This is a comprehensive book summary of the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari. Covering the key ideas and proposing practical ways for achieving what’s mentioned in the text. Written by book fanatic and online librarian Ivaylo Durmonski.
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The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
Claim your attention. Increase the chances of winning the ongoing battle against the forces trying to steal your focus. Stolen Focus by Johann Hari discussed a wide variety of problems that are leading to an attention-pathogenic culture – a place where deep focus is nearly impossible to achieve. The research by Johann Hari leads to the conclusion that our distracted minds aren’t at all personal failings solvable by individuals. Rather, societal problems – manipulative tech, high stress, rising pollution – that need to be fixed on a larger scale.
The Core Idea:
The world is seemingly speeding up – we talk faster, we walk faster, we try to hack reading by reading faster. In our effort to keep up with all that’s happening, we try to multitask. But our efforts are seldom successful. Instead of doing a lot of things right. We do a lot of things wrong. Our brains become paralyzed by this constant flow of data. We are soaked in information, and this never-ending switch from one thing to another is worsening our stay on the planet.
Reason To Read:
Snapback from the mindless scrolling and begin your journey towards reclaiming your freedom – by reclaiming your attention. Johann Hari warns that if we don’t collectively – as a society – take steps toward making our lives less busy. We’ll end up designing the dystopian future we currently think won’t happen – living virtual lives, inside a computer, and being manipulated by the upper class.
- The surge of incoming information is the main factor fragmenting our attention span and making it hard for us to focus on a single topic.
- Our inability to prevent distracting apps from corrupting our focus shouldn’t be a personal battle. We should (all) demand for big tech to change.
- Only when enough people realize that our ability to pay attention is collapsing – and that this is a big problem. We can unite and do something about it.
8 Key Lessons from Stolen Focus:
- Lesson #1: How Our Attention Degenerated
- Lesson #2: We Are Drinking from a Fire Hose
- Lesson #3: Pursue Meaningful Work. Not Fake Status Symbols
- Lesson #4: Cruel Optimism Makes Us Feel Like It’s Only Our Fault
- Lesson #5: Stress Contributes To Our Attention Problems
- Lesson #6: Supervised Play is Not Real Play
- Lesson #7: Why Life is Speeding Up
- Lesson #8: Understand The Main Forms of Focus
Lesson #1: How Our Attention Degenerated
The journey to understand our disturbed attention span begins with the personal story of Adam – the author’s godson.
Adam was a perfectly normal kid. And like every kid. He had his own obsessions. In his case, this was Elvis Presley. He sang songs and collected everything he could with the name Elvis on it.
But as he grew older. Things radically changed. After dropping out of school. He spent most of his waking hours at home altering between different screens and apps.
It seemed, the outside world was no longer part of his agenda. Elvis – or anything else in particular – wasn’t capable of holding his attention. A specific topic was only able to keep him at bay for a moment or two. After a few minutes, he was back to abruptly searching for something new to consume online.
Hoping that he can withdraw him from the virtual realm of fakeness. Johann offered to Adam to go together to Graceland – the home of Elvis Presley. The only thing Adam had to do was to switch off his phone. To return to reality. To start living again. Adam hesitantly agreed, and off they were – to Memphis.
But the trip was not what Johann Hari expected. Instead of reconnecting with his godson. He was constantly trying to bring him to the current moment. Adam was either not interested in what was in front of him. Or hiding somewhere behind an Elvis portrait to flick through Snapchat.
Adam’s story is not simply the personal story of a man unable to appreciate what is before his eyes. This is our current reality.
It’s digital cancer. In the constant chase to experience pleasure all the time. We always find ourselves wishing for another minute of scrolling session. The grips of the digital world are now permanently nested in our organism. Feeling itchy. We spent our time twitching our phones, so we can feel less lonely, and less like a nobody. But the more we do it. The lonelier we become. And not only that, but our inability to concentrate on a given subject only makes us less adequate to enjoy the life that happens around us.
The collapsing ability to pay attention, however, is not a personal problem – the author argues. It’s based on a collection of things. A portfolio of powerful forces that pour acid on our attention daily trying – and succeeding – to withdraw more data, and money out of us.
“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.” Johann Hari
Lesson #2: We Are Drinking from a Fire Hose
How do you slow down in a world that is speeding up?
Well, the first thing you should do if you want to finally enjoy the current moment – not constantly search for new moments to enjoy. Is to reduce the inflow of information.
Sune Lehmann, a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science in Copenhagen. A man who also noticed the decline in our ability to focus, conducted a series of experiments with his team. The question they were trying to answer was the following: “Is our collective attention span really shrinking?”
They analyzed the popular social media platforms. Then they created a mathematical algorithm that scanned books, newspapers, and online resources looking at how long a phrase was discussed for – think about news such as “the 9/11” or “Brexit”.
What they found was that in 2013. A popular topic on social media would remain the most discussed subject for 17.5 hours. But in 2016, that number dropped significantly to 11.9 hours.
The data they gathered from books was similar. With each decade – and they analyzed info for more than 130 years – topics have come and gone faster and faster.
Or basically, each year the world record in scrolling is topped with a new high – which is actually a low point for society.
The internet accelerated the trend of our collective desire to move on to something new, but this wasn’t the sole cause. This type of behavior was happening for years.
After looking deeper into the problem. Sune and his colleagues realized that the key component responsible for our neurotic behavior was that the system is being flooded with information.
The more the inflow of information grows. The less time people have to focus on an individual piece. Naturally, since we are guided by the fear of missing out (FOMO). We hop from one topic to the next faster and faster – because there are now hundreds of topics sitting in our queue.
It feels that the world is speeding up. But the reality is that the sheer volume of information we are surrounded with is so vast that our attempt to digest it all makes us feel in a constant hurry. Never pausing. Never reaching depth.
“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.” Johann Hari
Lesson #3: Pursue Meaningful Work. Not Fake Status Symbols
One reason we overuse social media these days. Which, in turn, keeps us away from our ability to concentrate. Is the gains we get from this platform.
We scroll, share, comment, and loudly express our opinion to feel better. We narcissistically broadcast our views, hungry for more appreciation.
And the catch is that the more you contribute to a particular platform. The more the algorithm rewards you with likes and followers. You see these metrics as signs, votes to keep going. As if others see you and hear you. You transcribe this internally as “Signal back. Signal more. We see you. We hear you. You matter!”
The moment you stop contributing to a platform. It’s the moment the signals stop. Then, with the absence of these votes toward your identity, a daunting feeling emerges. Like you no longer matter. Like your lifeline is cut.
The author experienced this himself when he retreated to a distant town with no access to the internet – searching for ways to nurture his focus. He admits that he was obsessed with checking the metrics of his social media profiles. If the numbers were growing, he was feeling proud of himself. Like he mattered. But since now, he wasn’t able to see what was happening to his virtual profile. He felt empty. The source of meaning in his life was no longer here. And that, quite naturally, left him questioning his existence as a whole.
Acknowledging these inner sensations led him to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his study of flow.
Instead of considering the absence of the signals coming from the social media profiles like he doesn’t matter. He used this void for something else. He filled the vacuum with meaningful work. With creative work.
That is the main concept of flow, the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. When people are in the process of creating something that is meaningful to them. They are fully concentrated. Like they are in a hypnotic trance.
To artists. The moment of finishing a painting is not the most desirable moment. It’s the process of painting itself.
“The mystique of rock-climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it could go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing. You don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing you are a flow. The purpose of flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going.” Johann Hari
Lesson #4: Cruel Optimism Makes Us Feel Like It’s Only Our Fault
Whenever there is a problem on the horizon. A self-proclaimed guru will emerge seemingly out of nowhere and emphasize how you can meditate your way through the situation.
Nir Eyal, a famous author. The person who wrote Hooked – a tutorial-like book showcasing a framework on how to make addictive digital products. Later wrote Indistractable. A book about the opposite – how to stop being addicted to the software you first created.
While Johan Harry was discussing possible scenarios with Nir for society to regain its freedom and focus. He was steadily becoming more and more reluctant by the approach of Nir. An approach that was putting all the pressure on the individual, not on the system.
For example, Nir preached that it’s not our fault that addictive apps and software exist. But it’s our responsibility to adapt to this world. A world where machine-learning programs are studying us and using what they found to make us even more disengaged from the things that actually matter.
On top of it all, Nir was broadcasting how easy it is to disengage from the web. You just have to install an app that blocks certain sites and turn off the notification.
That’s called cruel optimism. A concept with a nasty aftereffect. While the person who is suggesting the “easy” change is kind and optimistic. The receiving part – when he/she is unable to implement the proposed – starts to blame herself/himself.
Cruel optimism claims that the individual is fully in charge of what’s happening in his life, while deflecting how corrupt and hard-to-escape the system truly is.
Yes, there is indeed an option to stop the notifications and implement some rules in your life. But should we allow tech companies to be what they are today – data-mining algorithms that are shape-shifting to make us more hooked? Not at all.
Our culture is pushing us towards distractions. Saying that it’s pretty simple to escape the tentacles of big tech is talking from a privileged position. A better environment is needed where we don’t rely purely on self-motivation to concentrate.
“It’s easier to say no to the next hamburger, or the next Facebook notification, or the next tab of OxyContin if you aren’t exhausted and stressed, and in desperate need of some kind of salve to get you through the next few stress-filled hours.” Johann Hari
Lesson #5: Stress Contributes To Our Attention Problems
When you are alert. When you are stressed. When you had a tough childhood. Your ability to focus is extra damaged.
That’s a state known as hypervigilance.
The main idea is that when you were abused as a child. Or even not necessarily abused – when the environment you grew up in was dangerous. For instance, a lot of fights in the family, or a neighborhood where there was a lot of bad stuff going on – thugs selling drugs and police constantly on the lookout to lock someone. You develop a hyper-sensitive radar. Opposed to being focused on what’s happening right now – the lessons in school, and what others are saying. Your attention is constantly focused on cues that can mean potential danger.
Not that your sensors are fully blocked. But you are never 100% focused on the current moment.
This leads to one discovery about paying attention. That is, you need to feel safe to concentrate on the current moment. When you feel safe. You switch off the parts in your brain that are forever scanning the horizon for potential dangers. You allow yourself to immerse in the current topic.
Dr. Nicole Brown found out that kids who experienced trauma are far more likely to develop attention problems exactly because of the above. Her study suggested that drugs that are commonly prescribed for ADHD symptoms are only making things worse. They are treating the surface symptoms and neglecting the root cause – the experience of the trauma.
Similar behavior is observed when there are other common stressors. For example, if you are worried about your finances.
You can’t fully relax and concentrate on what is happening right now because your brain tells you to stay alert, that you are in potential danger. That’s why you seek distractions. To feel a bit better about the problems residing in your system.
Obviously, creating a stress-free environment when you have money issues is easier said than done. But this helps with understanding what’s happening internally in your system.
When you don’t have to worry about your financial situation. This clears up space in your brain. You have the capability to think about other things in more depth.
“What happens to your ability to think clearly when you become more financially stressed? I learned that this has been studied carefully by Sendhil Mullainathan. He was part of a team that studied sugarcane harvesters in India. They tested their thinking skills before the harvest (when they were broke), and after the harvest (when they had a fair bit of money). It turned out that when they had the financial security that came at the end of the harvest, they were on average thirteen IQ points smarter—an extraordinary gap. Why would that be? When you are worried about how to survive financially, everything—from a broken washing machine to a child’s lost shoe—becomes a threat to your ability to get through the week. You become more vigilant.” Johann Hari
Lesson #6: Supervised Play is Not Real Play
When a wild horse is caged and domesticated. There is a considerable chance that it will start cribbing. A compulsive behavior where a horse will grasp with his teeth something solid and arch his neck, swallow, and grunt hard.
How do horse owners treat this? They go to the doctor who will inject drugs that are usually for people – Prozac or Valium. Evidently, nearly half of the US zoos admit that they give psychiatric drugs to their animals.
But as you can imagine, the reason animals need drugs is not because they get sick or something. This is a condition of domestication. When an animal is being involuntarily kept away from his natural situation – i.e., animals that are free never develop such symptoms.
Well, this seems to happen to us as well – to our kids. The author explains that more and more parents do not let their children play freely. Additionally, the school system is further damaging the need for children to express their innate nature.
When a child has been diagnosed with ADHD. This means that this child is struggling to focus. However, it doesn’t tell you anything about the “why” question.
Since the cases of kids diagnosed with ADHD are increasing. Scientists argue that it’s based on the environment.
There are three main things leading to ADHD problems:
- Children that are raised in an environment where there is a lot of stress.
- Children that are not left to play unsupervised.
- Standardized schooling makes learning meaningless.
Our intention to protect our kids is damaging them internally. When we don’t let kids learn by play. When we constantly hover over them. They don’t get the benefits of learning on their own about the world.
On top of it all, our school system forcing kids to sit all day makes things even worse. Instead of feeling inspired to learn. Kids do not pay attention to the material and only daydream about leaving the room and playing outside.
An interesting example of a novel school is a place where kids vote for what they should learn. They decide collectively on a topic they want to investigate and then create lessons around that topic.
A far better alternative than what we have today. A system that takes our kids. Ignores their nature and desires. And makes them live a life that fits the needs of society, not the kids.
“…the more something is meaningful, the easier it is to pay attention to and learn, for adults and kids. Standardized schooling too often drains learning of meaning, while progressive schooling tries to infuse it into everything. This is why the best research on this question shows that kids at more progressive schools are more likely to retain what they’ve learned in the long run, more likely to want to carry on learning, and more likely to be able to apply what they’ve learned to new problems. These, it seems to me, are among the most precious forms of attention.” Johann Hari
Lesson #7: Why Life is Speeding Up
What would you do if you bought a plant for your house? What steps you’d take to ensure that it will grow? Well, sure enough, you won’t feed it with microwaved food and place it in front of your TV. Rather, you’ll ensure that the plant is where there is plenty of sunlight, you’ll water it and soil it with the right nutrients.
The plant analogy can be related to our ability to focus.
We know what we have to do. But we don’t do it.
We need free play. We need time to read thought-provoking books. We need to engage in meaningful experiences that are pushing our limits. We need the right type of food and stress-free life.
But can this legitimately happen?
Can we undo what we’ve done in our world that is sabotaging our concentration?
The book ends with a summary of how our economy currently operates.
Everything is based on consumption. We define success by economic growth. And economic growth happens in one or two ways.
Either a new market is found. For instance, by creating a new product. Or by selling to a new part of the world.
Or, the second scenario is to simply persuade your current customers to consume more.
What do you think is the main focus?
Apparently point two.
No wonder why big corporations have little interest in permanently fixing our emotional and psychological struggles.
If we eat the right food. Get the right dose of sleep. Adore what we currently have. We will shop less, which in turn will lead to a decline in the economy. The alternative is much more desirable by global players – stressed, sleep-deprived people who are trying to numb the pain from their daily struggles with more items.
The increasing production of new items and new offerings creates a feeling that life is speeding up.
Since the economic machine requires more consumption. It produces more goods and convinces you that you are not enough if you don’t own this, and this, and this… The cycle repeats itself on different fronts.
In the center are regular people who are struggling to make ends meet. They are no longer paying attention to important things. They are focused on what will be produced next that can “supposedly” cure them of their worries.
“Corporations are constantly finding ways to cram more stuff into the same amount of time. To give one example: they want you to watch TV and follow the show on social media. Then you see twice as many ads. This inevitably speeds up life.” Johann Hari
Lesson #8: Understand The Main Forms of Focus
Can we reclaim our focus and live a calm and meaningful life?
Is there an easy step-by-step program that can guide us on how to reclaim our ability to concentrate?
Well, things are not that simple.
In search for answers, Johann Hari went to Moscow to meet with James Williams – former Google strategies who studied focus for years.
James conducted that our attention takes three main forms that are all now being stolen from us.
Let’s look at them one by one:
- Spotlight: The type of attention that focuses you on the immediate action. Something like, “I’m going to get up and go to the restroom to floss my teeth.” It’s called a spotlight because you concentrate on something specific. If the spotlight attention is damaged. You can’t perform basic tasks.
- Starlight: This layer is about your long-term goals. Say, if you want to write a book or run a marathon. If you feel lost, you look up, you see your star, and you remember where you need to go. If your starlight is blocked or fades away. You no longer know where you are headed. You just mindlessly wander.
- Daylight: This form of focus is your ability to rationalize why you want the long-term goal in the above step. How do you know that you want to write a book? How do you know that you should involve yourself in a marathon? The inability to give a specific answer on why you want to achieve something will make it less possible to reach this desired destination. Also, you won’t know who you are.
According to James Williams, losing the third form of attention is the biggest problem. Not knowing why we want to do something disturbs the stories we tell ourselves. We become more focused on adopting the stories others create for themselves. Never pausing to reflect and create our own journey based on our personal wants and needs.
After his discussion with James. Johann Hari creates the fourth form of attention. He calls it “stadium lights”. It’s our ability to see and hear others. To collaborate and to fight for our collective goals – like climate crisis and our attention problems.
The author urges us that we need to stand up and fight to improve our attention.
Start a movement that would make big corporations less capable of infiltrating our personal lives and make it hard for them to corrupt our mental space.
But how do you start a movement?
Well, the first step is to make people aware of the problem at scale. When you point out the issue. And when enough people feel that this is indeed a problem. They can all together participate in the battle of liberating our minds from the people who are controlling them without our consent.
“I realized that we have to decide now: Do we value attention and focus? Does being able to think deeply matter to us? Do we want it for our children? If we do, then we have to fight for it. As one politician said: ‘You don’t get what you don’t fight for.'” Johann Hari
- Reach depth: If you try to keep up with everything happening around you – respond to emails, keep yourself up to date with new stories, and connect with everyone available for connection. Your ability to pay attention and concentrate will suffer. Becoming good at one thing requires depth and reflection. It requires commitment. Long hours of focused work on one particular thing. It takes energy and mental stamina to block – and keep blocking – all distractions. The solution here looks rather simple, but it’s actually a huge boulder that needs to be crushed. It’s about limiting your availability to sources that offer mostly surface information and focusing on one specific topic for a long period of time. If we distance ourselves from websites offering endless information. We create opportunities for ourselves, allowing us to stay with a single topic long enough. Therefore, mastering the topic and enjoying it even more.
- Enhancing the voodoo doll: Why social media sites are free? Why Google Maps is free? An interesting concept in the book is that the biggest companies in the world today – think Facebook and Google. Offer free services so they can improve the voodoo doll. This means that the more you use these seemingly free platforms, the better big tech companies get to know you. This, in turn, makes it easier for them to target your most secret wants. The experience online for everyone becomes incredibly tailored. But, as you can imagine, not for you to gain. But for big tech companies to withdraw as much as money possible from you. The companies get to know what makes you tick, that’s why we see ads for products we recently searched for and discussed in our private conversations. By default, technologies are designed to pull us away from our deepest work and further down the internet rabbit hole of purchasing items we don’t really need. As mentioned in the book, “Older technologies—like the printed page, or the television—can’t target you in this way. Social media knows exactly where to drill. It learns your most distractible spots and targets them.”
- Unforced schooling: Standard schools try to fit us into a particular curriculum. Progressive schools want to learn about our wants and desires and create a curriculum around these topics. The point of learning shouldn’t be to force a subject. It is to understand the needs of the people and create a tailored experience. However, since these new types of schools are not that common – and probably quite expensive. It’s our job as parents and adults to create custom learning material for our kids – and for ourselves as well. Thankfully, online, you can find all the resources you need to create your own learning program. The point is to see that children have needs, and it’s our job as adults to create an environment that meets those needs.
- State your focus forms: The way hackers attack a website is by organizing an enormous number of computers to connect to a certain website. Unable to handle the huge amount of traffic, the server the website resides on, crashes. That’s a great metaphor describing what happens to us. Everyone is throwing information at us. This undermines our capacity to respond. Therefore, we get distracted. Paralyzed even. We lose touch with our true sense. To begin the journey of reclaiming your focus. Think about your starlight and your daylight. What are your long-term goals? Then, think about why you want this goal over something else? Being aware of what you want and why you want it will make you more resilient to outside attracts trying to make you believe that you should want something else.
- Pre-commitment and slow practices: Two key practices that can resurrect our attention mentioned in the book are the following. First, pre-commitment. Understanding that you have a problem and pre-committing to make a change. For example, prevent yourself from jumping from one task to another. Start single-tasking. Leave your phone in another room so you can do the second exercise… slow activities. When you exit the fast lane and when you slow down, the rush to do everything at once is no longer present. Meditating, mind-wandering, walking, and journaling are all great ways to slow down and focus on the present moment.
Commentary and Key Takeaway
Having a hard time concentrating? Paying attention to what’s happening to you at the current moment is no longer an activity you can sustain for more than a second?
It’s not entirely your fault.
Reading this book can potentially save your mind.
Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is a manifesto-like book that aims to make society more aware of the human downgrading happening. The degeneration of our attention, reinforced by the economic machine looking for constant growth.
The book is a grim analysis of why we’ve lost the capacity to focus. What factors are toying with our attention and what we can do about it.
I was hoping that I would be a little more optimistic about our future after finishing the book. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. Chapter after chapter. With each new discovery presented by the author, showcasing how our attention is molested by this or that. It seems that we designed a lifestyle that is out of our control.
Big tech corporations mining our personal data and using it against us. Increasing inflow of information presented as “necessary to consume”. Processed food. Pollution. School systems that have zero interest in our interests – only trying to cage us into jobs, so we can assist with increasing the GDP of the nation.
What can we do about it?
The author went to a boring city and lived there for 3 months without access to the internet. Did he feel better? Initially not, his organism was shocked by the sudden interruption of his access to the outside world. After a while, he was able to adapt and enjoy the slow life. But was this a permanent change? Not at all. After returning to the city. He quickly reconnected with his bad habits.
Is there a way out then?
Well, unless something extraordinary happens – one possible doom scenario is an EMP destroying the whole internet infrastructure. I can’t imagine that something else can stop the giant machine we’ve built together.
The key message the book contains is that we should do something together about the attention problem. Giants conglomerates have little interest in making us more concentrated and more capable. Their desire is to distract us from the important things, so we can shop more unimportant things. The author urges us to unite and fight for a brighter future involving less screen time.
… but that this typical bestselling book, which tells you to meditate your way through stress and humiliation, is ‘bullshit…. Tell it to Hispanic women working three jobs with four kids.’ The people who say stress is just a matter of changing your thoughts are, he says, talking ‘from a privileged position. It’s easy for them to say that.'” Johann Hari
“Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them.” Johann Hari
“One day, James Williams–the former Google strategist I met–addressed an audience of hundreds of leading tech designers and asked them a simple question: “How many of you want to live in the world you are designing?” There was a silence in the room. People looked around them. Nobody put up their hand.” Johann Hari
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