Stolen Focus – The most perspective-changing, life-changing book of the year

Stolen Focus – The most perspective-changing, life-changing book of the year

Stolen Focus – The most perspective-changing, life-changing book of the year

I know many of us may find it difficult these days to find the time and muster the attentional bandwidth to read a 300-page book on why we are so disastrously losing our capacities to focus our attention for more than a few minutes. 

But journalist Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again is researched with such thoroughness and integrity and written so brilliantly, the evidence, examples and metaphors so easily accessible and comprehensible, that I encourage you to try anyway.

And here’s the link to Ezra Klein’s February 11, 2022 New York Times podcast interview with Johann Hari with major highlights and mind-expanding insights. One hour to listen; 30 minutes to read the transcript.  (I encourage you to at least read this entire post, a six-minute read.)

I found reading Stolen Focus so enjoyable, in part, because I could allocate three hours a day for three days in a row, and thoroughly enjoyed the flow state from unplugging from computer/phone/projects and experience hours of deeply concentrated attention.

And…I deeply appreciated Hari’s insistence on moving beyond  the failure of any one individual’s willpower as a sufficient solution to our modern malaise of losing focus…

(Yes, a complete digital detox – unplugging from all devices for a week or more – reduces brain fog and profoundly recovers your capacities to focus, think, be creative and…)

A digital detox is not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask to two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep, at an individual level, certain effects ay bay. But it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the system issues. – James Williams, former Google strategist now at Oxford University.

…to questioning the larger circumstances and forces at work in our society that make the degrading of our capacities for either focused (spotlight) attention or creative (mind-wandering) attention so inevitable. 

Johann Hari interviewed, in person, in depth, more than 50 neuroscientists and behavioral scientists  from around the world who have carefully researched the probable causes of the dramatic drop in our attentional bandwidth in the last 20 years. (And archived all of those interviews on his website: https://stolenfocusbook.com/audio/)

^ The average American teenager can focus on a single task for one minute. The average American office worker for three. The average person touches their phone 2,617 times in 24 hours.

^ If you focus on something and are interrupted, on average it will take 23 minutes to get back to the same state of focus.

^ A small study commissioned by Hewlett-Packard looked at the IQ of some of their workers when they were not distracted or interrupted, then tested again when they were receiving emails and phone calls. The “technological distraction” – just getting emails and calls – caused a drop in the workers’ IQ by an average of 10 points.

You are probably familiar with many of these discoveries already from your own experience, from the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemmaor books like Nicholas Carr’s New York Times best-selling The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Hari describes our current dilemma, of multi-tasking and rapidly switching focus (at high cost to normal brain functioning) in simple stories and examples:

I went to see the Mona Lisa in Paris, only to find she is now permanently hidden behind a rugby scrum, of people from everywhere on earth, all jostling their way to the front, only for them to immediately turn their backs on her, snap a selfie, and fight their way out again. On the day I was there, I watched the crowd from the side for more than an hour. Nobody – not one person – looked at the Mona Lisa for more than a few seconds. Her smile no longer seems like an enigma.  It appears as though she is looking at us from her perch in sixteenth-century Italy and asking: Why won’t you just look at me like you used to? – Johann Hari

You want to read a book, but you are pulled away by the pings and paranoias of social media. You want to spend a few uninterrupted hours with your child, but you keep anxiously checking your email to see if your boss is messaging you. You want to set up a business, but your life dissolves instead into a blur of Facebook posts that only make you feel envious and anxious. Through no fault of your own, there never seems to be enough stillness – enough cool, clear space – for you to stop and think. If this goes on for months and years, it scrambles your ability to figure out who you are nad what you want. You become lost in your own life.  – Johann Hari

There’s the old metaphor that villagers are at the river one day, and they notice a dead body come floating down the river. So they do the right thing. They take it out and they give it an appropriate burial. The next day two bodies come down the river and they do the appropriate thing and they bury the bodies. This goes on for a while, and finally they start to wonder…where these bodies are coming down the river from, and if we should do something to stop that? So they go up the river to find out. – Joel Nigg, ADHD expert and former president of the International Society for Research in Child and Adolescent Pscyopathology

Hari humbly goes upriver, talking to the scientists who are wrestling with the need for collective solutions to what has become a collective disaster.

Which boils down to changing the business model of high tech corporations who track, capture, and store our personal data preferences and profiles on their platforms and products to monetize, and sell our attention as the product to advertisers who manipulate our attention to get us to consume more; the by-product is the degrading of our capacities to focus attention, think creatively, relate to real people in real time, make our own choices and be who we truly are.

This radical solution is not a new idea; it can seem to many an impossible idea. Hari cites previous examples of society correcting major harms to its citizen’s health and well-being, like the collective movements to remove toxic lead from gasoline and paint. (I can remember gasoline going unleaded in my lifetime; a client of mine is an attorney who worked for years to get lead removed from paint.) Or the movement that banned the CFC’s that were destroying the ozone layer.

Then Hari pushes our perspective on probable causes of the collective demise of our collective attention, to the impact on the brain of chemical pollution in our food and air, lack of sleep, and tool little time reading books, too much stress and trauma in adults and children, the time on screens and lack of play contributing even more than genetics to the rapid increase in ADHD.  All fastidiously researched. He also carefully documents the contradictions and controversies among the scientists, presenting all sides in an honest and compassionate way.

Hari doesn’t end the book with a positive, upbeat ending. He goes one step further into the research of loss of attention since the late 19th century with the establishment of economic growth world wide as the be all and end all of a successful society. It’s not just the “surveillance capitalism” of our social media; it’s the “drinking from a fire hose” of information and scrolling. It’s the expectation of being always plugged in, FOMO, etc. 

At every stage of your life, different forms of pollution will affect our attention span; this is why we’ve got neurodevelopmental disease increasing exponentially…including ADHD across the board. Surrounded by so many pollutants and distraction, there is no way we can have a normal brain today. – Barbar Demeneix, biologist and endocrinologist

What he does encourage (and provides the links to) is working collectively with others to bring about changing how the internet works and can be regulated, for the four-day work week (increases employee productivity and well-being), protecting young children from the over-use (addiction) of screens. 

And I agree with his recommendations for individuals to promote the full recovery and flourishing of their attention:  encourage play for children and flow states for adults, read books, discover meaningful activities that you want to focus on, have space to let your mind wander so you can make sense of our life, exercise, sleep properly, eat nutritious food that makes it possible for you to delveop a health brain and have a sense of safety. And protect your attention from too much speed, too much switching, too many stimuli, intrusive technology designed to hack and hook you, stress, exhaustion, sugar and processed foods that cause spike/crash energy cycles, polluted air. 

For a long time we took our attention for granted, as if it was a cactus that would grow in even the most desiccated climate. Now we know it’s more like an orchid, a plant that requires great care or it will wither.  – Johann Hari