The Book in Three Sentences
In this summary of Stolen Focus, Johann Hari analyzes what’s happening to our ability to focus. The author argues that our attention hasn’t plummeted, but it’s been stolen. Hari examines the twelve factors that negatively impact our focus and the steps we can take to get it back.
Introduction: Walking in Memphis
We all have someone we love who’s lost. They constantly look at their phones and they’re on WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms. At times, they give a glimpse of the people they used to be, but most of the time, they are disconnected from reality. You can’t really have meaningful conversations with them because they’re constantly looking at a screen. Technology robs us of the ability to be present. By being afraid of missing out on something on our phone, we’re missing out on the most important thing there is, real life.
We’re losing our ability to focus. While it’s easy to blame ourselves, the devices we use, or the people who invented them, this is a social problem. We live in an environment where deep focus is hard to achieve. While there are some personal changes you can make to mitigate this problem, they only work on a small fraction of the problem. To escape the attention crises we live in, we need solutions that affect the system as a whole.
There are three main reasons to think about focus. First, to become the best version of ourselves, we must get rid of distractions. The important things in life demand our full attention, but that’s almost impossible to do in a world full of distractions. Second, the author argues that a general lack of attention not only affects us as individuals but also as a society. One of the main reasons why we’re not solving our biggest challenges is because we can’t sustain our focus. Third, understanding what’s happening is the first step toward solving it.
Chapter 1: Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering.
The author decided to go to an off-the-grid location without internet access in order to work on his novel. This is everything he took with him: a watch, an alarm clock, an old iPod with audiobooks and podcasts in it, an old laptop that couldn’t connect to the internet, and some classic novels.
It’s easy to give our time and attention to fast and temporary things, but when you notice the old and permanent, it washes away your ego. Scrolling through feeds gives us the illusion that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, but we must recognize the simple pleasures in life. To get there, we must be still.
Our attention has slowly deteriorated over the last couple of decades. Nowadays, certain topics rise in popularity quickly and fade from discussion just as fast. This isn’t the internet’s fault, but it has accelerated the trend nonetheless. When the internet became popular, people became overwhelmed by the amount of information they had access to. The volume of information the average person has access to has increased dramatically over the past few years.
Having access to information is valuable. The problem is that we’re sacrificing depth. Keeping up with social media feeds, WhatsApp messages, and email gives us no time to reach depth, such as work and relationships. Human beings are supposed to go at a slow pace: we’re meant to walk, eat, and consume information slowly. There are consequences to accelerating this process. Going too fast degrades our ability to concentrate and the only way to get it back is by moving at a speed compatible with our nature. In other words, we must train our attention and focus.
So why haven’t we resisted this urge to go faster and consume more information? We pretend we can do more things than we’re capable of. Multitasking is a myth. We can only focus on one thing at a time, so whenever we try to multitask, what we’re doing is jumping from task to task, and doing so degrades our ability to concentrate. There’s a cost to this, something we call the switch cost effect. This explains why your performance drops when you alternate between different activities. This switch makes you slow and more prone to mistakes. To solve this, we must get rid of distractions.
Chapter 2: Cause Two: The Clipping of Our Flow States
Spending so much time on our devices has turned us into narcissists. Most people aren’t interested in anyone other than themselves. Social networks are a way to measure how popular we are, not how others are doing. Staying away from the internet can make us question what’s our value if we’re not part of the conversation that’s taking place on social media. A lot of people derive meaning from shallow interactions online. Without them, they feel lost and disconnected.
Underneath the surface, there are many psychological tricks that come into play when we use social networks. Human beings are wired to seek attention and that’s exactly what hearts and likes give us. This is a topic that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied extensively. He also identified the mental state where artists forgot the passage of time and they focused on the process while working on a work of art. This contradicted Mihaly’s original hypothesis that humans do things to get rewards. What drives certain people isn’t a reward, but a process that allows them to focus for long periods of time, something he called flow. This is being so absorbed in an activity that, for a while, nothing else seems to exist.
There are three components we must consider to get to a state of flow. First, choose a clear goal and focus on that one thing. Second, the activity in question must be meaningful to you. Third, focus on something that’s at the edge of what you’re capable of.
We all have the ability to choose what we want: the two options are fragmentation or flow. While the former shrinks us, the latter expands us. Flow is about finding what matters.
Chapter 3: Cause Three: The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion
We’re all living on the edge of exhaustion. Nowadays, most people don’t get enough sleep. Ideally, we should sleep when it’s dark and wake up when the sun comes up. When we force ourselves to stay awake, we lose the ability to focus our attention. Sleep deprivation ruins our creativity, short-term and long-term focus, memory, mood, and concentration. Sleeping is an integral part of our lives, but an area that most people are willing to sacrifice.
One of the main factors that negatively impact our sleep is artificial light. Another important factor has to do with the values of our capitalist society. Sleeping implies we’re not buying anything, so in a way, our economic system relies on the fact that people are sleep-deprived.
To solve this problem, don’t expose yourself to artificial light before going to sleep, avoid the blue lights of your devices for two hours before bedtime, and your bedroom should be cool. Finally, avoid sources of stress and stimulation before sleep.
Chapter 4: Cause Four: The Collapse of Sustained Reading
Nowadays, one of the rarest skills is being able to read for long periods of time. Reading is one of the simplest ways to achieve a state of flow yet most people never get to experience it because reading is at an all-time low. Our culture of constant distraction is not conducive to reading long-form content. Books represent a medium where you can learn about the most important advances in human history, but almost no one reads anymore.
When we read books, we train ourselves to read in a linear manner for long periods of time. When we train ourselves to jump from one piece of information to another. In other words, reading on screens shrinks our ability to deep focus. To understand complex topics, you need time to think about them in a deep manner. There’s value in immersing yourself in a single activity. Reading gives you those things.
Chapter 5: Cause Five: The Disruption of Mind-Wandering
If attention is a spotlight, lack of attention is being unable to narrow the spotlight down to a singular thing. What if instead of focusing on something you let your mind wander? Interestingly, doing this is also a way to focus. Mind-wandering, or the act of letting our thoughts run wild, has some benefits. This lets you make sense of the world, it helps make connections that can lead to solving certain problems, and it’ll go over the past, as well as try to predict the future.
Being productive isn’t to sit and work on your computer all day. Mind-wandering is also productive in its own way. The problem is that our culture doesn’t encourage this practice. While there are numerous benefits to mind-wandering, this state can easily lead to stressful thoughts if you’re already in situations of high stress.
Chapter 6: Cause Six: The Rise of Technology that Can Track and Manipulate You (Part I)
A digital detox (this involves giving up on technology entirely) doesn’t work because it only solves your attention problem for a short period of time. The solution isn’t to change our behavior but to change our environment. Technology manipulates us. It makes us do things without realizing we’re making them in the first place. At the core of modern technology, we find interruptions and attention-sucking techniques. Your inability to focus isn’t a fault in the apps and tools we use, they’ve been designed that way.
The problem is that the business model of these apps and companies revolves around dominating the attention span of as many people as possible. While they’re aware of the negative effects, the people working in those companies ultimately ignore their drawbacks. To make people spend as much of their time and attention as possible, the designs behind these tools exploit human psychology.
Chapter 7: Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part Two)
Social media companies make more money the more time you spend using them. They make money in two ways: through advertising or by selling your personal information to advertisers. As you use the internet, certain companies like Facebook or Google, collect information about you and turn it into a profile so that you can target specific content that appeals to you. In fact, one of the reasons most apps are free is so that they can gather more of your information.
This explains why apps are so distracting. That’s because their business models revolve around that fact. These platforms serve you content based on an algorithm and that algorithm has one driving principle, that you spend as much time looking at a screen as possible. The algorithm is neutral by nature and it soon earns what you spend time looking at. We’re wired to pay more attention to negative things (such as angry faces or car crashes). We call this phenomenon negativity bias. This is a problem because negative things become a habit. Not only does the algorithm recommend content that makes you feel angry or depressed, but it can also recommend conspiracy theories or fake news.
Chapter 8: Cause Seven: The Rise of Cruel Optimism (Or: Why Individual Changes Are an Important Start, But Not Enough)
Individual changes are an important start, but not enough. When we look at a problem, we must find the root cause. This involves looking inward to determine why we want to use technology. Since our environment has changed dramatically and there’s nothing we can do about it, we can at least adapt. To do this, we should identify the triggers that make us use our device, or other uncomfortable emotional states that we want to avoid. Bringing awareness to bad habits can help you change them.
Cruel optimism is when someone takes a serious problem (such as obesity, depression, or addiction) and treats it as something we can easily solve. The optimistic part is identifying a solution, but the cruel part is offering a solution that’s so limited that it probably won’t work. This is how most designers in the tech industry treat their users. We aren’t the problem, our environment is. Luckily, there’s an alternative to cruel optimism, authentic optimism. This is building a solution that deals with the causes of the problem.
Chapter 9: The First Glimpses of the Deeper Solution
For a lot of people, the solution to invasive tech is banning surveillance capitalism. If the government banned the business model that has information about you in order to manipulate you, the problem would go away. This implies that companies like Facebook would have to reinvent themselves without manipulating their user base. Another possibility would be that the government buys, maintains, and regulates these companies just like they do the sewers or highways. Alternatively, companies could be funded by the public (like the BBC), making them independent of the government.
For all of these solutions to work, the financial incentives would have to change as well. Manipulating people so that they spend as much time as possible using certain apps to collect information that can be sold to advertisers should stop. When it does, they would have to redesign the social networks in such a way that using them is a healthier experience. This means fewer notifications, no more infinite scroll, and encouraging people to have real-life connections.
Chapter 10: Cause Eight: The Surge in Stress and How It Is Triggering Vigilance
When it comes to our lack of attention, the tech isn’t as important as the business models behind it. In a way, we embraced these tools because they came out at a time when people were under a lot of stress and were not sleeping well.
We are more likely to pay attention to something when we’re in a safe environment. When we sense danger though, we go into a state of hypervigilance and we can’t afford to focus on a singular thing. When we’re under constant stress, we can’t focus and that’s exactly how technology makes us feel.
Chapter 11: The Places That Figured Out How to Reverse the Surge in Speed and Exhaustion
Nowadays, it’s common to be at work physically but to be somewhere else mentally. This means we spend a lot of time at work, but we don’t get much done. This happens because we’re bored, distracted, or worried. But there are people challenging the assumption that we must work from 9 to 5, five days a week. To be productive, we need some downtime to decompress and relax. This implies that working less improves our focus significantly.
These ideas challenge the fabric of modern society. Our culture is all about doing things as fast as possible because we assume fast means productivity and success. Some people argue that slow leads to rest and attention and those two ingredients are necessary for productivity and success.
Chapter 12: Causes Nine and Ten: Our Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution
What we eat not only affects our health but also our ability to pay attention., The Western diet leads to energy spikes and energy crashes. This rollercoaster of sugar and carb treats ruins our focus. Another reason for our attention crisis is related to the pollution we’re exposed to.
Chapter 13: Cause Eleven: The Rise of ADHD and How We Are Responding to It
A couple of years ago, teachers realized that some children were unable to focus. Researchers believed that this was a biological disorder called ADHD (attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder). Nowadays, some scientists argue that ADHD shouldn’t be called a biological illness though. ADHD is a real problem but the cause isn’t the child’s or parent’s fault.
Some specialists think that ADHD is an environmental problem and as such, the solution isn’t to medicate children who have trouble focusing. For these specialists, children should be allowed to run around, their diets should be healthier, and their schooling should be less stressful.
Chapter 14: Cause Twelve: The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically
For a lot of children, life used to be quite simple: they would run around all day until it was time to have dinner and go to bed. Nowadays, most children don’t spend time playing outdoors regularly. For a lot of kids, playing implies being supervised by adults or using screens. Through play, children learn essential skills that will come in handy when they become adults: creativity, persuasion, negotiation, dealing with emotions, and so on.
Humans have two reasons to do something: for themselves (intrinsic motivations) or for external rewards (extrinsic motivation). You have more chances to stick with something when it’s meaningful for you than when you’re forced to do it or you hope to obtain something out of it. Intrinsic motivation makes focus much more sustainable and easier.
Children have lost the possibility to wander around, play, and find what they love. They don’t have any free time because their parents created several commitments for them. Giving children the ability to have free, unstructured, and unsupervised time is one of the best things we can do for them. There’s joy in mundane activities like climbing trees, riding bikes, and playing marbles. If we constantly manage our kids’ attention, they won’t know how to do things on their own. They won’t learn about decision-making, their future ambitions, and so on.
Conclusion: Attention Rebellion
The topic of attention is so complex that there isn’t a solution that’s the same for everyone.
Our attention has three forms. The first layer is your spotlight. This is when you focus on immediate actions. It’s called that because your focus narrows down. This happens when you go to the fridge to grab a snack, for example. The second layer is your starlight. This is the focus you can apply to long-term goals or projects. This happens when you want to start a YouTube channel, for instance. It’s called a starlight because people used to look at the stars to determine where you’re going. The third layer is your daylight. This is the kind of focus that helps you remember what your long-term goals are. It’s called this because you can clearly see around you when it’s daylight. This is reflecting on why you want to work on a YouTube channel in the first place.
Nowadays, everything demands our attention and this gets so overwhelming that we can’t deal with it and we feel paralyzed. With that in mind, the author mentions a fourth layer, the stadium lights. This is when we work collectively to fight for our common goals.
The author recommends these six big changes to manage your focus.
- A precommitment to not switch tasks as often: for this purpose, the author locks his phone using a kSafe and uses a browser extension called Freedom.
- Respond to your sense of distraction more positively: think of ways to achieve a flow state.
- Take six months off from social media: Hari announces he’s going to take a break from social media and he tells a friend to change his passwords.
- The importance of mind-wandering: let your mind wander so that it can make connections between the things you’ve learned
- Protect your sleep: don’t use screens before bed, distress, track your sleep, and give yourself eight hours to do so.
- Socialize: play with your kids and let them play on their own.
To reclaim our attention we need to be part of a movement he calls Attention Rebellion that has three main goals:
- Ban surveillance capitalism
- Introduce the four-day week
- Let children play freely
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