We constantly hear that we now have the technical means to be ceaselessly productive in our digital age and that we need to optimize our time to pack in as much as possible. My own life experience and my research have led me to a different conclusion: we should instead think about how we can achieve our utmost well-being: We need to change the conversation from adjusting our lives to being maximally productive, to adjusting our lives to feeling balanced. Our goal when we use our devices should be to maintain a positive store of mental resources, so that we can ultimately experience a higher level of well-being. As a result, we’ll be more productive.Introduction, page 25
In a nutshell
In Attention Span psychologist Gloria Mark shares her decades long research on how technology affects our attention, how our attention spans have rapidly dropped and how we have become so used to interruptions by others, we interrupt ourselves. The goal of her research isn’t to find ways to become maximally productive but rather to be able to use our resources in a way that we are able to replenish them before they get depleted.
Book Club Notes
Imagine you withdraw cash from an ATM and go to a farmers’ market that only takes cash. You buy bread, cheese, meat and are left with a few pennies. The only thing you can buy is wilted veggies. If you want to buy something of good quality, you need to go back to the ATM and refill your wallet. Your attention works the same way. When your attentional resources are spent, you can’t do very much, you need to take a break and replenish. Your performance suffers when the cognitive resources we need exceed those available. This explains why performance peaks in the morning and dips in the afternoon. It also explains why your performance suffers when your workload is too high. Your cognitive resources are simply being depleted at a faster rate and the only way to refuel is to step away.
When this book landed on our desk, Feige handed it to me and said I should read it. Truth is my attention span has dropped, noticeably so. The result of an increased workload coupled with endless interruptions that pull my attention in competing directions. In one of the chapters, Mark explains flow – that glorious state where you get so carried away in the task at hand you become the master of your own attention. It is rare and cannot be manufactured, but it does happen. One of the people she spoke to in her research told her he no longer finds flow in his work. Instead, it feels like he’s just keeping plates spinning. It was insights like this one that resonated with me and made me feel seen. There were many other insights that hit home, as I’m sure they would for most people struggling to juggle their limited cognitive resources amongst an endless list of tasks and technology which makes you feel like you need to always be on, always be up to date.
While so much of this book felt validating and was interesting it failed to fully hold my attention. It is an academic read filled with solid research and astute observations which I always appreciate. Where it fell short for me was the practical application of the theory. While I understand why my attention span has dropped and how our workspaces have made it exceedingly difficult to get into flow and focus on one task at a time, I didn’t walk away with something I could immediately apply to my life. Which is what I was hoping for at the outset. However, if I were to choose one action learnt it would be to recognize when my cognitive resources are depleted and instead of pushing on, stop and actually rest to restore them so that I am able to return with better focus and energy.
You enjoy academic books, struggle to focus, have noticed a decline in attention span or are struggling with a high workload.
Writing – 5/10
Applicability – 4/10
Timelessness – 9/10
Shareability – 5/10
The Nitty Gritty
A note on our book ratings
Readability: How easy is it to read and understand what the author is saying? Do you need a dictionary or PhD to understand it?
Writing: How well written is the book? Do you find yourself wowed by the writing or unimpressed?
Applicability: How applicable is this book to daily life? Is there enough advice and actions that are easy to start applying?
Timelessness: Is the content of the book timeless or is it something that in a few years won’t have relevance?
Shareability: How likely are you to share the book?