cut off email for five work days. So we logged their computer activity, we had them wear heart rate monitors around the office, first we measured a baseline. So we measured them as they ordinarily worked with email, and then we measured them for that work without email. We found that they were significantly more focused. They spend almost twice as long focused on any computer screen without email, and the flip side of that is also to think about the frequency of switching. It's the same measure. It's just the other side of the coin, and people's switched about half as frequently without email. In fact, for this study with the email, we found that they switched about 37 times an hour and without email went down to 18 times an hour, and stress as measured by what's called heart rate variability, showed that people were significantly less stressed without email.
Dan Pardi - 17:54: I was about to ask you about heart rate variability next, so good timing on that. How do you measure it?
Gloria Mark - 17:59: You measure heart rate and then you look at the time between consecutive heartbeats. The measure is counterintuitive because the higher the variability actually refers to people being more relaxed. And the lower the variability, you can think of people as being in this fight or flight experience where your heart is beating at a very regular pace, and that's a well accepted measure of stress.
Dan Pardi - 18:27: I don't know if anything like this exists, but I would be so interested to over time identify goals for how much time we would like to spend over the day in more of a parasympathetic state, one of that's more relaxed, so we know that if we're constantly charging, driving focused. Spending that much time in that sympathetic drive might not be the best thing for our health. It could be quite useful to come up with some parameter that people could aim for.
Gloria Mark - 18:53: You're probably familiar with the Yerkes-Dodson law?
Dan Pardi - 18:57: Yes.
Gloria Mark - 18:57: It shows that there is an optimal amount of stress that people need in order to perform well.
Dan Pardi - 19:04: Right.
Gloria Mark - 19:05: So too much relaxation would not necessarily be good at work, and too much stress is also not good. It's going to impact performance negatively. It's really about striving for that optimal amount of stress and of course it's going to vary. People should take work breaks to replenish their mental resources, but they also need to have stimulation to get back to that optimal point.
Dan Pardi - 19:31: We talk about that in some of our courses on productivity and it's a very useful guide to understand. It's not linear, it's a U-shape. So if you're under aroused, then your performance will suffer. There's an optimal zone in the middle and then beyond that you might experience more anxiety and panic, which then will cause more errors and disruptions to your performance. And then that's all going to depend on a lot of other factors. So who you are naturally in terms of your stress tolerance and how stressful you perceive things, and then also things like sleep. Did you get a bad night's sleep last night and are needing to generate a higher degree of stress for focus? And that idea of the stress addict is a real thing in our society.
Gloria Mark - 20:09: Absolutely.
Dan Pardi - 20:10: What are some of the things that you found from your work that have lent themselves either as in behavioral patterns or techniques that help people perform better over time and have a better relationship with work?
Gloria Mark - 20:22: That's a really great question. I really think there needed to be personalized solutions and I also think that the onus should not just be on people to make these changes. People can make changes. So people can use techniques to break conditioning, because I mentioned before that I believe that a lot of self interruptions are due to just habituation and condition behavior. People can do things like schedule time for deep work each day, so you just block out time, but there was also a lot of interesting work that shows that taking a walk in nature can replenish people's resources. In fact, we even did a study and found that people scored significantly higher in divergent reasoning after taking a 20 minute walk. Divergent reasoning, think of it like brainstorming, generating ideas. So people can certainly make changes.
21:22: Another change that people can do that we also found in our research is to be able to utilize online interaction strategically. What I mean by that is if you have say a lot of serious work that you need to get done, you might consider taking online breaks to interact with people. So things like using social media, but using it in a way that you're going to get right back on task. And we actually find that if you have a hard deadline or you have some serious work you have to get done, you're better off with online interactions than you are with face-to-face interactions.
Dan Pardi - 22:02: Interesting.
Gloria Mark - 22:03: Because when you do face to face interactions, there's different phases. You have your greeting ritual, you have the interaction, the parting ritual, and in a sense both parties are prisoner in this interaction. But with online, you can go in and out. You can do what we call grazing behavior. You can graze around, see if there's something that interests you, do some interaction, and then get right back to work. But I also want to say, as I said before, the onus should not just be on people. Organizations can play a role too. So they can change policy by giving people the ability to disconnect, the right to disconnect, which means after work hours, they shouldn't be forced to have to answer email and respond to colleagues. There's some European countries have a right to disconnect policy and there's even some German companies that have this policy. So I think that organizations can play a role [inaudible 00:23:03].
Dan Pardi - 23:06: It's a really interesting challenge with more of an appreciation of chronotypes when people naturally feel they do their better work in the day. So you could easily have somebody who is a lark who wakes up, their best moment is in the morning, and then a boss who does their best work at night. And so this person who's just about to go to bed is getting all these emails from a colleague who has their mind totally turned on at that time and that can lead to the dissolution of borders for work at home. I like that idea of both governments and then organizations putting some rules there that everybody has to comply with. That does seem to be a probably a healthy thing.
Gloria Mark - 23:40: And you brought up a really good point with the idea of chronotypes because we find that when people are in a state of boredom, they actually become more susceptible to distraction. We didn't measure fatigue directly, but I would suspect very strongly that when people are fatigued, they're also susceptible to distraction because there are studies that show that when people's mental resources are being taxed, they are more susceptible to distraction in the laboratory, and I suspect this also happens in the workplace. And so work can be designed around people's chronotypes so that if people are better performers in the morning, that's when a hard work should get done. And then in the afternoon if people who are larks, if they're more fatigued later in the day, they could be doing work that's less challenging.
Dan Pardi - 24:34: I described what I call a modern shift work as well where for me personally, I don't know many, having a quiet period where there's not that many emails coming in tends to be a place of high productivity because you can just start chipping away either at a project or at your list of tasks. And so for people that either wake up really early, that can be a window to get on top of your day, but for those who the modern day shift work that I described as people go to work, they come home, they spend time with their families, they put their kids to bed, and then, well, for just a few nights a week, maybe they'll go back to work until sometimes the wee hours of the morning, and that can be really disruptive to circadian rhythms and yet understand the pressure on why to do that is totally understandable. But if you're going to do that, how do we make that time in front of a computer and light less disruptive to a stronger circadian rhythm? Are there are some strategies on that?
Gloria Mark - 25:24: There's actually a third thing that can help people. It has to do with technology. Computers and sensors could be used to try to sense when users are stressed and when they're fatigued, when they're susceptible to distraction and suggest to users, "Okay, it's time now to take a break. It's time for you to replenish your resources." And also we're starting to design agents that can help people organize their work in such a way that it can align very well with people's attentional resources. So we're not there yet, but I think we're heading in this direction and I think that's a very promising direction.
Dan Pardi - 26:04: Speaking of direction, what work are you doing next?
Gloria Mark - 26:08: So I'm continuing to work in this area. I've just been working on a very large project with a number of colleagues where we have tracked information workers for a year in the workplace. So these were 750 people over a year. We're looking at a number of things, but one of the things that we have tracked is stress. So we can look at in a very fine grains level how stress changes over the day, over the week, and so on. So that's one project I'm working on, and I'm also working on another project looking at physicians and checking email and how that relates to stress.
Dan Pardi - 26:49: And also some work in sleep?
Gloria Mark - 26:52: So I have worked in sleep, actually this large scale project where we've tracked people for a year, we also have their sleep data as well. But I have done some work with sleep before and I did this with the college students. And we found that as sleep debt accumulates, sleep debt is the cumulation of loss of sleep over days, and as sleep debt accumulates, people have less and less cognitive resources available the following day, and we find that people spend more and more time on Facebook. Why? Because Facebook is lightweight. It doesn't involve a lot of mental resources.
Dan Pardi - 27:34: Yes. On days where I have been extremely tired, I am more susceptible to using those types of feeds more often and for longer periods. Yes, that is absolutely something that I can identify with. One thing that I've done is I've taken all feeds off my phone. If I use them, I use them from a browser. It adds a little bit of friction to the process and then I also set limitations in screen time. I have an iOS device so it all just block me out if I am on it past 15 minutes and then I have to willfully make a decision to go back in, enter a password, and then get back in if I want to use it for more time.
28:09: Sometimes I do that, but it's a nice limiter and break on things that can get out of control and you just start to populate all of your in between moments with these things and it can end up sapping other resources. Though I do feel like some of these can be a nice break in your day and they can also very easily become another stressor when you recognize that they're consuming more time than they should.
Gloria Mark - 28:31: There is a lot of irony, isn't there? That we're now relying on technology to help us control our technology use?
Dan Pardi - 28:40: I had a line in my Ted talk that said, the more that technology pushes us to live in a manner that is disconnected from the original environmental conditions from which we came, the more we need countervailing technology that help us, the human in the digital age. We need this countervailing tech that helps us not get totally taken under the wave of all of the notifications, the addictive scrolling, so I fully agree that that is a true need. Well, Gloria, thank you for your time. All of your work is so interesting and so relevant to probably 98% of the people who are listening to this, regardless of what profession they're in. Thank you so much for your time. I appreciate all your work.
Gloria Mark - 29:15: And thank you Dan.