I’d heard a lot about Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. A couple of people I know had read it, and it kept popping up in book lists and newsletters from bookstores. There was a long wait for it at the library so I only got it right before Christmas.
Johann is a Scottish-born journalist and author who has written three New York Times best-sellers, including Stolen Focus, which was published in 2022.
I wanted to read it because I’ve long been searching for answers as to why I struggle to concentrate on my work, why I’m so easily distracted, and why I keep failing when I try to do something about it.
I’d read the book Indistractible by Nir Eyal in 2019. It sets out a program that’s supposed to give me the tools to overcome my personal failings in this space. But, even equipped with that information, presented by someone who has worked on the very technology intended to keep people hooked, I’ve failed over and over again.
I lack willpower, I lack motivation, I lack self control. So I do more and more work on finding ways to give me these things back. And nothing works, and I keep blaming myself for failing.
This book is the first one I’ve read that says straight up that, while there are things I can and should be doing if I want to get my focus back, what I do individually can only ever take me so far. When I’m fighting against a system set up to steal my focus, my own efforts are woefully insufficient.
I’m not sure whether to be relieved that this isn’t entirely a personal failure or horrified that this has happened to me, and most likely most other people, without us being aware of it, within my lifetime.
This book isn’t a quick read and it requires some attention to read it (see what I did there). But it’s absolutely worth into get a better understanding of what the world is doing to our minds, and some of the chilling consequences of allowing this to continue.
In the introduction, Johann says
I found strong evidence that our collapsing ability to pay attention is not primarily a personal failing on my part or your part, or your kid’s part. This is being done to us all. It is being done by very powerful forces. Those forces include Big Tech, but they also go way beyond them. This is a systemic problem. The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day and that you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns.
The real cause of our inability to focus lies mainly in the larger forces, and these are not addressed, or even mentioned, in the books and training material I’ve been seeking out to try and improve my focus.
But why would I even want to reclaim my attention?
Johann outlines three reasons why he thinks this is important.
If you can’t pay attention to things, and spend your life constantly distracted, your life is diminished. (Basically, you’re wasting your precious four thousand weeks on trivial things that don’t go anywhere or help you achieve what you want to achieve.)
Our society is failing to act to solve its biggest challenges, like climate change (and now SARS-CoV-2) because, without sustained attention, we can’t solve big problems. We need to be able to identify real problems, come up with solutions and hold our leaders accountable if they don’t deliver them. (Instead, I imagine, of criticising them for the latest indiscretion we see on a clickbait headline and making internet memes about it.)
If you can understand what’s happening you can take steps to change it. It’s a human-made crisis and, he says, we can unmake it too.
Johann examined over 250 scientific studies in researching this book. He interviewed scientists who he felt had gathered the most important evidence on this subject, which took him across the USA, to Moscow, Quebec, Sydney Auckland, London, Denmark and Melbourne—a 30,000 mile journey.
From this work he has identified 12 causes of our deteriorating attention.
Causes of our lost focus
The sheer volume of information we have access to and the speed at which it comes at us makes it impossible to keep up, so we just grasp at snippets and soundbites. We try to multitask, task switch, we are constantly interrupted and we no longer take the time to slow down and focus on one thing at a time.
We are losing the capacity to get into a “flow” state where we get completely absorbed into the work we’re doing. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. To get into this state, we need to single-task on work that is meaningful to us and requires us to push ourselves just a little beyond our abilities.
We are constantly physically and mentally exhausted. We don’t get enough sleep and this plays out in our decreased ability to focus deeply. If you aren’t sleeping well, your body thinks there’s some kind of emergency going on and it puts you in a state of high arousal so you can deal with that. All the time.
Hardly anyone reads books any more. Or if they do, they rarely sit down with them for long stretches and get absorbed in them. We live in a world of “short, simple statements of 280 characters” and rarely dig beyond the screen grabs to see the true picture.
People don’t take time to let their minds wander. Or get bored. They’re constantly checking emails, social media, the news, anything and everything. And as soon as they feel bored, they reach for their phone to distract them. And the more they respond to these distractions, the more they get hooked, and the more time they spend on them. And the cycle continues . . .
The book shifts over onto the tactics of Big Tech that keep us hooked on their products, and convince us fake news is real.
This chapter is really scary. The fact that no one in a room of hundreds of teach designers said they wanted to live in the world they’re designing should send up major red flags as to how bad this is. It tracks us, it manipulates us, it is intended to keep us mindlessly scrolling. Our devices are designed to “maximally grab and maximally hold our attention”. They are designed to distract us, hook us, enrage us, outrage us.
One of the former techs Johann spoke to said
I think we’re in the process of reverse-engineering ourselves. [We discovered a way to] open up the human skull, find the strings that control us, and start pulling on our own marionette strings. Once you do that, an accidental jerk in one direction causes your arm to jerk further, which pulls your marionette string further . . . That’s the era that we’re headed into now.
Tristan Harris, former Google staffer and now Executive Director of the Center for Human Technology, believes that what we’re seeing is the collective downgrading of humans and the upgrading of machines. He told Johann, “We are becoming less rational, less intelligent, less focused.”
Pause for a moment and take that in. We are diminishing ourselves.
Johann goes on to talk about Nir Eyal, who I mentioned earlier.
While Nir believes we can turn off everything designed to hook us and distract us, others call this “victim blaming” and think that telling people just to “push the f***ing button”, as Nir does, denies the reality of most people’s lives. It is, Johann suggests, “cruel optimism” to let people believe it’s this simple because this is setting them up to fail against an entire system that is specifically designed for them to fail.
Johann suggests that much of our tech could be redesigned in a way that would prevent a lot of this from happening but it’s up to us to demand it, because the status quo is too rewarding for the Facebooks and the Googles and the Apples to do this on their own initiative.
It’s our environment too
The book identifies other environmental issues that Johann believes are also taking our attention.
This includes chronic stress, which keeps people on high alert. He believes a significant cause of this stress for many people is poverty and a lack of security in the home because it’s hard to not be stressed when you constantly feel unsafe.
Other factors include the rise and rise of processed food and food-like substances that are sold as food, environmental pollution, and our increasing reluctance to let our kids have unsupervised play for the sake of play, confining them at home with little to do except interact with screens.
It really is a huge problem and I’ve gained a much greater appreciation of the scale of it after reading the book.
So, what do we do?
There are people who will disagree with elements of what Johann has concluded. He noted that his discussion with Nir Eyal got “a little heated” and he recognises that the issue of big tech’s role and responsibility in this space is contentious. But even so, he says, while we do need to take personal responsibility as Nir Eyal says, we also have to be “honest enough” to tell people what most of us do on our own probably won’t be enough to get out of this.
Johann concludes the book with the steps he has taken to get his focus back, which includes taking six months off social media every year, and locking his phone away in a kSafe and using Freedom to block distracting website when he needs to focus. He also does what he can to get into a flow state rather than beating himself up when he gets distracted. And he says getting eight hours of sleep has made a huge difference for him. He says other areas he touched on in the book haven’t been as easy for him to change.
He estimates that what he has done has increased his focus by 15 to 20 per cent.
I think some of these things are extreme, and the fact that Johann has had to go to that extent to reclaim his focus demonstrates the power of what he, what we are all, up against.
If nothing else, the book has encouraged me to review my Freedom settings and start blocking the most distracting websites when I want to do some work.
For typography nerds
I also appreciated the note at the back of the book, describing the typeface used, Minion, which it says is a digital typeface designed in 1990 by Robert Slimbach. It is apparently inspired by late Renaissance-Era type, and the name comes from the traditional typeface naming system, where Minion is between Nonpareil and Brevier.
I had to find out what they were too. Based on my sketchy knowledge of French, I guessed that nonpareil might be a very small size (it is also another name for the hundreds and thousands we used to put on fairy bread, which we pronounced “nompah-reels”).
Wikipedia helpfully told me Nonpareil is the size between Minion and Agate, so I’m guessing Agate is even smaller still. Then I dived into the work of points and picas and discovered that in the modern American system, Agate is 5.5 points, Nonpareil is 6 points, Minion is 7 points (2.469 mm) and Brevier is 8 points. (6.5 points is Minionette because of course it is.)
Interestingly, one-point font in the American system is called American. In German it’s Achtelpetit. I like that better. But such a tiny font size wasn’t something you’d actually use in the age of the metal letter punches used in the Renaissance. Aren’t we lucky we have computers now.
If I ever have a book published, I will insist on the type being identified at the back of the book just like this was.