Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention

Why are our minds so cloudy and fragmented nowadays?

Johann Hari embarked on an exhaustive expedition to find out. He calls this an “attention crisis”. Whether this was coined by him or inspired by Ian Tuttle/Matt Crawford, Tim Hwang, Cal Newport, Jaron Lanier, or others, I salute the label’s utility in A) naming and B) treating – a modern ailment. Sure… “crisis” risks alarmism and dismissal, but if one admits that foggy-mindedness contributes to, and therefore inherits, the gravity of all conceivable human dilemmas – how is the word “crisis” unfounded? Today’s environment is surgically predatory toward our minds. How can we confront any problem effectively if it’s so hard to clear our heads? Even more, how can we aspire for meaning in our lives, rather than drift aimlessly in infinite minutia?

If you agree with the concern, the obvious question:

What can we do? Change ourselves, or change the world?

Undersells Mindfulness and Self-Empowerment. Oversells Victimhood. Still… Worth Reading.

We agree focus is hosed. We agree individual and environmental change are worthwhile. This book succeeds in spotlighting this. However – a reader may leave feeling skeptical of their power to turn the tide. This is where I’d like to light-off some fireworks…

Meaningful individual change is accessible to most people NOW, and is more effective at wrangling mindlessness than Stolen Focus illustrates. It is harmful to consider this “cruel optimism” for anecdotal reasons, as the book does. The human mind has been vulnerable to distraction for as long as there’s been a human mind. Proven approaches to gain clarity are hundreds of years old! To my delight, and I hope everyone’s, there are many good humans, past and present, who offer a humble antidote. Consider these jumping-off points, for example. These are not luxury tools. They are accessible to anyone, for free, who is willing to commit a few minutes per day toward mental health. (I know. It seems too good to be true. Consider it might not be. Consider this, and this.).

As instructive as Johann’s Odyssean “precommitment” journey was – abandoning his iPhone and laptop, and taking a ferry to an internet-free chamber in P-Town to cleanse his mind (sincerely – drastic measures make for compelling parables) – I believe one can have an epiphany and make meaningful change without extreme steps. I recognize he doesn’t entirely rule this out – and does encourage people to exhaust their options, but, I’d like to disqualify the limits he places upon them. Where he concedes running out of willpower and regressing into old habits – I urge persistence. Not to believe in a mystical or privileged power – but to believe in one’s own ability to feel stronger and more aware than they were the day before. A worthwhile and lifelong aspiration for any person, no? Make no mistake, this takes discipline. But the premise of mindfulness is simple, and free.

Good folks with cloudy minds cannot afford to overidentify with victimhood and wait for the environment to heal them via social uprising. Just like we should not solve obesity by outlawing cheeseburgers. This is not cynicism – nor is it dismissal of environment reform, which I support. It’s pragmatism, and unwavering conviction in each person’s ability to step out of their skin and inspect their life from the side, and adjust accordingly. This is a constant project in one’s life – one worth considering entirely independent of this “crisis”.

Ultimately this book is worth reading, because of it’s comprehensive portrayal of a problem. We both see millions of minds held hostage, and want to do something about it. I believe Stolen Focus does something immensely helpful: spotlights a problem and its confluence of potential causes. My aim is to ignite further awareness around this too, but most importantly, to urge people: You can take matters into your own hands. You can make a profound difference in your life.

Helpful Excerpts from Stolen Focus

What Is The Attention Crisis?

One afternoon, I sat in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, a vast and infinitely calm lake of geothermal water that bubbles up at the temperature of a hot bathtub even as snow falls all around you. As I watched the falling snowflakes gently dissolve into the rising steam, I realized I was surrounded by people wielding selfie sticks. They had put their phones into waterproof casings, and they were frantically posing and posting. Several of them were livestreaming to Instagram. I wondered if the motto for our era should be: I tried to live, but I got distracted.

This seemed to fit with a much wider sense that had been settling on me for several years—one that went well beyond bad tourist habits. It felt like our civilization had been covered with itching powder, and we spent our time twitching and twerking our minds, unable to simply give attention to things that matter.

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.

A study by Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon found that if you are focusing on something and you get interrupted, on average it will take twenty-three minutes for you to get back to the same state of focus. A different study of office workers in the U.S. found most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day. If this goes on for months and years, it scrambles your ability to figure out who you are and what you want. You become lost in your own life.

A life full of distractions is, at an individual level, diminished. When you are unable to pay sustained attention, you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve. 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.

Cause 1: Info Overload!

Sune had trained as a physicist, but after a while, he figured he was going to have to investigate—at the Technical University of Denmark, where he is a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science—what was happening not just in physics, but in himself. “I had been obsessed with how I was losing my own ability to focus,” he told me. “I was realizing that, somehow, I was not able to control my own use of the internet.” He found himself mindlessly following the small details of events like the U.S. presidential election on social media, hour after hour, achieving nothing. This wasn’t just affecting him as a parent, but as a scientist. He said: “I came to this realization that my job in a way is to think something that is different from everyone else—but I was in an environment where I was just getting all the same information as everyone else, and I was just thinking the same things as everyone else.”

With each decade that passed, for more than 130 years, topics have come and gone faster and faster. When he saw the results, Sune told me, he thought: “Goddammit, it really is true…. Something is changing. It’s not just the same-old, same-old.” This was the first proof gathered anywhere in the world that our collective attention spans have been shrinking. One way of thinking about this, Sune said, is that at the moment, it is like we’re “drinking from a fire hose—there’s too much coming at us.” We are soaked in information.

Normally I follow the news every hour or so, getting a constant drip-feed of anxiety-provoking factoids [from my phone] and trying to smush it together into some kind of sense. In Provincetown, I could no longer do this. Every morning, I would buy three newspapers and sit down to read them—and then I wouldn’t know what happened in the news until the next day. Instead of a constant blast running all through my waking life, I got one in-depth, curated guide to what happened, and then I could turn my attention to other things. I was—for the first time in my life—living within the limits of my attention’s resources. I was absorbing as much information as I could actually process, think about, and contemplate—and no more. The fire hose of information was turned off. Instead, I was sipping water at the pace I chose.

We told ourselves we could have a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to, and the speed at which it hits us, with no costs. This is a delusion: “It becomes exhausting.” More importantly, Sune said, “what we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions…. Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth.

Guy Claxton, professor of learning sciences at the University of Winchester, who I went to interview in Sussex, in England. He has analyzed what happens to a person’s focus if they engage in deliberately slow practices, like yoga, or tai chi, or meditation, as discovered in a broad range of scientific studies, and he has shown they improve your ability to pay attention by a significant amount. I asked him why. He said that “we have to shrink the world to fit our cognitive bandwidth.” If you go too fast, you overload your abilities, and they degrade. But when you practice moving at a speed that is compatible with human nature—and you build that into your daily life—you begin to train your attention and focus. “That’s why those disciplines make you smarter. It’s not about humming or wearing orange robes.” Slowness, he explained, nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.

A team at UCLA got people to do two tasks at once, and tracked them to see the effects. It turned out that afterward they couldn’t remember what they had done as well as people who did just one thing at a time. This seems to be because it takes mental space and energy to convert your experiences into memories, and if you are spending your energy instead on switching very fast, you’ll remember and learn less. So if you spend your time switching a lot, then the evidence suggests you will be slower, you’ll make more mistakes, you’ll be less creative, and you’ll remember less of what you do.
[…]
So if you spend your time switching a lot, then the evidence suggests you will be slower, you’ll make more mistakes, you’ll be less creative, and you’ll remember less of what you do.

The average American worker is distracted roughly once every three minutes. Several other studies have shown a large chunk of Americans are almost constantly being interrupted and switching between tasks. The average office worker now spends 40 percent of their work time wrongly believing they are “multitasking”—which means they are incurring all these costs for their attention and focus.

The evidence is clear, Earl told me: there’s no alternative, if you want to do things well, to focusing carefully on one thing at a time. “The best we can do now,” Earl told me, is “try to get rid of the distractions as much as possible.” At one point in our conversation, he sounded quite optimistic, suggesting that we can all achieve progress on this, starting today. He said: “The brain is like a muscle. The more you use certain things, the stronger the connection’s getting, and the better things work.” If you are struggling to focus, he said, just try monotasking for ten minutes, and then allow yourself to be distracted for a minute, then monotask for another ten minutes, and so on. “As you do it, it becomes more familiar, your brain gets better and better at it, because you’re strengthening the [neural] connections involved in that behavior. And pretty soon you can do it for fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, half an hour, you know?…Just do it. Practice at it…. Start slow, but practice, and you’ll get there.” To achieve this, he said you have to separate yourself—for increasing periods of time—from the sources of your distraction. It’s a mistake, he said, to “try to monotask by force of will—because it’s too hard to resist that informational tap on the shoulder.” When I asked him about how, as a society, we could find a way to do this, he told me that he’s not a sociologist, and I’d have to look elsewhere for answers to that.

Cause 2: The Treasure of “Flow State”

(3/5/22 – this article is a living document – I will continue to update new excerpts until complete, as I have time to review my notes)

(4/30/22 – I just spent a lot of time moving my entire blog from wix to wordpress 🙂 I have not forgotten about this – back soon)

My Disagreements With Johann

(We have more power than you suggest!)

I am strongly in favor of you seizing personal responsibility in this way [to help yourself]. But I have to be honest with you, in a way that I fear previous books on this topic were not. Those changes will only get you so far.


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