Stolen Focuscover

Johann Hari

Stolen Focus

Quotes and Notes - January 22nd, 2023

On how to regain our focus, and against cruel optimism

Cause one - the increase in speed, switching, and filtering

Do people talk about the topics that obsess them—the trending hashtags—for more or less time now, compared to in the recent past? What they found is that in 2013 a topic would remain in the top fifty most-discussed subjects for 17.5 hours. By 2016 that had dropped to 11.9 hours. This suggested that together, on that site, we were focusing on any one thing for ever-shorter periods of time.

They find the same results across multiple websites and data sources - reddit, google search, movie ticket sales. Surprisingly they find the same trend going as far back as 1880 when looking at popular phrases in books scanned by google books. Every decade for the last 130 years, topics have come and gone faster and faster.

As to why this is happening:

What they discovered is there is one mechanism that can make this happen every time. You just have to flood the system with more information. The more information you pump in, the less time people can focus on any individual piece of it.

There is an ever expanding fire hose of information being unleashed upon us, and we find it harder and harder to keep up and we end up spending less time on any single topic of interest - there is just no time, the next big thing is coming, and we have to be ready to consume it.

Fear of missing out, multi tasking, context switching is destroying our ability to focus.

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.

Cause two - the crippling of our flow states

A flow state comes about when you are so absorbed in the activity you are engaged in that you lose all sense of time and self. It is the deepest form of focus you can experience.

to find flow, you need to choose one single goal; make sure your goal is meaningful to you; and try to push yourself to the edge of your abilities. Once you have created these conditions, and you hit flow, you can recognize it because it's a distinctive mental state. You feel you are purely present in the moment. You experience a loss of self-consciousness. In this state it's like your ego has vanished and you have merged with the task

The problem, of course, is that it is harder and harder to find yourself in a state of flow, when, on average, you are interrupted every few minutes by texts, emails, random notifications, co-workers, etc.

Cause three - the rise of physical and mental exhaustion

With each passing year, he warned, this has become more urgent. Today 40 percent of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, getting less than the necessary minimum of seven hours a night. In Britain, an incredible 23 percent are getting less than five hours a night. Only 15 percent of us wake up from our sleep feeling refreshed. This is new. Since 1942, the average amount of time a person sleeps has been slashed by an hour a night. Over the past century, the average child has lost eighty-five minutes of sleep every night. There's a scientific debate about the precise scale of our sleep loss, but the National Sleep Foundation has calculated that the amount of sleep we get has dropped by 20 percent in just a hundred years.

Cause four - the collapse of sustained reading

Anne Mangen is a professor of literacy at the University of Stavanger in Norway, and she explained to me that in two decades of researching this subject, she has proved something crucial. Reading books trains us to read in a particular way—in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading from screens, she has discovered, trains us to read in a different way—in a manic skip and jump from one thing to another. We're more likely to scan and skim when we read on screens, her studies have found—we run our eyes rapidly over the information to extract what we need. But after a while, if we do this long enough, she told me, this scanning and skimming bleeds over. It also starts to color or influence how we read on paper….

As a result, Anne told me, she is worried we are now losing our ability to read long texts anymore, and we are also losing our cognitive patience…[and] the stamina and the ability to deal with cognitively challenging texts. When I was at Harvard conducting interviews, one professor told me that he struggled to get his students there to read even quite short books, and he increasingly offered them podcasts and YouTube clips they could watch instead.

Cause five - the disruption of mind wandering

Why mind wandering is great

He has found that the more you let your mind wander, the better you are at having organized personal goals, being creative, and making patient, long-term decisions.

Second, when your mind wanders, it starts to make new connections between things—which often produces solutions to your problems. As Nathan put it to me, I think what's happening is that, when there's unresolved issues, the brain tries to make things fit, if it's just given the space to do it

Why do people hate it?

In general, when people are mind-wandering in our culture, they rank themselves as less happy than when they are doing almost any other activity. Even housework, for example, is associated with higher levels of happiness. They concluded: A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

I thought about this a lot. Given that mind-wandering has been shown to have so many positive effects, why does it so often make us feel bad? There is a reason for this. Mind-wandering can easily descend into rumination. Most of us have had that feeling at some point or another—if you stop focusing and let your mind drift, you become jammed up with stressful thoughts.

In situations of low stress and safety, mind-wandering will be a gift, a pleasure, a creative force. In situations of high stress or danger, mind-wandering will be a torment.

Cause six - the rise of technology that can track and manipulate you

James Williams told me I had made a fundamental mistake in Provincetown. He was a senior Google strategist for many years, and he left, horrified, to go to Oxford University, to study human attention, and figure out what his colleagues in Silicon Valley have done to it. He told me a digital detox is not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn't the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep, at an individual level, certain effects at bay. But it's not sustainable, and it doesn't address the systemic issues. He said our attention is being deeply altered by huge invasive forces in the wider society. Saying the solution is primarily to personally abstain is just pushing it back onto the individual, he said, when it's really the environmental changes that will really make the difference.

Cause seven - the rise of cruel optimism

He introduced me to an idea I hadn't heard before—a concept named cruel optimism. This is when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture—like obesity, or depression, or addiction—and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution. It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon—but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that for most people, it will fail.

Ronald talked to me about a bestselling book by a New York Times reporter that tells its readers: Stress isn't something imposed on us. It's something we impose on ourselves. Stress is a feeling. Stress is a series of thoughts. If you just learn how to think differently—to quiet down your rattling thoughts—your stress will melt away. So you just need to learn to meditate. Your stress comes from a failure to be mindful.

This message sings off the page with optimistic promise—but Ronald points out that in the real world, the top causes of stress in the U.S. have been identified by scientists at Stanford Graduate School of Business in a major study. They are a lack of health insurance, the constant threat of lay-offs, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long working hours, low levels of organizational justice, and unrealistic demands.

This is one of the problems with cruel optimism—it takes exceptional cases, usually achieved in exceptional circumstances, and acts as if they can be commonplace. It's easier to find serenity through meditation when you haven't just lost your job and you aren't wondering how you're going to avoid being evicted next Tuesday. 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. To tell people—as Nir does, and as the wider tech industry increasingly does—that it's pretty simple and that they should just push the fucking button [to disable notifications] is to deny the reality of most people's lives.

Obesity example of how societal changes would do more than individual changes:

There was a different way we could have reacted to the obesity crisis when it began forty or so years ago. We could have listened to the evidence that purely practicing individual restraint—in an unchanged environment—rarely works for long, except in one in twenty cases like Nir's. We could have looked instead at what does work: changing the environment in specific ways. We could have used government policy to make fresh, nutritious food cheap and accessible, and sugar-filled junk expensive and inaccessible. We could have reduced the factors that cause people to be so stressed that they comfort eat. We could have built cities people can easily walk or bike through. We could have banned the targeting of junk food ads at children, shaping their tastes for life. That's why countries that have done some of this—like Norway, or Denmark, or the Netherlands—have much lower levels of obesity, and countries that have focused on telling individual overweight people to pull themselves together, like the U.S. and U.K., have very high levels of obesity

First glimpse at a solution

At the moment, they said, social media is designed to grab your attention and sell it to the highest bidder, but it could be designed to understand your intentions and to better help you achieve them. Tristan and Aza told me that it's just as easy to design and program this life-affirming Facebook as the life-draining Facebook we currently have. I think that most people, if you stopped them in the street and painted them a vision of these two Facebooks, would say they wanted the one that serves their intentions. So why isn't it happening? It comes back, Tristan and Aza said, to the business model.

Cause eight: the surge in stress

The number on reason people gave for their problems focusing was not their phones. It was stress, which was chosen by 48 percent. The number-two reason was a change in life circumstances, like having a baby or getting older, also chosen by 48 percent. The number-three reason was difficult or disturbed sleep, which was named by 43 percent. Phones came fourth, chosen by 37 percent.

When I started to study the science of this in more detail, I learned that the hunches of ordinary people are not wrong. There are deeper forces than our phones and the web at work—and those forces led us, in turn, to develop a dysfunctional relationship with the web.

She [Nadine Harris] believed she had uncovered a key truth about focus: To pay attention in normal ways, you need to feel safe. You need to be able to switch off the parts of your mind that are scanning the horizon for bears or lions or their modern equivalents, and let yourself sink down into one secure topic. In Adelaide, in Australia, I met with a child psychiatrist named Dr. Jon Jureidini, who has specialized in this question, and he told me that narrowing your focus is a really good strategy in a safe environment, because it means you can learn things and flourish and develop. But if you are in a dangerous environment, selective attention [where you focus on just one thing] is a really dumb strategy. What you need instead is to evenly spread vigilance around your environment, looking for cues for danger..

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? Anyone reading this who's ever been financially stressed knows part of the answer instinctively. 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.

Cause nine and ten: our deteriorating diets and rising pollution

On what makes for a good diet:

If you're looking for a magic ingredient, you won't find it. But there's one thing that unifies every single one of them. They're all leaving out the crap that's making us sick in the first place. They're all leaving out the refined carbohydrates, the processed food, the junk oils. They're all building their foundations on whole foods…. That's the key. That's the magic bullet—just go back to whole foods. Foods as they were originally intended. He quoted Michael Pollan, who says we should eat only food that our grandparents would have recognized as food, and we should shop primarily around the outer edges of the supermarket—the fruit and veg at the front, and the meat and fish at the back. The stuff in the middle, he warned, isn't really food at all.

More cruel optimism musings:

All through the research for this book, I had an ongoing struggle to hold clearly in my mind the structural nature of our attention crisis. We live in an extremely individualistic culture, where we are constantly pushed to see our problems as individual failings, and to seek out individual solutions. You're unable to focus? Overweight? Poor? Depressed? We are taught in this culture to think: That's my fault. I should have found a personal way to lift myself up and out of these environmental problems. Now, whenever I feel that way, I think about the mothers in Rochester whose kids were being poisoned by lead, and they were simply told they should dust their homes more, or that their kids had a perverted desire to suck on chunks of lead paint. We can see clearly now there was a huge problem with a deep cause in the environment—and yet the primary response was to tell people to throw all their energy into a frantic individual displacement activity that made no difference at all, or (even worse) to blame their own poisoned children

Cause eleven: the rise of ADHD

On adhd and genetic vs environmental causes

As all this has exploded, a polarized argument has broken out over it. On one side, there are people saying ADHD is a disorder caused overwhelmingly by something going wrong within the individual's genes and brain, and that very large numbers of children and adults should be taking these stimulants to treat it. This side has largely prevailed in the U.S. On the other side, there are people saying that attention problems are real and painful, but it is incorrect and harmful to see them as a biological disorder that requires the mass prescription of drugs, and we should be offering different forms of help. This side has largely prevailed in places like Finland

I began to ask myself: Is there any way in which children who struggle to focus are like Emma the beagle, and are being medicated for what is in fact an environmental problem? I learned that scientists fiercely disagree about this. We do know that the huge rise in children being diagnosed with attention problems has coincided with several other big changes in the way children live. Kids are now allowed to run around far less—instead of playing in the streets and in their neighborhoods, they now spend almost all their time inside their homes or school classrooms. Children are now fed a very different diet—one that lacks many nutrients needed for brain development, and is full of sugars and dyes that negatively affect attention. Children's schooling has changed, so it now focuses almost entirely on preparing them for high-stress testing, with very little space for nurturing their curiosity. Is it a coincidence that ADHD diagnoses are rising at the same time as these big changes are occurring, or is there a connection?

On stimulants being stimulants regardless of adhd

For years, lots of parents were told that you could figure out if your child has ADHD in a straightforward way, related to these drugs. Many doctors told them that a normal child would become manic and high if they were given these pills, whereas an ADHD kid would slow down, focus, and pay attention. But when scientists actually gave these drugs both to kids with attention problems and kids without attention problems, this turned out to be wrong. All children—indeed, all people—given Ritalin focus and pay attention better for a while. The fact the drug works isn't evidence that you had an underlying biological problem all along—it's just proof that you are taking a stimulant. This is why, during the Second World War, radar operators were given stimulants by the army—it made it easier for them to continue to focus on the very boring job of watching a mostly unchanging screen

Cause twelve: the confinement of our children, both physically and psychologically

The mother that left her son alone for two seconds:

Lenore thought that back home, her nine-year-old son, Izzy, still needed to have some small taste of freedom if he was going to mature. So when, one day, he asked her if he could be taken to a place in New York he'd never been to before and then be left to find his own way home, it struck her as a good idea. Her husband sat on the floor with him and helped him plan out the route he would take, and one sunny Sunday, she took him to Bloomingdale's, and—with a little catch in her heart—they parted ways. An hour later, he appeared at the door of their apartment. He had taken a subway and a bus, alone. He was very happy—I'd say he was levitating, she recalls. It seemed like such a commonsense thing to do that Lenore—who was a journalist—wrote an article telling this story, so other parents would have the confidence to do the same thing.

Then something strange happened. Lenore's article was greeted with horror and revulsion. She was denounced on many of the top news shows in the United States as America's worst mom. She was slammed as shamefully neglectful, and she was told that she had put her own child at terrible risk. She was invited to appear on TV shows where they would put her on with a parent whose child had been kidnapped and murdered, as if it was equally likely that your child would ride the subway safely and that he would be killed. Every host would ask her a variant of: But, Lenore, how would you have felt if he never came home?


The first layer of your attention, he said, is your spotlight. This is when you focus on immediate actions, like, I'm going to walk into the kitchen and make a coffee.

The second layer of your attention is your starlight. This is, he says, the focus you can apply to your longer-term goals—projects over time. You want to write a book. You want to set up a business. You want to be a good parent.

The third layer of your attention is your daylight. This is the form of focus that makes it possible for you to know what your longer-term goals are in the first place. How do you know you want to write a book? How do you know you want to set up a business? How do you know what it means to be a good parent? Without being able to reflect and think clearly, you won't be able to figure these things out.

He believes that losing your daylight is the deepest form of distraction, and you may even begin decohering. This is when you stop making sense to yourself, because you don't have the mental space to create a story about who you are. You become obsessed with petty goals, or dependent on simplistic signals from the outside world like retweets. You lose yourself in a cascade of distractions. You can only find your starlight and your daylight if you have sustained periods of reflection, mind-wandering, and deep thought. James has come to believe that our attention crisis is depriving us of all three of these forms of focus. We are losing our light.

Individual steps by the author:

  • One - bought a kSafe to physically restrict access to phone, uses Freedom app on computer to limit internet access
  • Two - less self hate, more positive thinking, when out of focus don't admonish yourself, but instead try and find a way back to a state of flow
  • Three - six months a year off social media
  • Four - One hour walks every day without any music/podcasts/etc, to encourage mind wandering
  • Five - Make sure to always get 8 hours of sleep

Sort of summarizes the main ideas in the book:

One thing was now very clear to me. If we continue to be a society of people who are severely under-slept and overworked; who switch tasks every three minutes; who are tracked and monitored by social-media sites designed to figure out our weaknesses and manipulate them to make us scroll and scroll and scroll; who are so stressed that we become hypervigilant; who eat diets that cause our energy to spike and crash; who are breathing in a chemical soup of brain-inflaming toxins every day—then, yes, we will continue to be a society with serious attention problems. But there is an alternative. It's to organize and fight back—to take on the forces that are setting fire to our attention, and replace them with forces that will help us to heal.

Author's idea of a solution at the societal level:

With this image in mind, I now had a sense of what a movement to reclaim our attention might look like. I would start with three big, bold goals. One: ban surveillance capitalism, because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can't focus. Two: introduce a four-day week, because people who are chronically exhausted can't pay attention. Three: rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely—in their neighborhoods and at school—because children who are imprisoned in their homes won't be able to develop a healthy ability to pay attention. If we achieve these goals, the ability of people to pay attention would, over time, dramatically improve. Then we will have a solid core of focus that we could use to take the fight further and deeper.

On a steady state economy as an alternative to the infinite growth economy:

My friend Dr. Jason Hickel, who is an economic anthropologist at the University of London, is perhaps the leading critic of the concept of economic growth in the world—and he has been explaining for a long time that there is an alternative. When I went to see him, he explained that we need to move beyond the idea of growth, to something called a steady-state economy. We would abandon economic growth as the driving principle of the economy and instead choose a different set of goals. At the moment we think we're prosperous if we are working ourselves ragged to buy things—most of which don't even make us happy. He said we could redefine prosperity to mean having time to spend with our children, or to be in nature, or to sleep, or to dream, or to have secure work. Most people don't want a fast life—they want a good life.

<<< Back to Bookshelf