In this podcast (episode #353) and blog, I speak to journalist and best-selling author Johann Hari about his incredible new book Stolen Focus, why our inability to focus, think deeply and pay attention has dramatically increased, and what we can do about this as individuals and as a society.
As Johann points out in Stolen Focus, “We think our inability to focus is a personal failing–a flaw in each one of us. It is not. This has been done to us–by powerful external forces. Our focus has been stolen.” Our culture has made it harder and harder to pay attention—this is something that affects us all.
Indeed, research shows that the average college student now only focuses for 63 seconds on any one task, and the average office worker for only 3 minutes. But why is this happening? Johann discovered there are twelve major factors affecting our ability to focus and think deeply, including the business model behind modern technology and social media. This model relies on advertisements and collecting complex information about you to sell to advertisers. When you put down your phone or device, both these revenue streams go away—so they essentially need to keep you “logged on” for as long as possible. These companies have deliberately designed these platforms to “hack” your attention for as long as possible, which includes a system of rewards that you learn to crave (such as likes on your photo) and increasing your anger levels (so you think less clearly and more impulsively). These companies are financially dependent on distracting you.
However, Johann also learned how, as individuals and collectively, we can get our focus back, if we are willing to fight for it. We can do things like:
- Demanding that the business model of these companies change, such as shifting to a subscription model or type of public ownership option. Companies shouldn’t be able to discover new ways to hack our attention and sell it to the highest bidder.
- Reading more, and not just on a screen! Reading is one of the most important forms of deep focus that most people experience in their lives. However, in the last 20 years there has been an extraordinary collapse in reading, which is both a symptom and cause of the current attention crisis. Reading actual books/articles/papers/magazines (not just on a screen!) can help us to learn how to think in a more linear way again, which, in turn, can help us maintain focus in a calmer way, while reading novels can help us also become more empathetic. So, instead of just letting our consciousness be shaped by angry social media feeds or short bursts on information on a screen, we should try to incorporate more reading, including novels, into our everyday lives.
- Letting children play, play, play! This is a great way to increase a child’s ability to focus, and teaches them how to manage their stress and anxiety, work with others, and discover what fascinates them and makes them interested in learning. letgrow.org is a great organization that is doing this right now!
For more on focus, attention and deep thinking, listen to my interview with Johann Hari (episode #353), and check out his amazing work. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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3:10 Johann Hari’s fascinating history
4:40 The power of curiosity
6:05 What is happening to our attention spans & why it is becoming harder and harder to focus
6:50 The different factors affecting our ability to pay attention in the modern world
12:38 Why Johann decided to write Stolen Focus
21:00 Pathologizing the individual versus dealing with social problems
21:30 How the business model behind modern technology & social media is designed to steal our attention
36:00 The power of working together to change society
40:30 Why we all need to read more
49:00 What is happening to children’s attention & focus
51:50 Why children need to play
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