Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Againby Johann Hari
Lamenting the ever-increasing domination of our attention by smartphones, social media, and other external forces, Johann Hari went on a personal journey to break free and reclaim his own forces. His journey included interviewing global experts on human attention, as well as a summer spent in Provincetown, MA, where he completely unplugged in an effort to restore his ability to focus. Stolen Focus reveals his findings and how our attentional problems are systemic forces that must be confronted, rather than problems of individual self-discipline.
The Attention Crisis
“You’re afraid of missing out-- that’s why you are checking your screen all the time! By doing that, you are guaranteeing you are missing out!”
People seem to have their faces stuck in their phones wherever they go. Perhaps you’ve seen a family dining together at a restaurant, and every single one of them is looking at their phone. You’ve also probably experienced some dissatisfaction with your own gravitational draw to your phone and found yourself thinking, “What am I doing?” Johann Hari, the author, felt the same dissatisfaction and decided to figure out why our culture is so challenged by our attention.
Some of the things he discovered are quite disturbing. For instance, he found out that the average college student will switch tasks every 65 seconds on average, and the median amount of time spent focusing on only one task is a mere 19 seconds. The average office worker will spend an average of only three minutes focusing on one task. Once interrupted by an activity, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back on task. Basically, our collective ability to focus is tanking hard.
Johann began to understand that our attention crisis is not just a problem of the individual’s self-discipline. The issue is far bigger because it’s a systematic problem. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly important that we as a society confront this problem together. A life full of distractions is not a life well lived. If we, as a society, are constantly distracted by trivial things, we will never be able to address the major issues confronting our world because we lack the focus and understanding to do so. But if we are able to understand the factors causing this attentional crisis, we may be able to change it.
Attention Problems and the Individual
“What’s happening with our cellphones is that we put a thing in our pocket that’s with us all the time that always offers an easy thing to do, rather than the important thing.”
The average person spends about three hours and 15 minutes on their phone and touches it an average of 2,617 times per day. With all this time spent on the phone plus the overwhelming information we’re receiving every day, our ability to focus on specific things at hand is decreasing rapidly.
Having access to our smartphones and the constant distraction from texts, email, and social media (among many other distractions) are destroying our focus. While we may think that we can focus on multiple things at a time, this isn’t actually true. In reality, our brains are designed to focus only on one thing at a time.
When we constantly switch our attention back and forth (multitasking), we experience a “switch cost effect” that causes the equivalent of an IQ drop of 10 points which is on par with the effect of smoking cannabis. Errors begin to creep into our work. We also experience less creativity because our minds don’t have undistracted free time where creativity can arise. Constantly switching tasks also diminishes our memory capacity. Most importantly, it prevents us from reaching the flow state—where high-performance flows almost effortlessly.
Reaching the flow state requires a clearly defined goal, a meaningful task, and a challenging aspect. One helpful way to train yourself to reach this state is by reading books.
Studies have shown that information from a print book is absorbed and retained far better than through screens. Getting our information through social media contributes to a shallow and one-sided understanding of things, whereas books can better capture life's complexities. Books promote sustained focus, linear thinking, and even greater empathy.
Aside from the fact that we’re experiencing less flow, we’re also becoming more and more exhausted, both mentally and physically. Our natural rhythms guided by the sun have been rudely interrupted by the ever-present blue light of our screens. We are collectively sleeping less as each year passes and becoming ever more dependent on caffeine to stay awake and sleeping pills to fall asleep. Brain performance radically decreases when sleep-deprived, causing our attention to suffer dramatically.
Anytime we have a moment where our attention is free, we seem to experience that impulse to go to our phones to check social media, email, or play a game on an app. This habit has significantly reduced the amount of time our minds spend wandering. Mind wandering serves a very important purpose: it helps us make sense of the world and make connections between things, enabling greater understanding and problem-solving. Mind wandering also allows our minds to travel through time to resolve things from our past or predict the future, so we are better equipped to engage in it.
Actions to take
How Tech Companies Are Stealing Your Focus
“The real debate is: What tech, designed for what purposes, in whose interests?”
Our attentional issues are not something that we can solve individually. It’s also not enough to simply be disciplined in our use of technology to address the issue. This is because tech companies are designing their technology to hook you. Applications like Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like are based on a business model where they need to maximize your engagement. The more time you spend on them, the more money they make through advertising. Basically, screen time is their metric, and it’s stealing your life.
While you may think that undergoing a digital detox is the ultimate solution for this, it actually isn’t. Since this is a systematic issue, it requires a more complex solution—and that is to impose regulations on the tech companies.
All of these companies are compiling data, and they have a psychological profile of every single user to know exactly what will keep you looking. Technology is advancing exponentially, and they know you in some ways better than you know yourself. This methodology has been called “surveillance capitalism,” where they have this profile of you that is basically a digital voodoo doll of you. They sell these profiles to advertisers so they can market to you.
This is why tech companies design their products to hook you. They use tactics like notifications, vibrations, alerts, infinite scroll, and the like to keep you engaged. They have algorithms designed to show you content that will keep you scrolling.
It gets even darker as they present you with more negative content, such as those with buzzwords, for greater engagement. This turns hate into a habit, and it becomes ingrained in our society. All the while, our ability to focus is diminishing, and the shallow, one-sided content is digging us deeper into our problems. We lack both the depth and the focus to bring positive change to the world.
Some regulations that can be imposed to solve this would be to ban surveillance capitalism first. This would ban business models that track your behavior, form a psychological profile of you, and sell it to advertisers. The alternative to this would be to offer these services through a subscription. A subscription-based service would cause the tech developers to focus on you, the user, and what will actually make you the happiest.
Aside from this, additional regulations could also be added, such as banning infinite scroll, which keeps people engaged 50% longer on average. These sites could stop promoting content that polarizes people. They could also have you set the amount of time you want to spend on the app per day when you set up your account. These changes can only be made through regulations imposed by the government. We need to take collective action to see these changes made.
Actions to take
Other Systemic Problems Affecting Attention
“You don’t get what you don’t fight for.”
Stress is perhaps the main culprit for people’s attention issues. When we are constantly stressed, we become hypervigilant, thinking that there’s always something around the corner waiting to get us. When we are overstressed, we become more easily manipulated by the forces behind the social media we consume.
People suffering from stress-related attention problems usually find it difficult to perform at their best in the workplace. That is why some companies are choosing to switch to a four-day work week or to six-hour days, allowing more time for people to unwind and recharge. This has been proven to increase productivity and quality of performance. When you are always drained by long work hours or constantly being on call and responding to emails, your performance will suffer.
Another major factor contributing to lower productivity and performance levels is diet. Our food choices at the grocery store are predominantly ultra-processed, high in sugar, and filled with toxic ingredients like preservatives and dyes. These ingredients destroy neurons in the brain and cause hormonal dysfunction. Moreover, we are exposed to pesticides, plasticizers, flame retardants, cosmetics, cleaning agents, PCBs, and BPAs that pollute the environment we live in. Our air is being polluted by fossil fuels. All of these things attack our health, wellness, and attention. How did we find ourselves in such an environment? We arrived here because the industry is calling the shots. We need to step up and demand regulation.
Unfortunately, it is so disheartening to think that all children are now growing up in this kind of environment. ADHD diagnoses are ever-increasing, and countless kids are put on stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall.
The reason for the attention issues in children, however, is all of these environmental and systemic issues that surround them. Kids don’t get to be kids anymore. They are babysat by screens, forced to sit at desks all day at school to prepare for standardized tests, and their entire world is essentially controlled by adults. On top of that, they are fed processed foods that poison their brains.
What children really need is the opportunity to be kids. Free play is perhaps the best thing a child can have. When kids run around and play, their attention improves, they develop creativity, and they learn social skills. This cannot happen when adults control everything they do, which is even what happens in sports leagues.
Play is the best way for kids to learn. There are models of schooling that allow children to guide their own education. Their curiosity and interests guide what they want to learn about and what projects they want to engage in. These children end up doing just fine as adults, with many going on to higher education and successful careers. In Finland, kids don’t start school until age seven. School hours are between 9 and 2, and there’s no homework or tests. Only 0.1% of kids in Finland are diagnosed with attention problems.
It is cruel optimism to insist that our attention problems are more personal problems related to self-discipline. If we want to rescue our individual and collective attention and save our children, we will have to demand systemic change. These industries need to be regulated so that we can live in an environment free from surveillance capitalism, poison in our food, and pollution in our air. We need an education system that promotes our children’s creativity and liveliness. We need to take back our focus.