Recently Read–Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus by Johann Hari cover

Funny story; at some point in the last couple of months, I put this title on hold via Libby and my public library, but during the excitement of the last month, I didn’t realize it’d arrived on my Kindle (or rather, I had added it to my Kindle and completely forgotten due to my scattered nature lately). I’ve been eager to read books about attention span since the great attention span crisis that was COVID-19 and the past three years. Me, I don’t read nearly as much in my 40s as I did as a teen or even as much as I did in my 20s, and this has bothered me for some time. I’ve noticed that I’ve trained myself so well to skim articles that I start to do it even when reading novels and nonfiction books. I also suffer from the usual problems the rest of us do — social media stealing my attention, wasting time etc. Basically, I don’t often feel like I’m in control of what my brain decides to spend time on. I want to do better in this regard.

So I dove into this book and found it really quite readable, interesting, well-argued and persuasive. The opening chapters were the strongest ones and helped lay out the case that we actually are finding our focus stolen by technology (and technology’s evil older brother, Capitalism), and some few ideas of what we can do about it. I was especially happy that Hari addressed the idea that this is simply old age catching up with us with studies that show a decline regardless of age.

Most of the book is divided into chapters looking into the various factors that Hari believes are contributing to our stolen focus. These include the regular suspects, as well as a few that are more surprising to me, like bad food and pollution, but which make sense when explained here.

Ultimately, the book concludes that we need mass collective action to really attack the core problems, but the era of Americans agreeing to change anything at that scale strikes me as over, so I was far more interested in what the book would have to offer as far as personal modifications I can make.

It’s got a few ideas (switch to a 4-day work week if you can, use limiters to block yourself from distractions like your phone or internet browsing on your computer with apps like Freedom) but mostly reading this book served to cement my interest in finding ways to recapture focus and think more clearly and deeply about things.

Thanks to this book, I’m hoping to turn 2024 into a grand experiment for me in restructuring how I interface with my work and clients and how I structure my day. I am giving serious consideration to a 4-day work week, and I want to structure my day in terms of focus blocks of extended time instead of task-switching every 15 minutes from issue to issue. To be fair, I don’t think any of my clients asked me to work in this distracted manner. It’s just kind of how my brain decided to tackle the workload. I’ll be curious to see if any of these tips help me feel an improved sense of focus and flow. I have to write up the changes and float them to my major clients– that will be the first hurdle to the experiment, but I am hopeful.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that the author of this book is apparently the subject of numerous controversies which you can read about on his Wikipedia page. At least in the case of this book, it seemed well researched and provided quite a healthy back matter of citations (not that I did more than skim them). Having heard that from Gord Sellar (who has a far more detailed writeup about this book than I do), who read the book last year, I decided to take the book with a grain of salt. Especially in later chapters where Hari decides to tackle ADHD and children’s mental development. The research in that area seemed particularly on shaky ground to me, but it’s more of a gut instinct than anything specific, so take what I say with a lump of salt as well.

Have you read this book? What did you think? What do you think about the idea that we are all having a much harder time thinking deeply these days? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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