1-Sentence-Summary: Stolen Focus explains why our attention spans have been dwindling for decades, how technology accelerates this worrying trend, and what we can do to reclaim our focus and thus our capacity to live meaningful lives.
Read in: 4 minutes
Favorite quote from the author:
I’ll always remember the day multitasking almost cost me my life. I was driving home, the same three-kilometer stretch of road I’d driven hundreds of times before — only this time, I wasn’t focused. I was fiddling with my iPod, and suddenly, I could feel my right front tire vibrating as it hit the shoulder.
In a matter of milliseconds, I instinctively pulled the steering wheel to the left, and the car started skidding. Thanks to the multiple driving safety trainings I had undergone, I managed to stabilize the car, but I easily could have landed in the ditch, or worse. Needless to say, I’ve been much stricter about phone use during driving ever since — and yet, I still multitask during driving.
According to Johann Hari, I’m not alone. In his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, he explains patterns like the fact that half of all young people are texting while driving. The book also sheds a light on why doing so reduces our attention by as much as 37%. Of course, Hari provides some solutions too.
Here are three lessons about our collective attention crisis, and what you can do to regain some of your stolen focus:
- Our dwindling attention spans predate the internet, but their decline is accelerating at an alarming rate.
- Current social media platforms are designed to make you addicted so they can make a profit.
- If you want to get back your ability to focus, stop celebrating multitasking and practice being in a flow state.
When our attention wanes, the quality of our life decreases. Let’s understand how it happens so we can fight back!
Lesson 1: The internet isn’t the only thing eroding our focus, but it’s declining ever-faster, and that’s a problem.
Out of personal dissatisfaction with his ability to focus, Danish professor Sune Lehmann conducted a study about attention. He concluded that, even before the internet, the rise and fall of popular books in the last 200 years indicates that trend cycles are getting shorter. The internet compounds this problem. Between 2013 and 2016, the average duration for which topics trend on Twitter reduced by over 30%, from over 17 to just over 11 hours.
The culprit is the increasing rate at which we can spread information. From letters to the radio to telephones and live TV — the internet is just the tip of the iceberg. This “great acceleration,” as Robert Colvile calls it, lies at the heart of the problem. Where we used to consume the equivalent of about 40 newspapers each day in the 80s, it was about 174 newspapers in 2004, and it’s bound to be a lot more now.
The faster we can spread information, the more information we distribute, and the more rains down on every single one of us on any given day. Unlike the latest hot topic on Twitter, this trend isn’t going to go away any time soon, and our brains simply aren’t evolving fast enough to cope with it.
Lesson 2: Most of today’s big social media platforms exploit your attention on purpose so they can make money.
We have a saying in Germany: “The only thing that’s free in life is death — and even for that, you’ll have to pay with your life.” It means that everything comes at a price, even if the price is hidden at first.
Social media is a great example. We don’t pay with cash to use services like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, but in that word, “using,” already lies their true cost: our time and attention. Infinitely scrolling feeds, vain buttons that issue dopamine at a tap via likes, shares, and comments, and algorithms feeding you outrageous stories to keep you “using” — it’s all designed to make you addicted on purpose.
To the giants of Silicon Valley, your time is their money, and they’re doing everything they can to keep you “engaged,” even if it’s to the detriment of your time management, wellbeing, and focus.
In 2020, the Wall Street Journal even broke a story showing Facebook knew full well what it was doing. Quoting an internal presentation, they showed that “[their] algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Since it’s so profitable, however, they’ve done little to change anything, so it’s up to us to take back what’s ours.
Lesson 3: The first step to regaining your focus is to stop celebrating multitasking and begin practicing the state of flow.
More information than we can handle, addictive technology, and an entire industry incentivized to keep you doomscrolling for as long as possible: It’s easy to put on your victim hat when it comes to your loss of deep focus. But we too carry some of the blame.
For one, we’ve developed a culture of celebrating multitasking. Since our society is now always chasing the next thing, we’ve adopted that same mindset at work. The more boxes we can check off, the better, or so we think. Ultimately, we just end up doing “performative multitasking” — we’re more concerned with looking and feeling busy than actually creating something meaningful.
Of course, multitasking is a myth, a term reserved for computers with multiple processors, not humans with just one brain. So, what can you do? Reject multitasking. Stop celebrating your coworkers for bouncing around between Slack, email, and PowerPoint. Set boundaries by tuning your notifications, and aim to singletask.
A good way to practice this is to get in the state of flow that researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described. Lose yourself in a task, and lose track of time. That’s how you know you’re in flow, and any challenge that is not too difficult but also not too boring and feels intrinsically rewarding can trigger it.
Start small. Put the brakes on multitasking, go down fewer social media rabbit holes, and remind yourself that it’s okay to not know everything. Find some time to get into flow, and your power to focus will be back in no time!
Stolen Focus Review
Hari packages the topic well. In outlining the situation as a global attention crisis, he conveys to us the gravity of the situation. He deftly compiles the history, latest developments, and up-to-date research on the subject, and he still manages to sneak in some personal recommendations as to how we can improve. Stolen Focus is a great read for learning to better manage your attention in the 21st century.
Who would I recommend the Stolen Focus summary to?
The 14-year-old high school student who’s so busy maintaining all her social media profiles that she barely has time to pay attention in class, the 27-year-old young professional who feels totally overwhelmed at a new job two weeks in, and anyone who feels like they just can’t focus the way they used to.