Book Review: Stolen Focus – Why you can’t pay attention

Review of Johann Hari’s latest publication Stolen Focus

stolen focus
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Do you find it difficult to pay attention and concentrate on doing something for even just an hour? You are most certainly not the only one with this problem. According to Hari, the author of ‘Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention’, today’s university students focus on each task for just 65 seconds and office workers in general manage three minutes. Hari makes the bold claim in his book that our fous has ‘been stolen’! But what exactly does he mean by this? Hari has investigated this issue in great detail.

What is This Crisis of ‘Stolen Focus’? 

#1 Too much information is prevalent in our day-to-day

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Life is often full of distractions and we’re exposed to huge amounts of information at most times. Sometimes, the matter that distracts us is the news, and sometimes we are pulled away by the relentless pinging of our social media notifications we so diligently observe. These distractions all come up so quickly and we often feel we have to respond just as quick! There appears to be no way to slow down when the rest of the world is increasing momentum with every passing second.

#2 The Myth of Multitasking

Only a machine can effectively multitask! When people think they are successfully doing multiple different things simultaneously, they are actually “juggling” – AKA switching back and forth between tasks. As Hari explains following an interview with a professor of neuroscience in Massachusetts Institute of Technology, multitaskers are “switching and reconfiguring their brain moment to moment, task to task – and that comes with a cost.”

The costs of so-called multitasking include; a longer response time, reduced attention, more mistakes, reduced creativity and poor memory.

#3 We Can’t Even Finish Reading a Book

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Nowadays, people are reading fewer books. Even worse, many have difficulties finishing the book. This is because reading a book, according to Hari, is “the deepest form of focus” and requires one to focus and think deeply for a sustained period of time on a specific topic.

But people today are trained to read from screens, practicing the art of “scan and skim” – running our eyes rapidly to extract the information we need as quickly and efficiently as we can- surely a side effect of a surplus of information in this digital age. As a result of the collapse of sustained reading, our quality of thinking degrades, as does out ability to form logical and coherent complex thoughts. In the world of social media, even our empathy falls short as things are seen in fragments and at a surface level.

#4 No more mind-wandering

This is a state “when our thoughts flow freely”, allowing for more associations of ideas to help produce a solution to problems and enhance creativity. But now we are “raised to think about productivity”, which is equivalent to sitting in front of the desk as long as we can to keep working. At school, our kids are even told off for ‘daydreaming’ the very act of creativity and deep though we may just need at some moments of the day.

What is The Cause of These Attention Problems?

#1 We’re too stressed to focus

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People are more stressed when they work longer hours with an excessive workload, but unfortunately, remaining financially secure often takes precedence over health. Stress makes them even more distracted and less productive. The inability to focus is caused by the body making too many stress hormones.

#2 Our diets deteriorate us

What we eat now are “ultra-processed food”, which are not only lack of the nutrients we need for our brain to develop and function fully, they also contain chemicals that “seem to act on our brains almost like drugs”. Hari found in some studies concluding that kids taking in food dyes are more likely to become hyperactive.

#3 Rising pollution also plays a role

Pollution is seriously damaging our ability to focus. The worse the pollution, the worse the damage to our brain. Hari interviewed a professor of environmental science at University of Lancaster, who pointed out that after soaking up this damage for years, people are more likely to develop dementia, which is a form of brain degeneration. There is actually a chronic impact of pollution that affects mental functioning in earlier life by causing aggression, loss of control and attention deficit.

#4 Most important of all, our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces!

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We tend to blame ourselves and feel guilty for being addicted to our mobile phones and not disciplined enough to focus. But this idea is absolutely wrong. Our inability to focus is not a personal failing, said Hari.

After discussing with several Silicon Valley dissidents, he found that it’s neither the fault of the users nor the technology itself, but “the way the apps on the phone and the sites on our laptops are designed” that harm our attention. They are “designed to distract”.

So digital detox cannot solve the problem as this is similar to “wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution”. Structural and environmental changes, instead, can only make the real difference.

In fact, our excessive workload, deteriorating diets and pollution all are huge structural problems with deep causes, and cannot be dealt with by simplistic individual solutions. Otherwise, it will easily fall into “cruel optimism”. This is the idea Hari learned from a professor of management at San Francisco State University. It sounds optimistic as the problem seems can be solved, but it is actually cruel because the so-called solution is “so limited that for most people, it will fail”. And it may even turn into a form of “victim-blaming” – the problem isn’t in the system but the individuals who suffer.

Even the issue of ADHD – someone is struggling to focus – may have been very often reduced to some inborn biological problems in the brain and is treated simply through medication, which may not be an effective solution to the hidden problem. For the substantial rise of ADHD in recent years, Hari found that the surrounding context may be even more important. 

Can we get back our attention? And how?

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Yes! By “attention rebellion”, which is an organised and determined fight back “to take on the forces that are setting fire to our attention and to replace them with forces that will help us to heal.” The very first step to building this movement is to create what Hari called “a consciousness-raising breakthrough cultural moment”, making people aware of the crisis so that there is a motivation to change.

This collective action calls for some changes of our culture and deep-rooted thoughts including our belief in economic growth. Hari has discussed about the idea of “steady-state economy”, proposed by an economic anthropologist at the University of London. It redefines prosperity by a different set of criteria such as having time to spend with children, be in nature, or to sleep, dream or have a secure work.

In addition, individual changes, although they are insufficient, are an essential start. Instead of self-blaming, it’s much more constructive to take action, for example, by taking some time off from the social media and going out for a walk to allow your mind to wander or by making real, actionable changes to your habits and schedule. 

Stolen Focus – a book of our times

I’ve summarised the key points of this book as above (unavoidably, certain arguments have been oversimplified). While reading the book, I’m impressed by how true the author has delineated the situation we have been facing since the rise of Internet and social media. This is a unique and structural issue of our age. I recommend this book especially for those who are concerned about our attention crisis and other related problems, and are anxious to search for a solution, which, in fact, is yet to be developed.

Johann Hari has spent three years investigating the issue and has interviewed a range of people including the world’s leading experts in attention. He has put the audio of his interviews on the book’s website. If you are interested, you may go further (click to listen) to gain more insights from their dialogues.

Otherwise, you can get more ideas about how to unplug from our previous article: Unplug Day 2023: The Best Ways to Maximise Your Digital Detox