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  • Dan Connors

I had something important to say about this great book, but I keep getting distracted....

Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again

Johann Hari 2022

Do you ever start something and find yourself abandoning it within minutes because of distractions? Do you get lost in rabbit holes on the internet that suck up most of your time and attention? And do you miss deep, honest connection with other humans and find yourself lonely much of the time? There've been a lot of books written about this phenomenon in past year's but none have been as urgent as Johann Hari's Stolen Focus, a book that spells out the problem and 12 different causes that are keeping us from finding peace, connection, and true happiness.
Johann Hari is a British writer and author of two acclaimed books on similar subjects. Lost Connections tells the story of how our epidemic of anxiety and depression have more to do with our lack of meaningful connections than a chemical imbalance. Chasing the Scream was a best seller that looked closely at the war on drugs and how there was much more to it than we realized. Stolen Focus is a plea and a plan for all of us to reclaim our minds.

A big part of the problem of maintaining focus is the continuous firehose of information that has increased exponentially and overwhelmed us. We bounce from crisis to crisis without learning anything from them, and the constant urge to multitask and doomscroll has made us overflowing with useless trivia and incapable of deep introspection about anything. The news cycle changes hourly, as does our level of outrage and frustration, and rarely do we feel empowered to do anything about it.

Hari gets personal in his quest for focus with his tale of a sabbatical on Cape Cod. He left behind his email, cell phone, and media and vowed to spend a summer reclaiming his attention. Using this as a backdrop, he goes through 12 serious obstacles that keep us occupied and rob us of our focus. They are:

1- Everything is moving faster and we try to compensate by filtering and multitasking.
Multitasking is a myth. The human brain can only do one thing at a time. What actually happens is that we switch back and forth from tasks, losing a tiny bit of focus every time, and not doing as well as we could on either task. Too much information overwhelms our filters, which are there to keep us on task. Overwhelmed filters means lots of bad and useless information gets through.

2- We lost the ability to find flow. Flow is a magical and fragile state of mind where productivity soars and sense of time and place fall away. To get into flow, people need a clear goal that is meaningful to them and pushes them to the edge of their abilities. If something is too hard, we give up- too easy and we get bored, both of which kill focus. Think about a day in your life when everything seemed to come together and you got a lot done without having to think about it- that's flow. Lack of focus keeps us from finding flow, and prevents us from getting deep into a task.

3- Too much physical and mental exhaustion. We don't get enough sleep, and sleep is essential for the mind to make it strong enough to sustain concentration. We try to keep up with the demands of jobs, media, and worry about missing out so much that we rob ourselves of the one thing that can restore us. Over 40% of the US gets less than 7 hours of sleep, and many rely on drugs to get there.

4- We can't read words for a sustained length of time. Fewer and fewer people are reading books, and most other media rely on the internet and other screens that fight for attention with flashy headlines and not much substance. Reading is a great way to enter flow, as you engage your mind and imagination to invite new stories into your head. According to one statistic cited by the author, Americans spend on average 5.4 hours per day on their phones and only 17 minutes reading.

5- We're losing the ability to let our minds wander. Creativity comes from letting your mind loose without any expectations. The default mode network engages during this period to try to make sense of the world and make new connections that can help with life. But to get there we have to disconnect from everything- no distractions but your own mind. Many can't handle it. It can get boring, and sometimes leads to rumination, which is a dangerous level of critical and negative what ifs that can scare us into distractions at any cost. Going for a walk, sitting quietly, or getting out in nature are ways to engage this creative energy, and we are doing less of those things.

6- Big Tech is learning how to track and manipulate our attention. This is probably the most important of the twelve items, because it's getting more and more powerful. Everything that we interact with on screens- streaming services, social media, Google, You Tube, and more is a part of what is called surveillance capitalism. They make money by keeping our attention, and lose money when we shut them down. So all of the tech giants have hired smart programmers who are getting better and better at grabbing and keeping our limited attention. Algorithms keep track of what we like and what we do morning, noon, and night. They then use the plentiful information to create an irresistible menu of junk food for the brain that robs us of our ability to pay attention to our own priorities or think deeply.
Facebook used to have a service called "Nearby Friends" that would help you connect in real life with those near you. They discontinued it because it hurt their business model. People meeting in coffee shops and talking aren't scrolling through Facebook any more. Now they are doubling down with the metaverse, an artificial reality that keeps people trapped in a world that Facebook controls, and away from real connections even more.
Hari tells sobering stories of how social media in particular hurt focus by making their products addictive. Part of the way they do this is by tweaking their algorithms to show us content that makes us angry, which is a big part of why political polarization has skyrocketed in the 21st century.

7- Cruel optimism makes us think the loss of focus is a personal problem and not a communal problem. Hari takes particular aim another author, Nir Eyal, who wrote a book that claimed there are ways to personally take charge and defeat the algorithms. He sees this as cruel because it puts all the onus on vulnerable individuals and not the huge corporations that profit from their weaknesses. The same cruel optimism can be seen with admonishments to eat less and lose weight in a world where food has been made cheap and addictive, or in ads that encourage recycling and light bulb replacement as a way to fix the environment. Any large societal problem requires large societal solutions, and cruel optimism is a way that corporate America avoids accountability.

8- Too much stress kills the ability to focus. Suggestions to read a book or watch a four-hour documentary ring hollow when families are faced with serious health problems, piles of bills, or random violence in their lives. In order to think deeply and find meaning, we first have to feel safe, and for many of us that's just not happening. Stress has a way of degrading our health while the stressors use up all of our limited mental bandwidth to think about and fix our problems. To get to a better place, stress management is key, even if stressors can't be eliminated.

9- Deteriorating diets. Obviously hunger and food insecurity threaten survival itself, and only once groceries are available reliably can we take our mind off of that threat. But even then, the quality of the American diet- filled with processed foods and fattening carbs -also damages our ability to focus. Obsessing about our weight or our next bowl of ice cream takes up critical brain power, and bad diets can make us sluggish or subject to destructive swings of blood sugar. To improve focus, we need to feel healthy and functional, and a healthy diet is the cornerstone.

10- Rising pollution. We don't know what effect many of the chemicals in our air, food, and water have on our brains and our ability to think. Science has helped us unlock the powers of the earth, but improper disposal has meant that people, especially the poor, suffer the side effects of reduced health and functioning. Hari mainly points the finger at lead, which has lead to proven cases of brain damage when it was plentiful in the 20th century. He recommends more testing of products like pesticides, plasticizers, and cosmetics to detect their effects on health and brain activity, which is currently not a thing unless lawyers get involved.

11- The rising incidence of ADHD. Diagnoses of ADHD have skyrocketed since the turn of the century, and an estimated 13% of all students now suffer from this diagnosis, which covers attention and behavior difficulties. While a lot of the current literature points to genetic causes, Hari disputes that claim and says that ADHD is mostly an environmental problem. Those with the diagnosis are typically given stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, which help with symptoms, but don't get at the root cause, while making the users feel like their brains have been turned off.
ADHD may have been rising instead because children are being "caged" in school buildings and homes and not let to play outside or explore. They are often encouraged into very structured sports activities or left alone to waste hours on video games. What's missing for a lot of our children is unstructured play and meaningful relationships with peers. Animals in zoos and cages tend to exhibit behaviors similar to ADHD, and many of them are on drugs as well.

12- The confinement of our children is harming them. Back in the 20th century, children were allowed to roam free without adult supervision much of the time. They could ride bikes in the streets, explore nature, or visit friends houses at will. Starting in about 2000, parents became much, much more protective, and it was unthinkable to let your child ride the bus or do anything out in public by themselves. This change makes little sense since violent crime rates have actually decreased, but high-profile kidnapping cases have changed perceptions and behaviors.
This change not only leaves the kids vulnerable to loneliness, video game addiction, and social media bullying, but it robs them of opportunities to gain mastery, learn how to navigate their environment, and discover their intrinsic motivations and strengths.

If you've read this far- congratulations! There's hope for you yet. This is a lot of material to digest and it's both fascinating and disturbing. Stolen Focus is one of my favorite books of the year in that it covers a topic that's so important to our very consciousness- the ability to think clearly. These factors are thoroughly presented and Hari does a nice job integrating them with his own journey of awareness on Cape Cod.

This book is a call to arms and not entirely a depressing tale of how distracted and vulnerable we all are. (Though the meat of the book is disturbing for sure.) The author presents many suggestions to improve things as well as resources, and I hope that the people who can do something about the systemic problems read this book and take it to heart. As for myself, I found things like mindfulness, flow, pre-commitment, and mind-wandering that are very helpful.

Here are some of his three big suggestions- some of which may take decades to happen:

1- Outlaw surveillance capitalism that monetizes our time and attention. Make social media a subscription model that truly tries to help its users and not addict them. This has an added bonus of reducing loneliness, conspiracy theories, and political polarization.

2- Let children play and experiment from time to time with unstructured activities and as much freedom as we can tolerate. Rebuild childhood both at home and at school and wean our children off of their destructive screens and addictions.

3- Go towards a 4 day work week to give people more chances to wind down. Look into adding universal basic income and a stronger safety net to help relieve the economic stress that those at the lower and middle class face. When survival is at risk, meaningful focus and relationships become much harder.

And here are five suggestions that each of us can take on:

1- Use pre-commitment to control your addictive behaviors before they start. Set your phone to shut off after a certain amount of time or take a sabbatical completely from screens once in a while.

2- Let you mind wander from time to time. You don't have to be consuming content 24/7.

3- Get plenty of sleep- 8 hours a day or more so you feel refreshed and attentive. Plus eat healthier foods and get quality exercise.

4- Play with kids and let them know that adults care about them.

5- Change your inner dialogue to a more gentle one and let FOMO go. No shouting about what you should do next or what you missed out on.

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