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Do you feel like you’re losing your ability to focus on anything deeply for prolonged periods of time? In  Stolen Focus, Johann Hari explains the reasons you might have trouble concentrating, and what you can do about it.  He also discusses the serious individual and societal consequences of the global attentional crisis, and the need for concerted action. In this Stolen Focus summary, we’ll outline the 12 factors stealing your focus, and how you can start to reclaim it.

What’s Stolen Focus About?

Around the world, people are finding it hard to focus deeply on a task, more people are getting lost in the digital world and becoming disconnected from reality. Our minds keep jumping from one thing to another, making it hard to focus for long. The attention crisis is real, and it’s serious.

Johann Hari himself felt overwhelmed by the constant digital distractions, and decided to do a 3-month digital detox, moving to a remote location in Cape Cod to work on his novel.  As he spent time interacting with people face-to-face and enjoying offline activities, he felt calm, present, and more aware of his environment and bodily sensations.  Without constant distraction, his mind was free to wander and engage in deep contemplation. He followed his body’s natural rhythms, and felt rejuvenated and clear-headed for the first time in years.

To understand his experience at Cape Cod and why we’re collectively losing focus, Hari went on to interview 250 experts worldwide, ranging from neuroscientists to social scientists.  He found that our struggle to focus is due to an increasingly-distracting environment, not personal laziness or a lack of discipline.

This loss of focus affects both individuals and society. Without sustained focus, we cannot complete meaningful tasks to reach our personal potential, nor collectively solve complex challenges like climate change. Even democracy won’t work if people can’t think critically and hold leaders accountable.

12 Reasons You Might Have Trouble Concentrating

Hari identified 12 themes that explain why we’re losing focus. These findings aren’t conclusive or exhaustive, but they point to a troubling trend that warrants urgent attention.

Here’s a visual overview of all 12 ways your focus is being stolen:
Stolen Focus summary - 12 reasons you might have trouble concentratingWe’ll dive into the first 2 factors in detail, and share a brief outline of the remainder. Feel free to check out our full 17 page Stolen Focus summary bundle for more details.

1. Information-Overload and Task-switching

Information overload

It takes time and effort to deep-dive into an issue, and the human brain can only absorb so much information at once. The more information we receive, the less we can focus on each piece.

Our attention spans have been shrinking even before the internet era. The internet accelerated the trend, but it’s not the cause.
• A study found that popular topics for books were rising and fading faster over 130 years.
• In 1986, people were exposed to the equivalent of 40 newspapers daily. By 2007, this had increased to an equivalent of 174 newspapers.

When we’re flooded by information, we cope by skimming through it. As a result, we sacrifice depth and absorb less.

Multitasking

Multitasking is a myth. Our brains can only hold 1-2 thoughts at a time. When people multitask, they’re actually switching rapidly between tasks.

Task-switching hurts our cognitive function with several negative effects:
• Switching costs: Each time you switch tasks (e.g. pausing a report to check an email, then resuming the report), your brain must reconfigure itself, making you slower and less efficient.
• Mistakes: Repeated backtracking and refocusing increases errors and superficial thinking.
• Creativity drain: The brain needs uninterrupted time for new ideas. Constant switching prevents that.
• Negative impact on memory: Task-switching also uses up mental energy needed to convert experiences into memories.
Studies show the average American worker is distracted every 3 minutes. Students who text during tests perform 20% worse, and distracted driving causes 1 in 5 car accidents (making it as dangerous as drunk driving).

To nurture attention, we need to work within our brain’s limits:
• Focus on 1 task at a time to boost mental capacity and performance. Start with 10 minutes of monotasking and gradually increase the duration.
• Limit environmental distractions: The brain’s prefrontal cortex helps to filter out unwanted stimuli, but it can get overwhelmed by excessive distractions, allowing them to slip through and disrupt our focus.

2. Obstruction of Flow

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe a mental state of deep focus and enjoyment, where you’re so deeply absorbed in an activity that nothing else seems to exist.

There are 3 ingredients for achieving the “flow” state:
• Focus on a single, well-defined objective. Flow requires complete attention on 1 task, without any distractions or multitasking.
• Choose a meaningful task, as it’s much easier to focus on something that matters to you.
• Work at the edge of your abilities, focusing on a task that’s challenging but not overwhelming. It should push the limits of your abilities without causing anxiety.

Flow is hindered by external rewards and distractions.
• Rewards direct our focus. Studies have shown how animals will repeatedly perform certain actions just to receive food rewards. Likewise, social networks train us to obsess over likes and shares, even though these don’t improve our relationships nor quality of life. They only make us more self-centered and less attentive to others.
• We get so used to constant interruptions that we interrupt ourselves even without external triggers. Hari experienced this firsthand during his first week in Cape Cod, when he kept imagining tweets and responses instead of being present in his new environment.

To enjoy greater happiness and well-being, Hari urges us to embrace flow states rather than chase after external rewards.
• Remove distractions that disrupt flow states; and
• Integrate meaningful, flow-inducing activities into your daily life. Through writing and reading, Hari found his flow, which gave him a deep sense of fulfillment. During his 3 months of digital detox, he wrote 92,000 words and rediscovered his ability to focus deeply.

Here’s a visual summary of the 2 factors we’ve covered so far.
Stolen Focus summary - visual outline of first 2 factors

Here’s a brief outline of the remaining 10 factors. Feel free to get more details from our complete Stolen Focus summary!

3. Sleep Deprivation

Most people today don’t get enough sleep, which harms creativity, focus, memory, mood, and overall health. Artificial light, stress and overstimulation are some of the key reasons we’re sleeping less.   Improving sleep quantity and quality will help to improve our focus.

4. Decline of Deep Reading

In today’s culture of constant distractions, fewer people can read for long periods.  The decline in sustained reading and book reading creates a vicious cycle of reduced attention spans. The more we read from screens and engage with social media, the lower our capacity for deep-reading, making us even less likely to read books.

5. Loss of Mind-Wandering

Most people think of “attention” as focusing intensely on a task, like shining a mental spotlight on something. However, daydreaming or mind-wandering is also essential for coherent thought. During periods of rest or inattention, our brains are still active. Sadly, we’re losing both focused attention and mind wandering.

6. Technology Hijacking Our Focus

Many Silicon Valley giants, including social media platforms, make money from advertising and selling user data to advertisers. Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls this “surveillance capitalism”. They aim to keep users hooked for as long as possible, because more screen time means more revenue.

Former Google engineer Tristan Harris explains 6 ways that existing technology disrupts our focus, and several tech-insiders from Silicon Valley have stepped forward to warn of the negative impact of their own creations. Yet, unless there’s a change in Silicon Valley’s business model, things will keep getting worse.

7. Illusion of Personal Control

In his book “Indistractible,” behavioral design expert Nir Eyal advises people to take personal. Johann Hari argues that such advice is unrealistic.  While self-management is important, it’s insufficient against the influx of addictive technologies, which are designed by the world’s top minds specifically to manipulate human psychology and behavior.

8. Stress and Hypervigilance

The impact of manipulative technology is amplified when people are stressed, making them more susceptible to distractions.  Common stressors include: financial insecurity and long work hours.

9. Poor Diet

Our diet affects both our health and focus. The modern Western diet harms our focus in at least 3 ways: (i) sugary foods that cayse energy spikes and crashes, (ii) processed foods stripped of their nutritional value, and (iii) adverse effects of chemicals/additives in our food.

10. Pollution

Our bodies and focus are being harmed by pollutants, especially city dwellers, who’re frequently exposed to contaminants like lead and mercury,  PCBs, and BPA.

11. Ineffective Responses to ADHD

In the last 15 years, more children are struggling to stay focused.  Yet, there’s much controversy around ADHD. Experts cannot agree on its causes, or if it’s even a biological illness. Hari explores different perspectives on ADHD, emphasizes the urgent need to re-assess ADHD diagnoses, and to use medication only as a last resort.

12. Modern Lifestyle that Restricts Children’s Growth

In the past, children used to run around freely all day until dinner time. Today’s children have drastically different lifestyles which impair their development, learning, and focus. For example, they rarely engage in unsupervised outdoor play, face rigid education systems, and other factors like stressful tests, unhealthy diets, and exposure to pollutants.

Reclaiming our Stolen Focus: A Call to Action

To improve our focus and health, we need to slow down, focus on 1 task at a time, and get adequate sleep. Yet, we are trending in the opposite direction: more haste, more multitasking, and less sleep.

Johann Hari shares 6 key changes he has adopted at a personal level, and advocates for 3 major changes at a systemic level:
(i) Ban surveillance capitalism to reduce digital distractions;
(ii) Introduce a 4-day workweek to fight chronic exhaustion; and
(iii) Allow children to play freely to develop their ability to focus.

If you’d like to zoom in on the ideas above and get more detailed insights, examples and actionable tips, do check out our full book summary bundle that includes an infographic, 17-page text summary, and a 32-minute audio summary.
Stolen Focus summary - Book Summary Bundle

This book is filled with Hari’s personal anecdotes, as well as details of scientific research and his interviews with various experts. You can purchase the book here or visit stolenfocusbook.com for more details.

For more about managing digital wellness and focus, do check out our Digital Minimalism summary and Deep Work summary.

About the Author of Stolen Focus

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again was written by Johann Hari—a Scottish journalist and author known for his work on topics related to human behavior, mental health, and societal issues. He has written several books on depression, the war on drugs, the effect of technology on attention span, and anti-obesity medication. Hari’s career was marked by both achievements and controversies, such as plagiarism and fabrications. Despite this, he has continued to engage with critical issues and advocate for changes to improve focus and mental health.

Stolen Focus Quotes

“I wondered if the motto for our era should be: I tried to live, but I got distracted.”

“Narcissism…is a corruption of attention—it’s where your attention becomes turned in only on yourself and your own ego.”

“Fragmentation shrinks us. Flow expands us.”

“We are becoming less rational, less intelligent, less focused.”

“To get our attention back, we are going to have to adopt some individual solutions…We are also going to have to collectively take on the forces that are stealing our focus and compel them to change.”

“There needs to be a movement demanding technologies that work for us, not against us; technologies that feed our ability to focus, instead of fracturing it.”

“Many people are tempted to think that…we are powerless and can’t change anything. It’s false.”

“The way we work seems fixed and unchangeable—until it changes, and then we realize it didn’t have to be like that in the first place.”

“It’s not a flaw in them that causes children to struggle to pay attention. It’s a flaw in the world we built for them.”

“We all need to decide—are we going to…put up a fight? Or are we going to let the invasive technologies win by default?”

Click here to download the Stolen Focus infographic & summary

 

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