Does it feel like your attention span is getting shorter? You’re probably right…and the cause is right in front of you. Digital technology—smartphones, computer screens, e-mail, Facebook—exposes users to constant distractions that compromise our ability to focus.

Twenty years ago, employees worked on a computer screen for an average of two-and-a-half minutes before their attention wandered, according to new research from Gloria Mark, PhD, a psychologist who studies human-computer interaction. In today’s era of multitasking and scrolling, employees are distracted within just 47 seconds.

Digital technology promises to augment our capabilities and make us more efficient—but instead, we often waste time and feel overwhelmed. You might think the answer is to simply unplug these devices, but they now are integral to our daily life. GPS is a must when you’re driving, and Google has become an essential partner in conversations.

But there is good news, says Dr. Mark. You haven’t lost the ability to focus…you just have to learn to focus differently in today’s digital world.

Bottom Line Personal asked Dr. Mark to explain why technology exerts such a powerful effect on our attention span and to offer strategies for us to regain control and, as a result, feel less stressed…

How Tech Affects Attention Span

The digital world can be far more thrilling and seductive than the physical one. The Internet puts endless amounts of information at your fingertips. Its series of links and associations work like our brains do and play into the human desire for novelty, social connection and escapism. If you feel bored at home or frustrated at work, you might take refuge in your devices, distracting yourself with Netflix and The New York Times or validating yourself by seeing who has “liked” your Facebook posts.

How it works: When you browse the Internet, it is browsing you, too. Software algorithms collect information about your behavior and needs and then leverage it to offer you a continuous stream of new and personalized material. Every time you anticipate seeing a new text, e-mail or notification, your brain gets a small hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine, and that keeps you coming back. It’s easy to lose track of time in the digital world. You decide to check the weather—and before you know it, you’ve been online for an hour.

Problem: This cycle of interruption and temptation means that your attention shifts rapidly whenever you’re using digital screens until it becomes automatic and habitual. An analysis by Statista found that Americans spend nearly three hours a day checking their personal e-mail. Similarly, a recent survey by revealed that smartphone users go on their phones an average of 144 times daily. This behavior can be exhausting and drain your capacity to focus for very long. It also impacts your productivity. According to my research, when a person interrupts the work he/she is doing on a screen, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for him to return to the original task.

Getting Your Focus Back

Some experts recommend digital detoxes to improve focus, perhaps by locking away smartphones on weekends or switching to a flip phone. While these can be short-term solutions, cutting yourself off from the digital world may not be realistic. Better: Find ways to self-regulate so that you can live with your devices but still maintain a healthy psychological balance. Strategies to try…

Create a little friction. Make it a bit harder to access the Internet…

Sign out of your e-mail and social-media accounts when you’re not using them, so you will have to sign back in when you get the urge to check them. It’s easier to muster self-discipline when it requires effort to access the technology.

Don’t use autofill to sign in to accounts. Force yourself to type in your username and password each time.

Silence all sounds on your phone so you aren’t enticed by new alerts.

Confront your automatic behavior. Do you reach for your phone in the middle of dinner without even thinking? Habits are triggered by cues, so bring your actions to a conscious level by questioning your behavior. Example: When you start to check for text messages, ask yourself, Why am I doing this right now? Am I stressed out? Or perhaps when you are shopping on the Internet and can’t seem to pull away, ask, How much time have I invested in this today? What value am I gaining by continuing? Processing your behavior lets you be more intentional in your choices, so you become an active user of your attention span rather than a passive one. If it’s difficult to create enough psychological distance to question yourself, write the questions on sticky notes and keep them in view when you are on your computer.

Use forethought. When you are lured by digital distractions, imagine how your actions will affect the rest of your day. Example: You have an impulse at work to check the news about the US political elections…but you know you won’t stop once you start scrolling. Visualize how your decision will affect you later on that day. Ask yourself, Am I going to be relaxing on the couch feeling good because I completed my work today? Or am I going to beat myself up for using my time poorly? We tend to be better at staying on task if we are regularly reminded of what we want to achieve. The more detailed your visualizations (the emotions you feel, where you are), the easier to course-correct if you need to.

Protect your peak focus times during the day. Do your most challenging tasks when your focus and attention span are the strongest and you have the fortitude to be more disciplined about avoiding distractions and unnecessary technology. For most people, peak focus occurs in late morning at 11 am and in mid-afternoon at 3 pm. Plan to do easy work and rote tasks at times when you have less attentional discipline.

Smart: Check your e-mail less often during the workday—just once or twice at nonpeak focus times. Going through your inbox again and again may feel productive, but my research shows that workers typically spend too long answering e-mail, replying, forwarding, following up and looping people in, instead of accomplishing work of real value. Another advantage to checking e-mail at the end of the day: You’ll discover a lot of problems in your inbox have been solved or no longer merit your attention.

Take short breaks from technology during the day. Replenishing your cognitive resources will let you self-regulate more effectively. Best: Any rote activity that requires minimal concentration but keeps you engaged, calms you and makes you happy such as meditating, knitting, doing a crossword puzzle or gardening.

Use hooks. Set up guardrails to prevent overindulging in the digital world. Example: You start playing an online game but know that you will have to stop in 15 minutes because you’ve scheduled a business call. Also: Save your social media or gaming for times when there is a natural stopping point such as waiting in the doctor’s office or standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Swear off multitasking. Working on multiple screens at the same time or conducting a Zoom meeting while answering e-mail and texting may seem like you are getting a lot done. Reality: You are just switching your attention rapidly back and forth between tasks, and each time you interrupt yourself, your performance is compromised. The cost is negligible if one task requires little effort, such as listening to music while working on a report. Otherwise, my research shows that you make more errors and take longer to finish both tasks than if you had just tackled them one at a time.

Related Articles