Stolen Focus: why you can't pay attention

Avoid the noise and reclaim your attention

Author: Johann Hari

You’re afraid of missing out – that’s why you are checking your screen all the time. By doing that, you are guaranteeing you are missing out! You are missing your one and only life.”

I first heard these words on a podcast in February and they stopped me in my tracks. They belong to a scene within the opening story of Johann’s new book, Stolen Focus, a scene in which he and his nephew visit Graceland on the proviso that they leave their phones at home. Clearly, this didn’t eventuate. And Johann’s frustrations are evident.

But what struck me was how well I understood the deeper sentiment.

There is something unnerving, to me at least, about watching people mediate their lived experiences through phones and tablets. Did you really see that sunrise if you didn’t post it to Instagram? How else will people know that you’re out there at first light, getting it? And it’s a fair question in an age when ones persona is increasingly filtered through the lens of social media. But perhaps a more important, though, somewhat philosophical, question to ask is this:

If you were so focused on capturing something for an audience, did you really see the sunrise?

My professional existence is predicated on the strength of our prevailing technological environment, so I’m by no means a digital luddite. But I do wonder with increasing frequency when phones stopped being tools for productivity and started thieving our attention instead.

If you, like so many others right now, notice a fracturing in your attention, like you’re being pulled in a thousand different directions by instant notifications, emails, Insta DMs, Tweets, WhatsApp group messages, Reddit threads, news feeds, Facebook messenger, Candy Crush and so, so much more, you’re not alone.

We live in an era of constant digital distraction, when you’re expected to be available at all times. But to what end? What are the pitfalls of complete and unfettered access – to you! This is a question Johann seeks to answer, and what he discovers is nothing short of shocking.

Stolen Focus is structured around Johann’s three month digital detox in Provincetown, a little beachside village at the tip of Cape Code. With each chapter, an emergent self discovery comes to light as the result of being ‘unplugged,’ and Johann seeks to better understand these new insights by interviewing experts in the fields of psychology, neurology, and digital technology.

He explores the myths of ‘multitasking,’ highlighting that the human brain can focus on only one or two thoughts at a time. When we work on any given task and then are forced to answer a quick email, respond to a Facebook comment, or return our friend’s text message, we are not multitasking; we are switch tasking. And every time we switch, there is a cost.

  • Our performance speed drops
  • Our IQ drops
  • And our creativity is drained.

He explores Flow States, a real and deep form of human attention that allows time to seemingly fall away (any cyclist who’s ever found themselves in “the zone” will have an intrinsic understanding of Flow). Discovered by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow is a state characterised by total emersion and deep focus beyond the state of distraction. And the effects of flow are:

  • Higher output and higher quality work
  • Increased clarity and pleasure
  • And a lasting sense of happiness and fulfilment.

He uncovers the insidious psychological reinforcement tactics, pioneered by Harvard professor B.F. Skinner in the early 20th century, at the core of big tech’s business model. And he talks to tech ethicists, Tristant Harris and Aza Raskin, about the disruption tactics of Silicone Valley:

  • Surveillance capitalism
  • Behavioural manipulation
  • And the disruption economy.

It’s harrowing stuff. And anyone conscious of the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ with be familiar with some of these themes. But Hari sheds new light on precisely what they’re doing to your precious attention.

Far from a how-to guide on reclaiming your focus, Hari does conclude the book with a number of tips to help you avoid the distraction. But his message is clear, if not a little sobering: ‘I am strongly in favour of individuals making changes… I am also in favour of being honest about the fact there are limits to how far they can take you.’

But why is our attention so important? What does a life of deep focus and flow states have to offer?

Johann suggests that ‘a life full of distractions is, at an individual level, diminished.’ An inability to pay attention, to focus, to live deep, is an inability to be present – to your life! And the consequences of this are profound.

You can’t read a book without being pulled away by the pings of your mobile devices. You can’t play with your children without checking those work emails, too. You can’t find flow and therefore greater meaning and purpose to your existence. We become angrier, shorter, more anxious, more tired, and ultimately more unhappy with the lives we lead.

Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention was a profound read, and it’s one I highly recommend. Since reading it, I have implemented strategies that have decreased distraction and increased productivity, focus, and personal fulfilment. 

As a result, I'm actually riding more. My dedication to time spent in the saddle has increased due to a deeper understanding of flow and the value flow states bring to my overall health and wellbeing. 

So, if you're feeling a little fractured, a little distracted, and you're looking for some inspiration to spend more time in the saddle, Stolen Focus might just be the perfect remedy.