Have you ever felt yourself getting pulled in a dozen directions at once, struggling to focus on any one thing fully? Like your attention and focus was a stretched rubber band about to snap? On the surface, our lives seem faster and busier than ever before. But could there be deeper forces influencing our ability to home in on what matters, go deep, be present, and do good work, without feeling constantly fragmented and fractured?
I know I’ve lost count of the times I’ve looked up from my phone only to wonder, where did the last few hours go? Or tried to multitask through meetings and emails, surfacing with only a hazy memory of what just happened. Or, felt at the whim of notifications and alerts, pulled away from what really lights you up?
We’ve all experienced moments when our attention feels uncontrollably scattered, and we just can’t reel it back in. So, what determines how we focus, why some things grab us while others slip by, and what are the hidden forces influencing our distracted days – these are puzzles I’ve long sought to solve.
In today’s compilation episode, we’re doing a deep dive on focus and attention, sharing selections from wide-ranging conversations with three groundbreaking thinkers who have cracked open the mysteries of attention and focus from different angles. Johann Hari delves into the revelations that set him on an odyssey across America and beyond to uncover the truth about the secret forces that are manipulating our focus in ways we never realized. Neuroscientist Gloria Mark gets granular, revealing insights from meticulous studies of attention spans and habits. And Gretchen Rubin takes us on a journey to decode the four tendencies shaping how we respond to expectations and, in turn, harness our attention and direct it toward action.
Whether you feel your focus fragmenting or want to take back control, these innovators offer wisdom on unseen patterns and actionable strategies. So dive into their illuminating reflections – you never know what insights might spark new questions or possibilities for harnessing your unique attention.
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photo credit: Kathrin Baumbach, Austin Walsh
Johann Hari (00:00:00) – We need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. And I absolutely believe we can do that. We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to accept our minds and our children’s minds being diminished in the way that they are right now. Right. These are relatively recent changes. They are not acts of God. They’re not magic. They’re things that have been done by humans and they’re things that can be undone by humans. But this won’t happen by accident.
Jonathan Fields (00:00:28) – So have you ever felt yourself getting pulled in a dozen directions at once, struggling to focus on any one thing fully? Kind of like your attention and focus was just a stretched rubber band about to snap. On the surface, our lives seem faster and busier than ever before, but could there be deeper forces influencing our ability to really hone in on what matters, to go deep, to be present and do good work without feeling constantly fragmented and fractured? I know I have lost count of the times that I’ve looked up from my phone only to wonder where did the last few hours go? Or try to multitask my way through meetings or emails, even though I know you shouldn’t be doing that, surfacing with just this hazy memory of what just happened, or maybe felt the whim of notifications or alerts pulled away from what really lights you up.
Jonathan Fields (00:01:17) – We have all experienced moments where our attention feels almost uncontrollably scattered and we just can’t reel it back in. So what determines how we focused? Why some things grab us while others slip by? And maybe what are the hidden forces influencing our distracted days? These are the puzzles I have long sought to solve, and in today’s powerful compilation episode, we’re doing a deep dive on focus and attention sharing selections from wide ranging conversations with three really groundbreaking thinkers who have cracked open the mysteries of attention and focus from different angles. Johann Hari delves into the revelations that set him on an odyssey to uncover the truth about the forces that are often manipulating our focus in ways we never realized. Neuroscientist Gloria Mark gets granular, revealing insights from meticulous studies of attention span and habits. And Gretchen Rubin takes us on a journey to decode the four tendencies shaping how we respond to expectations and in turn, harness our attention and directed towards action. So whether you feel your focus fragmenting or just want to take back control, these innovators offer genuine wisdom on unseen patterns and actionable strategies.
Jonathan Fields (00:02:31) – So dive into their illuminating reflections. You never know what insight might spark new questions or possibilities for harnessing your unique attention. So excited to share this conversation with you. I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project. So our first guest is Johann Hari, an internationally bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist. Johann grew up in London, the son of a bus driver and nurse and studied at Cambridge. His books have been translated into 40 languages and praised by thought leaders worldwide. But it was a revelation at Graceland, of all places, that propelled him on an investigative odyssey across cultures and continents, uncovering some pretty shocking truths about about the hidden habits warping our focus. And Johann shares some pretty gripping tales from his travels into the realm of focus, with surprising findings revealed by top researchers. You’ll learn how technology has optimised distraction and really what must change to reclaim our attention. So whether you feel pulled in 100 directions or want to just take back control, Johan’s transformational journey just might spark your own awakening. So here’s Johann.
Jonathan Fields (00:03:45) – There was also it sounds like there was an inciting incident even before you decide to go deep into attention and before you have this really fascinating three month experience in Providence, which was the relationship with your godson, who had this sort of obsession with Elvis, that I guess a little bit later in life when he was struggling a little bit, led to this moment with you that awakened you to the fact that something’s happening around here. Talk me through that experience a bit.
Johann Hari (00:04:14) – Yeah, Well, when he was nine, my godson developed this brief but freakishly intense obsession with Elvis Presley. I never even discovered how he found out who he was. And it was particularly cute because he didn’t know that Elvis had become a cheesy cliché. So I think he was the last person in the history of Western civilization to do an entirely sincere impression of Elvis. And when I talked to him at night, he would get me to tell him the story of Elvis’s life again and again. And I tried to skip over the bit at the end where Elvis dies on the toilet, obviously.
Johann Hari (00:04:45) – And one night I was tucking him in and I mentioned Graceland, where Elvis lived. And he said to me, Johan, will you take me to Graceland one day? And I said, Sure, in the way you do with nine year olds knowing next week it will be Disneyland or whatever. And he said, No. Do you really promise? Do you swear one day you’re going to take me to Graceland? And I said, I absolutely promise. And I didn’t think at that moment again. For ten years until so many things had gone wrong. He dropped out of school when he was 15, and by the time he was 19, he spent literally. This is not an exaggeration. Almost literally, every waking moment alternating between his iPad and his iPhone and his life was just this blur of WhatsApp, YouTube, pornography, the social media sites. And it was almost like he was kind of whirring at the speed of Snapchat where nothing still or serious could touch him. And one day we were sitting on my sofa just next to where I’m talking to you now.
Johann Hari (00:05:43) – And I’ve been trying to talk to him all day and just nothing was getting any traction. And to be totally honest with you. I wasn’t that much better. I was staring at my own devices and I suddenly remembered this moment all those years before. And I said to him, Hey, let’s go to Graceland. And he looked at me completely blankly. He didn’t remember this. And I reminded him and I said, no, let’s let’s break this numbing routine. Let’s go all over the South. But you’ve got to promise me one thing, which is that when we go, you’ll leave your phone in the hotel during the day. And he thought about it and he said, Yeah, I could see that breaking this routine really appealed to him. And I think it was two two weeks later, we took off from Heathrow in London to to New Orleans where we started. And a couple of weeks later, we arrived at the gates of Graceland. And when you get there, this is even before Covid.
Johann Hari (00:06:32) – There’s no one to show you around. What happens is they hand you an iPad and you put in some earbuds and the iPad shows you around. It says, go left, go right. It tells you a story about that room. And everywhere you go that every room you go into, there’s a picture of that room on the iPad. So what happens is everyone just walks around Graceland staring at their iPads. And I’m getting sort of slightly irritated by this. And we got to the jungle Room, which was Elvis’s favorite room in Graceland. It’s full of fake plants. And there was a Canadian couple next to us and the husband turned to his wife and said. Honey, this is amazing. Look, if you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right. And. And I laughed out loud. I thought he was kidding. And I turn and watch them and they’re just swiping back and forth. And I.
Johann Hari (00:07:22) – I leaned over and I said, But hey, sir, there’s an old fashioned form of swiping you could do. It’s called turning your head. Because, look, we’re in the jungle room. You don’t need to look at it on your iPad. We’re actually there. And they looked at me like I was completely deranged and backed out of the room. And I turned to my godson to laugh about it. And he was standing in the corner of the room staring at Snapchat because from the minute we landed, he couldn’t stop. And I went up to him and I did something that’s never a good idea with teenagers. I tried to grab the phone out of his hand and I said, I know you’re afraid of missing out. But this is guaranteeing that you’ll miss out. You’re not showing up at your own life. You’re not present at your own existence. And he stormed off. So I wandered around Memphis on my own for the rest of the day. And I found him that night at the Heartbreak Hotel where we were staying, just down the street.
Johann Hari (00:08:14) – And he was sitting by the swimming pool. And I went up to him and he was just kind of scrolling. He didn’t look up at me, but I apologized and and he carried on staring at Snapchat. But he said, I know something’s really wrong here. And I don’t know what it is. And I realized I we we had come away to try to deal with this crisis in being present. But that crisis was everywhere. They felt like there was no escape. So let’s look at an obvious example that it will be playing out for virtually everyone who’s listening today unless they’re very fortunate. I went to interview a man named Professor Earl Miller at MIT, who’s one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, and he said to me, There’s one thing you need to understand about the human brain more than anything else. You can only consciously think about 1 or 2 things at a time. That’s it. This is a great meta attentional insight. That’s it. This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain.
Johann Hari (00:09:09) – And the human brain is not significantly changed in 40,000 years. It’s not going to change on any timescale any of us are going to see. You can only think about 1 or 2 things at a time. But what’s happened is we’ve fallen for a mass delusion. The average American teenager now believes they can follow 6 or 7 forms of media at the same time. So what happens is scientists get people into labs, not just teenagers, adults as well, older people as well. And they get them to think they’re doing more than one thing at a time. And what they discover is always the same. You can’t do more than one thing at a time. What you do is you juggle very quickly between tasks, your consciousness, papers over it. You don’t quite you’re not aware of it, but you’re switching. You’re switching, switching, switching. What? What did he just ask me? What was that on the television there? What’s this message on WhatsApp? Wait, what did he just ask me again? You’re juggling and it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost.
Johann Hari (00:09:57) – The technical term for that cost is the switch cost effect. When you try and do more than one thing at a time, you will do all the things you’re trying to you’re trying to do much less competently. You’ll make more mistakes, you’ll remember less of what you do, you’ll be less creative. And this sounds like a small effect. It’s a really big effect. And I’ll give you an example from a small study that’s backed by a very small study that’s backed by a much wider body of evidence. Hewlett-Packard, the printer company, got a scientist in to study their workforce, and he split the workers into two groups. And the first group was told, just get on with your task, whatever it is, and you’re not going to be interrupted. And the second group is told, get on with your task, whatever it is. But you’re going to have to answer a heavy load of email and phone calls. And at the end of it, this scientist tested the IQ of both these small groups, the group that had not been interrupted scored on average ten IQ points higher than the group that had been interrupted.
Johann Hari (00:10:51) – To give you a sense of how big that effect is, if you or me got stoned together, now you’re in Colorado. It’s legal. If we sat down and smoked a fat spliff together, our IQs would go down in the short term by five points. So in the short term, you’d be better off sitting at your desk, getting stoned and not being interrupted than sitting at your desk, not getting stoned and being interrupted all the time. Now, to be clear, you’d be better off neither getting stoned nor being interrupted, obviously. But you get a sense of how big this effect is. This is why Professor Miller said to me, We live in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of all these interruptions. But what you’re getting at in your question, which is so important, is we are currently using technology that is designed to maximally interrupters, right? This isn’t my view. Listen to Sean Parker, who was one of the biggest initial investors in Facebook. He said, We designed Facebook to maximally distract people and invade their attention.
Johann Hari (00:11:46) – We knew what we were doing and we did it anyway. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains. That’s what they say. And it’s really important to understand this mechanism because actually it should really give us hope, You know, the way big Tech want us to think about this debate is are you pro tech or are you anti tech? Right. And of course, we’re not going to give up our tech. We’re not going to join the Amish, nor would I want us to. No disrespect to any Amish people who are listening. I guess they’re cheating if they are. And that’s not the debate. The question is not are you protec or anti tech? The question is what tech designed for what purpose is working, in whose interests? So at the moment social media has been designed around one particular business model. It does not have to work that way. So I interviewed loads of people in Silicon Valley who designed key aspects of the technology, as in our kids use all the time.
Johann Hari (00:12:35) – Right? And it took a long time for them explaining it for me to really understand this. So let’s say anyone listening, if you don’t do it, but if you open Facebook now or TikTok or Twitter or any of the social media, social media accounts, apps, they start to make money in two ways straight away. The first way is really obvious. You see ads, okay, everyone listening knows how that works. The second way is much more important. Everything you do on those apps is scanned and sorted by the artificial intelligence algorithms of those apps to build up a picture of who you are. So let’s say that you clicked that you like, I don’t know, Bette Midler, Bernie Sanders, and you tell your mom you just bought some diapers. Okay, So it figures out you like Bette Midler and you’re a man. You’re probably gay. You like Bernie Sanders, you’re probably leftwing and you’re talking about buying diapers. You must have a baby. So they’re building up a portrait of you.
Johann Hari (00:13:26) – They’ve got tens of thousands of data points like that. They know who you are, and that’s partly so they can sell you to advertisers your attention. They want to sell all this information so advertisers can target you because you are not the customer of these apps. You are the product they sell to the real customer who’s the advertiser. But more importantly, they’re also learning the weaknesses in your attention so they can keep feeding you the things that will keep you scrolling, because the more frequently you pick up your phone. And the longer you scroll, the more money they make. So all these engineers in Silicon Valley, all these algorithms, all this engineering genius is built towards one thing figuring out how can I get you to pick up your phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible. But what’s important to understand is social media doesn’t have to work that way. There’s a different way social media can work that’s entirely achievable. And there’s an analogy in American history that really helped me to think about this alternative.
Johann Hari (00:14:25) – And you’ll remember it. I remember it from when I was a kid. So not that long ago, the standard form of gasoline in the United States was leaded petrol, leaded gasoline. And a bit before, before my time, people used to paint their homes with leaded paint and it was discovered that exposure to lead is incredibly bad for your brain and particularly bad for children’s ability to focus and pay attention. So what happened? A group of ordinary moms that was mostly mothers banded together and said, Why are we allowing this? Why are we allowing these companies to ruin our children’s brains? This is crazy. And it’s important to notice what they didn’t say. They didn’t say So we’re anti gasoline. They didn’t say so. We’re anti paint. They didn’t say ban all gasoline and ban or paint. That would have been ridiculous. They said let’s ban the specific component in the gasoline and in the lead that is harming our kids attention. They fought they fought for years. They succeeded. As a result, the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, has calculated that the average American child is 3 to 5 IQ points higher than they would have been had had not been banned.
Johann Hari (00:15:27) – Right. So you can see to me, this is a really important model. We identify something in the environment that’s banning this, harming our attention. We band together to act on the science. We get rid of that component while retaining the good stuff that was around that component in the same way. So Asa Raskin, who invented a key part of how the Internet works, his dad, Jeff Raskin, invented the Apple Macintosh for Steve Jobs. As I said to me, you know, there’s an equivalent to the lead in the lead paint, he said Ban the current business model for social media. What the kind of fancy term for it is surveillance capitalism. He said. Just just say that a model, a business model that is based on tracking you, surveilling you in order to figure out the weaknesses in your attention, hack them. That’s just inhuman. Don’t allow it. And lots of people had to say this to me before I really absorbed it. And I remember saying to Azar, okay, let’s imagine we do that.
Johann Hari (00:16:21) – We ban the current business model. And I open Facebook the next day. Would it just say. You know. Sorry, everyone. We’ve gone fishing, he said. Of course not. What would happen is they’d have to move to a different business model. And everyone listening has experience of the two different business models. Almost everyone. The first is subscription. Okay, Everyone knows how Netflix works. You pay a small amount, you get access to another model. Think about the sewers. Before we had sewers, we had feces in the street. We got cholera. So now we all pay. For the sewers to be built and maintained. And we all own the sewers together. You own the sewers in Boulder? I own the sewers in London and Las Vegas, the cities where I live. We own the sewers in the places where we live. It may be that just like we want to own the sewage pipes together, we want to own the information pipes together because we’re getting the equivalent of cholera for our attention.
Johann Hari (00:17:15) – Now, whatever the alternative business model we choose is, the important thing to understand is all the incentives change. At the moment. The incentives for social media companies are to figure out how do we get you and your kids to pick up your phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible. But in these different models, suddenly you become the customer. They have to go, What does Johan want? Oh, turns out Johan wants to be able to pay attention. Let’s design our app. Not to hack his attention, but to heal his attention. Oh, turns out Johan wants to meet up with his friends offline because people feel good when they look into each other’s eyes rather than scroll it staring through screens. Okay, let’s design it to help people meet up offline rather than to prevent them from meeting up. Like that’s incredibly technologically easy. My friends in Silicon Valley could do that tomorrow. The key thing is we have to get the incentives right to do it, and we can do that right.
Johann Hari (00:18:02) – There’s no more leaded paint. You know, just to say one last thing on this, James Williamson I mentioned before said to me, you know, the axe existed for 1.4 million years before anyone thought to put a handle on it. The entire Internet has existed for less than 10,000 days. We can get this stuff right if we want to. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:18:20) – And when you describe it this way, it all makes sense. And I think we all feel like we’ve been living in that matrix for like a chunk of time now.
Johann Hari (00:18:28) – The fact that it’s happening everywhere, the same kind of polarization tells you that there are similar underlying mechanisms. So it’s not just that we have to deal with these this business model because it is harming our individual attention. As Facebook’s own data scientists said, it is causing such polarization that it’s destroying our ability to collectively pay attention to our problems, to talk to each other, to listen to each other and to solve problems. You know, I think a lot about you know, you’ll remember this.
Johann Hari (00:18:55) – I remember it well as a kid, the ozone layer crisis. Right? So younger listeners might not remember this, but in the 80s, there was a chemical called CFCs that were in hairsprays and fridges. And we loved our hairsprays in the 80s that were going into the atmosphere. And it turned out they were causing they were damaging the ozone layer, which was a protective layer of ozone that surrounds the planet and protects us from the sun’s rays. And it was causing a a hole in the ozone layer above the Arctic. So what happened? That science was discovered. It was explained to the public who were able to distinguish the truth from nonsense, lies, conspiracy theories. The public pressured their political leaders all over the world. Very different kinds of governments from Margaret Thatcher to the communist Soviet Union, all in response to that pressure banned CFCs and now the ozone layer is healing. Right now, I do not believe if the ozone layer crisis happened now that we would respond in anything like the same way, I think you would get some people who would do the right thing and say act on the science, and they’d wear little ozone layer badges on their lapels and they’d build a whole identity around it.
Johann Hari (00:20:01) – You would get other people who would say, How do we even know the ozone layer exists? How do we even know it’s there? Maybe George Soros made the hole in the ozone layer, maybe evil Jewish space lasers made the hole in the ozone layer. All sorts of mad filth would start being said and we would just not be able to act at all, you know? So it’s really important that I don’t want to be nostalgic about the 80s There are lots of things wrong in the 80s, but we’ve got to deal with these mechanisms because if we don’t deal with this, we can’t. How can we get anything done right if we can’t talk to each other, listen and and think rationally, we’re screwed.
Jonathan Fields (00:20:33) – Yeah. You know, I think at the end of the day comes down to something I say on a fairly regular basis. Attention is life, the quality and depth of our attention, I think in no small part determines the quality and depth and lift of our lives individually and collectively. And I think this is really what you’re speaking to and coming at from all these different angles and also saying it’s not just about you.
Jonathan Fields (00:20:56) – Yes, there are things that you can do in your individual life, but let’s zoom the lens out and let’s talk about collectively what’s really going on here and let’s do some reimagining. And I definitely encourage folks to dive into this piece of work because it really lays out in a lot of detail in your book what’s really going on and also offers a whole bunch of like and it’s not fatalistic. Also, it says this is a tough moment, but there’s hope and there are things that we can do and there are examples out there.
Johann Hari (00:21:23) – I’m profoundly optimistic that we can deal with this. You know, And when I get pessimistic, when sometimes people say to me, look, these forces are really powerful, right? I always say to them, this might sound strange, but when they say that to me, I think a lot about my grandmothers, who I loved very deeply. You know, my grandmothers were the age I am now in 1963. One of them was a working class Scottish woman living in what, in the US we’d call a housing project.
Johann Hari (00:21:47) – And the other one was a Swiss woman living in a wooden hut on the side of a mountain. And in 1963, when they were the age I am now, neither of them were allowed to have bank accounts because they were married women. Their husbands had to control the bank account. It was legal for their husbands to rape them as it was legal in every country in the world for a man to rape his wife. And my Swiss grandmother wasn’t even allowed to vote. She could get the vote until 1970, right? And I think about their lives and how disfigured their lives were by sexism and misogyny. My grandmothers never got to have the lives they should have had. You know, my Swiss grandmother loved to paint and draw, and they told her to shut up and get into the kitchen. And then I think about my niece’s life. Now, I don’t want to underestimate how far we’ve got to go or how much backlash is happening. But when my niece loved to paint and draw, we didn’t tell her to shut up and get into the kitchen.
Johann Hari (00:22:36) – We started Googling art schools. Right? Even the craziest. Deranged right wing congressman for some crazy place. Wouldn’t dream of saying that it should be legal for my niece to be raped and she shouldn’t be allowed to have a bank account and she shouldn’t have to vote. Right. That would be unthinkable. Right. And and so when people say to me, look, these forces, you’re saying we have to take on a really powerful I say to you, I say to them, you’re damn right they’re not 100th as powerful as men were in 1963. Men controlled literally every institution of power in the world, every company, every country, everything. Right. And they had ever since those institutions have been created, except for a few hereditary queens along the way. Right. The women of that generation did not give up. They got up and they fought and they said, we’re not going to take this anymore. And I argue in the book, other stress again, there are dozens of things we can do as individuals right now in our individual lives.
Johann Hari (00:23:33) – And I’m strongly in favor of all of that. And I talk about it. I argue that to deal with this in the medium to long term, we just like we needed a need, a feminist movement for women to reclaim their bodies in their lives. We need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. And I absolutely believe we can do that. We don’t have to tolerate this. We don’t have to accept. Our minds. And our children’s minds being diminished in the way that they are right now. Right. These are relatively recent changes. They are not acts of God. They’re not, you know, magic. They’re things that have been done by humans and they’re things that can be undone by humans. But this won’t happen by accident if we just do nothing. If all of us do nothing. Look, these forces will continue to pillage and raiders and they’ll get better and better at it. And they’re already pretty damn good at it, right? But they’re not gods. Mark Zuckerberg is a rather weak and mediocre person.
Johann Hari (00:24:30) – Right. We no disrespect to him, he’s not the devil, but he’s also not that impressive. We can push back against this if we want to, right? We can absolutely deal with this. But we have to understand the 12 underlying causes. Obviously, we’ve touched on a few. We have to deeply understand and we have to follow the example of those mothers who didn’t allow their kids to be poisoned with lead. Right. There was a lot of lead. The lead industry was really powerful. They didn’t just say, Oh, well, what can we do? Let’s individually try to dust our homes more. They took on these forces and as a result, you know, they won, right? We can win this one, but we have to fight. Elizabeth Warren said once, you don’t get what you don’t fight for. And of course, she meant peacefully fighting. Whether you agree with Elizabeth Warren’s politics or not, the principle is absolutely right. You don’t get what you don’t fight for.
Jonathan Fields (00:25:17) – Yeah, powerful point. Feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. So as we zoom the lens out a little bit and sit here in this container of Good Life project, if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Johann Hari (00:25:34) – To live a good life, you have to have a mixture of, you know, we want speed and fuzziness and distraction. That’s a healthy part of life. But you have to have space to think deeply and reflect and rest. You know, think about something as basic as we sleep 20% less than we did a century ago, right? We’re denying ourselves even the most basic physical need for sleep. Right. Which is having a disastrous effect on our attention. As Dr. Charles Sisler at Harvard Medical School said to me, even if nothing else had changed but that we sleep 20% less than we used to. That alone would be causing a huge crisis in our attention and focus. So a good life is a life where we have depth as well as buzzy moments of excitement and speed.
Johann Hari (00:26:15) – Right. I’m not I’m not, you know, telling everyone to go into their room and read a book all the time. We want to have both. Almost everyone wants to have both. They want to be able to think deeply and they want to have moments of fun and buzz and speed. Right. And we’ve gone way too far towards everything being. Vast acceleration, constant switching, and we can recalibrate and we have to recalibrate.
Jonathan Fields (00:26:39) – Thank you.
Johann Hari (00:26:40) – I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much. I meant to say on my publishers Tase Me that the book is available as an audiobook, e-book or physical book and people can get it at Stolen Focus book or I’m meant to say any good bookstore, but the truth is you can also get it at like shitty bookstores. We don’t have like a quality test where we don’t like you can also on the website Stolen BBC.com you can listen for free to audio of conversations with loads of the experts that we’ve mentioned here in Lismore that we we haven’t mentioned as well.
Johann Hari (00:27:04) – Awesome.
Jonathan Fields (00:27:05) – Love that. Hooray. So Johan’s story really ignites curiosity around hidden habits of focus by understanding these unseen influences. As his journey showed, we can gain empowering insights. Our next guest is Dr. Gloria Mark, Chancellor’s Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. And for over 15 years, she has taken a granular look at how technology impacts focus through rigorous studies from her extensive research examining distraction, multitasking and moods online. She really seeks to understand attention in physics like precision, and by closely observing everything from how long we really spend on each task to correlating interruptions with stress levels, she gets technical with attention to reveal hidden habits. So whether you feel perpetually pulled in a dozen directions or want to optimize focus, her findings just may crack the code on what’s fracturing our most fleeting yet precious resource attention itself. Here’s Gloria. The topic of attention, I think is on everybody’s mind for a lot of different reasons and a lot of different ways. There’s been a lot of conversation around it in recent years. You lead with a stat in speaking on your website in the book, which is around some research that you’ve done, which is that it’s kind of a mind boggling stat that the average person spends just 47 seconds on any screen before shifting their attention.
Jonathan Fields (00:28:28) – Tell me more about this.
Gloria Mark (00:28:30) – Let me start by saying that I’ve been tracking attention spans for a long time, and I started tracking them back in around 2004. This is before we had sophisticated computer logging techniques and we would follow people around with stopwatches. My goal was to get objective measures of attention spans as opposed to having people simply self-report and say, Oh, I think my attention span is this We wanted to get really solid measures. We started by using these stopwatches, which, as you can imagine, is very labor intensive. But then we switched to computer logging techniques. And, you know, over the last five, six years, we find that attention spans average about 47 seconds on any screen. This has been replicated by other people as well. One person found 50s on average, another person found 44 seconds on average. I’ve also done multiple studies where I get very close to this 47 mark and taking all these studies together, average is 47 seconds. So it’s really short. And if we look at the midpoint of our observations, midpoint means median.
Gloria Mark (00:29:56) – Maybe some people are familiar with that term. That’s 40s. And that means that half of all of our observations that we find are 40s or less. So we have this finding that people’s attention is very dynamic. They’re shifting screens, they’re whether it’s on their computer or phone. And I call this kind of behavior kinetic, kinetic, referring to being very dynamic, you know, as opposed to having long sustained focus.
Jonathan Fields (00:30:30) – Yeah, that’s a very kind label for that quality of attention. There are a lot of other words and I think we probably can think about.
Gloria Mark (00:30:39) – Most people tend to think of there being two states of attention being focused or unfocused. And when I first started studying this, I realized that sometimes we can be very engaged with something and it requires a lot of mental effort so we can be very challenged. If I’m reading something difficult, reading tax law, which is not a favorite thing of mine, but something you know, I’ve had to do it really involves a lot of challenge for me.
Gloria Mark (00:31:13) – There’s other things we do where we can be very engaged and not at all challenged, like when we’re playing solitaire or you’re playing some computer game or you know, you’re doing some simple activity outside. We call that rote attention, right? You’re very engaged, but you’re not at all challenged in what you’re doing. It’s easy. What you’re doing is very easy if you’re not engaged and not challenged. We call that boredom. It’s a state of boredom. And if you’re challenged but not engaged, we call that frustration. An example is when I have a tech problem. Right? It’s very challenging for me and I’m just not engaged. It’s hard for me to stay engaged with trying to fix that. So people switch among all these different. Types of attention throughout the day. And it turns out that the focused attention when you’re engaged and challenged. It tends to have a rhythm throughout the day. We find there to be two peaks mid to late morning, and then there’s another peak mid to late afternoon. And what we did was we we probed people on their computers and phones throughout the day and we just asked them two very simple questions How engaged were you in the thing you were just doing and how challenged were you? And so we were able to get a range of these kinds of responses throughout the day across lots of people for multiple days.
Gloria Mark (00:32:53) – And we could map it out onto these different types of attention that I talked about. And we find there to be these peaks of focus time in the morning and afternoon, and it corresponds to the ebb and flow of the limited attentional resources that we have.
Jonathan Fields (00:33:14) – One of the other things that you talk about and you write about is this notion of multitasking. And I’ve heard so many different takes on this, and it’s fascinating how this would fold into a conversation around attention. And in a world where it seems like the pace of everything is accelerating, expectations about productivity and what you quote should be able to get accomplished is accelerating and being heightened as much as I think so many of us have heard. Well, multitasking is actually less effective and creates a lot more wasted time and switching costs and ramping times, it’s still the dominant mode that we operate in. What’s happening here?
Gloria Mark (00:33:56) – First of all, people, by and large are monochromatic. And that means people prefer to do one thing at a time before moving on to something else.
Gloria Mark (00:34:09) – The problem is that we live in a polychromatic world. We live in a world that puts demands on us to behave in polychromatic ways. Polychromatic means switching among different tasks or multitasking. So, you know, in a workplace, of course we would all love to do monochromatic work, but we get emails, we have people coming into the office, we have meetings that we have to attend to. We get phone calls. We’re constantly switching our attention based on the demands of the environment. And so it’s like we’re we’re square pegs with our preferences forced into round holes to do something that’s just not basic to our natures. Now, you talked about is multitasking a good thing? It’s not a good thing. First of all, multitasking does not mean that we’re doing two things fully in parallel, right? What we’re actually doing is switching our attention. Now, if one of those things is automatic, like you can walk and text, walking is automatic, sure, you can do two things at the same time.
Gloria Mark (00:35:24) – But if two things require some kind of mental effort, you can’t. What we’re doing instead is we’re switching our attention sometimes rapidly. So, you know, being in a Zoom meeting, I think many people have had the experience. You’re in Zoom and you’re trying to do your email at the same time and you’re switching back and forth.
Jonathan Fields (00:35:44) – Because no one in our community. But we’ve heard about VR. Sure, of.
Gloria Mark (00:35:47) – Course, never. We’re completely innocent. And, you know, sure, it seems to work fine until your name is called on and it’s time for you to answer a question or report. You have no idea what had been going on in the meeting. It’s because your attention was on your email. So when people multitask, there’s three things that why it’s that number one is people make more errors. We know that from decades of research in the laboratory. We know from real world studies, studies of nurses and physicians show that they make more errors when they switch their attention, when they multitask.
Gloria Mark (00:36:31) – Physicians make more prescribing errors when they’re multitasking, which is, you know, quite concerning, pilots make more errors. We also know that and you mentioned the idea of a switch cost, that every time we switch our attention to something else, we have to reorient to that new task. And the best way I can describe what’s going on is by using a metaphor. Imagine you have a whiteboard inside your mind and every time you move to a new task, you need a representation of what? The task is about what information you need, the way you’re going to work on it, and you write that information onto this whiteboard in your mind and then suddenly you’re switching to do something else, like checking email. You’re erasing that whiteboard of your mind and writing the new information that you need to do email, right? You need to understand who the sender is and what you should delete and what you should respond to. And then suddenly you switch to do something else. You’re raising that model of email and writing new information, but in the same way that we can’t always completely erase a whiteboard in real life, we can’t always fully erase the content in our mind, the whiteboard in our mind, and sometimes it leaves a residue and, you know, imagine that you read some really upsetting news article and then you want to go back to work.
Gloria Mark (00:38:06) – That emotion can stay with us and interfere with our task at hand. The time it takes for us to be doing this switching, that is the switch cost and it takes longer for us to perform multiple tasks compared to if we just did one right after the other. But the real nail in the coffin is that multitasking increases stress, and we know that there is a causal effect. We know that when people are switching their attention fast, their stress goes up. Laboratory studies show that blood pressure increases when people multitask. There’s a physiological marker in the body that increases when people multitask. And we found in our research, when people wear heart rate monitors, which provides a measure of stress, that when we correlate that with attention switching, we find that stress goes up. In fact, we try to control for all the things we can think of that can create stress. Things like job role, job demands, gender. And even after controlling for that, we find that stress increases. So it’s not a good bet to do multitasking.
Jonathan Fields (00:39:27) – One of the other myths that I thought was really interesting is around the notion of flow. I think this was a concept that a lot of us have experienced. It was popularized by Mahalakshmi Hai and and it’s this state of absolute absorption people experience almost on a level of bliss, and it’s become held up in culture as this. It’s like it’s the ultimate aspiration. It’s the ultimate state to aspire to. Bit of a different lens on this.
Gloria Mark (00:39:53) – I do. And first of all, the notion of flow is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as the optimal experience. It’s when people are extremely creative. You’re so deeply immersed in something that time doesn’t seem to matter. It sounds great, right? And it is great, but it’s also not realistic. And let me explain what I mean by that. Before I entered the field of psychology, I actually was an artist. So I had studied art and I used to get into Flow regularly when I worked in my studio. And, you know, sometimes hours would go by and then all of a sudden I would notice, oh my gosh, it’s like 2 or 3:00 in the morning.
Gloria Mark (00:40:43) – I probably should should get home. And so I would enter Flow regularly. And it was the nature of the work that I did that enabled me to enter a flow state because art is inherently creative. And if you talk with people who play music or people who do sports or dancers or people who have a hobby like doing woodworking, it’s very easy to enter a flow state, right? These are inherently creative activities. But if you’re a person who does knowledge work and and a lot of the work that we do during the day is not necessarily conducive to flow. So what do I do? I conduct research, I analyze data, I write papers, I interview people. All of these activities involve my doing analytical thinking, right? I have to work hard to concentrate on what I’m doing, but it doesn’t necessarily get me into flow. Occasionally, if I’m brainstorming with someone, I might get into flow, but most of the time I don’t expect to. And I’ve studied lots and lots of knowledge workers.
Gloria Mark (00:42:07) – Over the years. And people report the same kinds of things that maybe in a group brainstorming session they might get into flow. If you’re doing complex coding, people can get into flow. But for most of the kinds of activities that people do, especially when we use our devices, it’s not realistic to expect that we get into flow. But I want to point out it’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t mean that it’s not rewarding or fulfilling. It can be extremely fulfilling. I mean, the work I do is is so rewarding, but I’m not in flow and I can recognize the difference from when I was an artist and got into flow regularly.
Jonathan Fields (00:42:52) – Now that makes sense. So it’s less about there’s you’re not saying there isn’t value in this state, it’s just the realistic nature of the way that so many people work, especially in a knowledge work related field. There are a lot of hurdles to being able to to enter into that place and then stay there for any meaningful amount of time. So it makes it I almost wonder if the aspiration at that point then becomes more abundant frustration because it’s just like, well, I should be there.
Jonathan Fields (00:43:18) – I strive to be there, but I just can’t. So maybe there’s something wrong with me or what I’m doing. Yeah, it’s an interesting frame.
Gloria Mark (00:43:25) – I think the same thing. I think that there are these expectations that we should be getting into flow, and if we can’t, there’s something wrong with us. Maybe we’re not creative people. And I would say no, of course you’re a creative person, but put yourself in a different situation that gives you an opportunity to experience flow. You know, play music, play sports. I mean, there’s a lot of opportunities to experience doing rock climbing. You can experience flow. Flow is really about experiencing the right balance of using your skill and also having the right amount of challenge. If you’re watching a Netflix movie that’s not being in flow, right, it’s really about something that people are performing, something they’re doing. But, you know, I have to emphasize that if you don’t get into flow for anyone who expects that they should and feels guilty about it, it’s an unrealistic expectation to think that we should be in flow so often.
Gloria Mark (00:44:34) – So let’s think about what might be more realistic, which is understanding what your personal rhythm of attention is and leveraging that and designing your day so that you’re doing the hardest work and the work that requires the most creativity for those times when your attention is at its peak and you will perform well and you’ll feel rewarded.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:00) – Yeah, no, I love that piece of advice. It feels like a good place for us to come full circle in our conversation as well. And I always wrap up with the same question. I’m curious what your thoughts are in this container of the Good Life Project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?
Gloria Mark (00:45:17) – I think it’s so important to be with people. People you love, people You have deep friendships with, people with who you feel safe and can be creative with. There’s probably nothing I love more than just being creative around other people. So for me, that’s a good life to be just surrounded by people you love. You can be creative with.
Jonathan Fields (00:45:47) – Thank you. So I love how Gloria shares such illuminating details into attention puzzles through her meticulous studies. Her findings genuinely spark curiosity around optimising this elusive focus. Our next and final guest is best selling author Gretchen Rubin. Through her exhaustive studies of habit and human nature, she discovered what she calls the four distinct tendencies that shape expectations. And her breakthrough work reveals how unseen patterns impact every domain from deadline dashes to New Year’s resolutions. By delving into literature and meeting with Nobel laureates, she leverages multidisciplinary lenses to really see hidden behaviors with new eyes, and now she helps others understand their tendencies too, through illuminating books and podcasts. So whether you feel at the whim of forces, you can’t name or want self-awareness, Gretchen’s work and her approach and words just may help crack your innate codes around how you direct your attention. Here’s Gretchen. So I kind of want to dive right in with you because you’ve been working on something that has fascinated you for a long time now, and it kind of grew out of your last book.
Jonathan Fields (00:46:56) – Yes. So tell me what happened here.
Gretchen Rubin (00:46:59) – So I was I set out to write a book about habit change, which ended up being my book better than before. And so I was like, okay, well, what are the secrets of habit change? Like, how can people change their habits? And as I got into it, I started noticing, so first of all, I noticed, okay, there is no magic, one size fits all answer. And if somebody tells you that you should do it for 30 days or do it first thing in the morning or all the.
Jonathan Fields (00:47:22) – Books tell you that I.
Gretchen Rubin (00:47:23) – Know, but there’s not. It’s like it all depends on you. So what I learned was that it really depends on you and that there are 21 strategies that people can use to make or break their habits. And so that thought I was getting. But the thing that was puzzling me, kind of the deeper pattern that was puzzling me was people kept saying certain things to me that didn’t ring true for me personally.
Gretchen Rubin (00:47:42) – So they were kind of they were sort of striking me because they didn’t they were saying things that I didn’t identify with, but they were saying it as if they thought it was like a universal truth. And they were saying exactly the same thing. Like it was uncanny how all different people of all different personalities would say these similar things. And I was trying to figure out the pattern because it clearly had a lot to do with habits. So, for instance, when I would talk because I am kind of like a happiness bully, as my sister calls me. And so I would constantly be talking to people about their habits when they could change them, when they couldn’t change them. And so there was a group of people who all said something like, Well, I can always take time for other people, but I can’t take time for myself. And that struck me because I don’t feel that way. I don’t feel like that’s true for me. And then there was another group of people when I would say something like, Well, how do you feel about New Year’s resolutions? They would say, Well, I would keep a New Year’s resolution if I wanted to, but I wouldn’t do it on January 1st because January 1st is an arbitrary date.
Gretchen Rubin (00:48:36) – And I was like, Huh? It never really bothered me that it’s arbitrary. Like they all use that word that really struck me. And then I had this conversation. I had several kind of like epiphany style conversations, but one, I was at a cocktail party and a woman said to me, We were talking about habits. And she said, Well, I don’t I don’t want to have any habits. I don’t want to have routines. I don’t want to lock myself in. And I said to her, Well, for me, discipline is my freedom. And I really believe that that is true for me. And she looked at me like I was nuts. And she said, That doesn’t make any sense because freedom means no rules. And I was like, Wow, we really see the world in a different way. And then I realized we do see the world in a different way. And I began to see how people fell into these very big four categories that explained why they were saying these things to me and why this was showing up in their habits.
Gretchen Rubin (00:49:25) – And it was showing up in lots of different parts of their lives.
Jonathan Fields (00:49:29) – Do you remember the moment that you were like, bam, like this is it?
Gretchen Rubin (00:49:33) – I remember looking at the to do list and thinking, this is expectations. And I mean, and I knew at that moment that that was the key thing. But then it took me a time to like plot them out and then I couldn’t I couldn’t visualize it because I kept thinking, what do you call it, a two by two? And it’s like four boxes. And I was trying to put them into the boxes, but I couldn’t figure out how they related to each other, like which, which one went where. And and somehow. But then when I realized it was actually a Venn diagram in a diamond shape, the minute that I saw it and it was like meets inner meets outer meets, inner resists outer resists outer resisted. I mean, once I saw that, I was like, Oh my God, this is it. And I remember when I did that, when I sketched out the circles and realized that it was a it was like, you know, it’s like a fern frond or a Nautilus shell.
Gretchen Rubin (00:50:18) – You know, it has this this elegance of nature that always is kind of symmetrical. So it was perfectly symmetrical. Yeah.
Jonathan Fields (00:50:25) – What made you land? How did you know it was for.
Gretchen Rubin (00:50:27) – Well, I mean, it was truly like the most grueling intellectual task of my life. And I say that as somebody who worked on a lot of ERISA opinions, which is this horrible retirement law. You’re a formal lawyer. You know what I’m talking about. I saw these patterns and I could feel that there were patterns there, but I couldn’t figure out what they related to. I couldn’t figure out what was at the heart of it. And I didn’t know how many there were because I didn’t know what it was. And so I just kept having. But I would have these things that would stick in my head. Like this conversation. Probably the most important conversation I had with somebody was when I had lunch with a friend and she said. I know I would be happier if I exercised. And when I was in high school, I was on the track team and I never missed track practice, so why can’t I go running now? And this question just haunted me.
Gretchen Rubin (00:51:20) – I knew the minute she said it that it was a super, super important question and that I had to figure out the answer. And so I had had these things floating around my head. And then one day I was just sitting there looking at my to do list. And for some reason I thought. You know, I’m meeting my expectations. And I realized that was the key. It was this idea of expectations, outer expectations and inner expectations. And once I saw that, I began to see how the four tendencies fall into these perfect overlapping categories. So there had to be four. There could not be any more than four because four took care of. Do you meet outer expectations or do you resist outer expectations? Do you meet inner expectations or do you resist inner expectations? It’s sort of like four covers all the.
Jonathan Fields (00:52:00) – So let’s just quickly just define actually define the four different tendencies.
Gretchen Rubin (00:52:04) – Okay. So it is about how you meet expectations, outer expectations and inner expectations. So they’re upholders, questioners, Obligers and rebels.
Gretchen Rubin (00:52:13) – So upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. So they meet a work deadline. They keep a New Year’s resolution without much fuss. They want to know what’s expected of them from other people, but their expectations for themselves are just as important. Then there are questioners. Questioners question all expectations. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. They hate anything arbitrary or irrational or unjustified. So they make everything an inner expectation because if it meets their standard, then they’ll do it. But if it doesn’t, they resist. So these are the people who think January 1st is an arbitrary date. They just they don’t like anything arbitrary. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. So this is my friend on the track team who could go running when she had a team in a coach waiting for her, expecting her. But when she was just going running on her own, she struggled. And then rebels. Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner, like they want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time.
Gretchen Rubin (00:53:07) – And if you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist. And typically they don’t even want to tell themselves what to do. So this is my friend who said freedom means no rules. She was a rebel. And like now looking back on that conversation, she was like, I would now she checked every box of Rebel. So those are the four tendencies. And I really, truly do believe that that just about everybody fits into one core tendency.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:30) – Yeah. And it’s interesting because it’s not always immediately easy to figure out. Yeah. And you know, like I. So what you went you actually created I mean, there’s extensive information sort of in the book and I want to dive into some of that. But a couple of years ago and I think you did this when the last book came out, you you created the on the quiz. People can ask the question.
Gretchen Rubin (00:53:50) – People can still take it. It’s a happier cast slash quiz. A lot of times people don’t even need to take it.
Gretchen Rubin (00:53:55) – But it’s there if you want to take it.
Jonathan Fields (00:53:56) – I’m so fascinated. You have this tremendous idea and you’ve now got a zillion people who’ve actually taken this and you had so many stories. So it’s validated on a lot of really interesting levels for those listening. Absolutely. We’ll include in the show notes a link to the quiz because you probably already have a sense for what the tendency is through this conversation. But I found the quiz really helpful in helping me especially distinguish between like, am I actually a questioner or an obliger who kind of leans in? Well, I.
Gretchen Rubin (00:54:24) – Remember you saying that when you sort of had a one kind of area of life in your mind, sort of as you were answering the questions. And in fact, because of that in the book, I said, try not to think of one area of your life as you’re answering the questions. Try to keep it very general. Because I was I was thinking that you and I had had that conversation.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:40) – Yeah. And the book was actually so helpful for me because it really it went into it in so much, so much more depth.
Jonathan Fields (00:54:48) – And I love how we didn’t have a chance to get into it really all that much here. But how you did lay it out where like, here’s the overlap, you know, like here’s an upholder who tips this way or who tips this way and how to really sort of like navigate those things. I think he’s such a valuable tool and sort of it’s almost like a technology to to allow people to understand how to interact with each other and much more positive ways and lead to positive outcomes in the world. So full circle, we’re just hanging out here. This is a good life project. So yeah, last question I always come back to if I ask you what it means to live a good life.
Gretchen Rubin (00:55:20) – You know, to me, a good life is one where I meet, my expectations for myself. Yeah. Which is the upholder answer. No, I mean, it’s like. Can you identify the aims that you want and and do the things that are going to bring them. Bring them there.
Gretchen Rubin (00:55:35) – Like if you want. If I want love in my life, how do I act in a way that I bring more love into my life? Or if I want more learning how to bring more learning? So to me, a good life is where. I know what those things are and I’m working towards them.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:48) – Thank you.
Gretchen Rubin (00:55:49) – Thank you so much for having me. It’s so fun.
Jonathan Fields (00:55:52) – I love how Gretchen shines a light on the tendencies. Decoding patterns within all of us through a multidisciplinary lens. Really empower self-knowledge. So I hope Johann, Gloria and Gretchen’s insights have ignited curiosity around optimizing your most elusive yet critical resource attention and focus. By understanding hidden habits and tendencies, we can better focus on what energizes our unique potential. Thanks for joining me on this journey. Cracking the codes that guide our distracted days. Go forth and reclaim presence. Your good life awaits. And if you love this episode, be sure to catch the full conversations with today’s guests. They’re fantastic and you can find a link to those episodes in the show notes.
Jonathan Fields (00:56:37) – And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven second favor, and share it maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person. Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action. That’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.