Animation by Justin Tran

Shifting dimensions

Canceling the noise: How to regain focus after an incredibly chaotic year

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Published on December 16, 2020

Animation by Justin Tran

In 2020, it took more than headphones to get into the zone.

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Time is weird this year. It feels like a decade of chaos has been crammed into the past 9 months. And even when we’re safe inside at home, it’s hard to escape the distraction of news on the global pandemic, the election, civil unrest, and wildfires—to say nothing of the relentless pings from colleagues working all hours. We can turn off notifications, but the messages will still be waiting for us to respond. 

Working from home warps our sense of time, too. Without commutes to bookend the day and discrete spaces for work and life, continuous partial attention is our new mental default. Every day feels like a Monday that never ends. Home isn’t a refuge from work anymore—it’s where everything happens. And never leaving the workplace makes it feel like always being on the job. 

In the middle of a crisis, how can you give anything your undivided attention?

Curb your inbox enthusiasm

Dr. Gloria Mark is Professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. She’s spent years researching the effects of digital media on the mood and behavior of knowledge workers.

As reported in Email Duration, Batching and Self Interruption, her team observed email monitoring behaviors that were somewhere between excessive and obsessive, with people checking email an average of 77 times a day. 

Other researchers observed that 84% of people kept email open in the background all the time. Then when a new message arrived, they’d pounce on it with Pavlovian passion, opening 70% of all emails within 6 seconds of receiving them. 

Her team observed email monitoring behaviors that were somewhere between excessive and obsessive.

You might think the arrival of chat apps and team communication tools would help curtail that compulsive behavior. But as Cal Newport points out in his recent New Yorker article, those tools actually compound the problem: 

“We’re simply not wired to monitor an ongoing stream of unpredictable communication at the same time that we’re trying to also finish actual work.”

In addition, a recent study by Dropbox and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shows that over half of those surveyed spend more time switching between different digital tools while working from home. 

So what can we do to keep technology from taking too much of our attention? We asked Dr. Mark whether more information from more people more often is improving our work or just making us more distracted and disconnected.

Since the pandemic forced us out of our offices, how has it affected our ability to focus? 

GLORIA MARK: I can say anecdotally that we hear of a relationship between the more hours people spend online doing remote work and email interruptions. I think it's because work begets other work. There's always follow ups with email if you have meetings. There's just a lot more email that's promulgating as a result of meetings. 

Now, remember, when people are face to face, a lot of questions can be solved, just dropping into someone's office passing upon in the hall. But all of that informal interaction now has to be explicit and it's usually done in the form of email. 

Batch your email activity

Since you published your research on Email Duration, Batching and Self Interruption in 2016, have you noticed any signs that our relationship to email is changing?

GM: Email is getting worse in the sense that we're just getting more and more. I don't think that Slack is changing things. A lot of people ask me about that. Since then, we did another study in 2019 where we use thermal imaging to measure people's stress by looking at the perinasal region of the face. Basically, people sweat there, and this very precise form of imaging can pick it up. 

We tested two conditions. One where people batched emails. They worked on a set of emails, then switched to do another tab and worked straight to run that test. The other condition was being interrupted by email. We found more stress when people were continually interrupted by email. So it's just more evidence to pile onto evidence we've already collected.

“We did another study in 2019 where we use thermal imaging to measure people's stress... We found more stress when people were continually interrupted by email.”—Dr. Gloria Mark

Do you think this year’s chaotic news cycle has contributed to the problem of being monochronics in a polychronic world because we feel compelled to monitor for updates on the election and wildfires and all of that?

GM: Personally, I know it has. Here's why. We are in front of our computers nearly the entire day now that we’re working remotely. We are so susceptible to all this information that's happening in the world. It's a click away. It just seduces us to check news and see what's going on. We get notifications that pop up into our field of view. So it's very hard to resist finding out what's going on in the world.

Focus on who’s closest

Our EIU study also found that one main distracting factor during WFH is feeling disconnected from colleagues. As digital tools make us more accessible to a larger community of collaborators, do you think having a larger network makes us feel more or less connected?

GM: That's an interesting question. I don't think it's quantity. I think it's the quality of connection. Even though we have this larger network that we can tap into, ultimately, it's really about the close connections that you interact with. 

There’s this notion of Dunbar’s number. In social network theory, people actually have a very small number of people they’re close to in their network. Then you can think of it as concentric circles. If you think of yourself as the center of this network, an ego-centric network, and think of a few close people around you who would who you communicate a lot, you think of another concentric circle around it—people you might consider to be acquaintances you interact with occasionally—then there's another concentric circle around that—people in your network, but you may not communicate with them regularly. 

I think what's happening is that people are being added on to these outer peripheral concentric circles. They’re not really getting into our close circle of friendships.

So they’re less likely to be part of the feed we're seeing on social media, and not necessarily adding more noise?

GM: I would say it depends on what your notification settings are. So if you've got 1000 Facebook friends, and you can see notification of anyone posting, it's a distraction. I'll be honest with you: I used to be a pretty big Facebook user, and I've pulled away over the last couple of years. I don't even know what my notification settings are. I seem to get random notifications—could be from close friends, could be from other people in my Facebook network. So I'm not sure what that algorithm is. The more connections you have, the more chance you have of being interrupted. 

Know your limits

Your research has shown that in the absence of external interruptions, we’ll self interrupt. We seem to be conditioned to have short attention spans. Do you think it's possible for us to recondition ourselves and lengthen our attention spans? 

GM: Sure, it's possible to recondition, but we have so many different forces that we're up against. Willpower is one factor, it's an individual factor, but we've got algorithms, from Facebook, from advertising. We have our basic human nature that's curious and wants to connect with people. There’s a lot of forces that we're fighting against. So it's not just up to willpower alone. 

There are individual differences in people's ability to self regulate. Some people are quite strong in self regulation, and some people are quite weak. We found in our research, kind of half and half. For people who are weak, I think they could use technology support. There are different tools out there that can help. 

“Even though we have this larger network that we can tap into, ultimately, it's really about the close connections that you interact with.”

Two basic classes of tools are those that promote awareness of where you spend your time. Are you spending your time on social media or on productivity apps? The second class of tools is just the cold turkey approach, where you cut off sites that can potentially distract you. That's not for everyone. We have a paper that was published in 2018, that shows if you're a person who's already good at self regulation, using these kinds of tools to cut off cold turkey can actually harm your performance.

These are people who are very good at using social media or news to take online breaks. They're able to take a short break, pull themselves right back and get to work. But if you use tools that take this cold turkey approach, you've cut off their ability to take a break. These tend to be people who are really driven. They score high in what's called conscientiousness, the personality trait. They just work straight through and get burned out. And that's what we found in our research.

Make time for human connection

Recently, some have pointed out how video conferencing may be good for synchronous check ins, but it’s missing the element of human connection that helps people build trust at the beginning of a partnership. Do you think this is a problem that can be solved with technology?

GM: Great question. Well, it partly involves a technology solution, and it partly involves a human solution. In terms of the human solution, we have an association with tools like Zoom, that the purpose is only for meetings, and to exchange work-related information. We generally schedule Zoom meetings for an hour, and you use that hour for conducting business. We don't schedule in time for informal interaction. 

When I meet with my lab, I always schedule in time at the beginning to do check ins. We go around and each person talks about what they did for the last week—how they're feeling, how they're doing. This has actually enabled everyone in the lab to bond together. Some people had never met each other before because I had a post doc who was new, and another person had left to take a faculty position, but still joins the meeting. 

This small action of doing check ins really made a huge difference. It's also created connections so that people can contact each other outside of this formal lab. So that's the human side of it. 

On the technology side, I think people need to have information about the people with whom they're interacting. If I'm going to be on a Zoom meeting, it’s going to be very helpful to know who are the people I’m meeting with. I'd like to have more of the background on [their] personal profile. I think technology can help with that. 

In terms of the communication software itself, I think video has come a long way compared to what we used to do 10 years ago. So that part is good. I see demos of current virtual world systems, which are like Second Life but much more advanced. 

“When I meet with my lab, I always schedule in time at the beginning to do check ins. This small action really made a huge difference.”

What’s your sense of the effectiveness of Second Life-style avatars in virtual reality meetings? 

GM: I don't know. I may be a little jaded because I had studied these virtual worlds a long time ago, when they first came out. I was very excited about them. Then I just found that people lose interest very quickly. You know, there's a novelty aspect. You get very excited, and people are there for a while, then they just don't tend to come back. I guess we'll see if these systems stick. Second Life didn’t stick, but there were a lot of technical problems with Second Life. 

So until we have some new form of technology, it sounds like it’s really up to us to add the human connection by setting a tone of curiosity and empathy to help everyone in the meeting feel relaxed and ready for conversation?

GM: Here's what I recommend. We tend to schedule meetings for one hour. I think we should schedule 10 minutes at the beginning of the hour for a check in, for getting to know each other, and 50 minutes for the meeting. With a good agenda, and a person who's really good at keeping time, you can accomplish what you had originally thought of as taking 60 minutes in 50 minutes.

To learn more about Dr. Mark’s research, check out her interview on the EIU’s In Search of Lost Focus podcast series where she discusses Tactics, Tools and Technologies.