Stolen Focus

A Book on a Lesser-Known Major Crisis

Our attention spans are shrinking dramatically. On average, workers in the United States are only focused on their work for about three minutes before distractions kick in. Children are not focusing at school and been diagnosed with various attention issues. Most of all, we feel horrible as we’re not completing something as we feel too distracted.

These are some of the topics that are covered in Johann Hari’s 2022 book Stolen Focus (subtitled Why You Can’t Pay Attention). A book on my TBR for a long time, I was finally able to grab the copy from my local library to read, after being constantly checked out for so long. What I got here was a book that has some hard truths in it, all wrapped up in thorough in-depth worldwide research.

For my thoughts on this book, I will do something a little different. I will include some examples from my life of the issue of attention and focusing decreasing and how it has affected me. By doing this, I feel I would be able to make these thoughts more personal, making this a more intimate read than an average book review.

The Front Cover to Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus

Multi-Tiered Issue With No Real Clear Solution Offered

One thing didn’t cause the fall of the Western Roman Empire; it was a multitude of things that caused its demise. The same can be said for the fall of attention and focus in society, which Stolen Focus highlights some of the many causes.

This is a multi-tiered problem, caused by so many things to do with our modern world. The issues covered in this book are extremely wide, from how the education system is operated to how tech and social media companies have design their software. Hari covers all these topics in a great depth, which I’ll share two that are, in my opinion, the most covered in this book.

The first is regards technology and how it has affected attention and focus. Hari speaks in-depth throughout the book about the issues of technology, from smartphones to social media. This again is multi-tiered, including: endless scrolling, constant notifications and just how much we use the tech in our every day life. Hari fights against this, by going on a digital detox in Provincetown in Massachusetts, United States, for three months. It’s here he regained some ability to focus, but also found it to not even be a solution, considering how built into technology the 21st century is. He speaks of how social media is designed to take our attention, as it brings them money the more we scroll and use their platform.

Provincetown, where Hari spent three months in a digital detox. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The second is the world we’ve built for our children. Playing in the street and allowing kids to learn on their own has almost disappeared entirely. Playtimes have been reduced at schools in favour for standardised testing, especially in the United States. Cautious parents don’t let them out on the streets, often causing children to be raised around screens. Feeding them ultra-processed foods that cause energy crashes hasn’t helped either. This poor diet and indoor life has led to a decrease in attention and focus for children. Place in a car centric, pollution filled city design and you get some insight into what has caused this issue.

To make it clear too, Stolen Focus is not a self-help book by any means. It’s a book that reports on the problems and how it got to that, but there’s no magical solution at the end of it. It’s because of this being such a multi-tiered issue that there stands to be no real solution in place yet. What you will get here though as some forms of conclusion are some examples of how some people across the world have been increasing attention and focus. These have included: four-day weeks, pre-committed non-tech times and offering children the chance to expand their minds.

Social Media is a contributing factor in the issue of decreased attention and focus in society today. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A Controversial Perspective into ADHD

Of the points expressed in Stolen Focus, the one I disagree the most with is one around ADHD. Hari’s opinion of ADHD, which he also says could be disagreeable, was formed by speaking to over 30 specialists into the topic for the book. Some of his points look at if it really is a biological illness or are there other more logical explanations behind it.

I don’t agree with the main points for one simple reason: ADHD, in my opinion, has always been in society, we’ve just gotten better at being able to diagnose it. This is my own opinion, so you are more than welcome to disagree with my thoughts. I’m not an expert either, just a writer living with disability who promotes disability advocacy.

One point in this topic that I do agree with Hari though is everyone who has been diagnosed with it has a real problem. ADHD is a serious condition and the way we’re treating it now is not right. Rather than drug up the people living with it, we should be moving towards making a friendlier world for it. We need to manage the condition better and build a world that is not as chaotic, where we can focus better.    

My Own Struggles With Attention And Focus

Over time, I have noticed my own attention and focus struggling. Even writing these thoughts, my mind is distracted from the actual writing process. The temperature gauge on my computer taskbar is telling me temperature drop, which I just pressed to see what it was. And I forgot the name of the taskbar for a moment, making me type it in on Google, which would more than likely lead me to looking up about the history of the taskbar on Wikipedia.

I never used to be this distracted with things in life. Being autistic, I have the unique gift of being able to hyper focus on a singular topic for ages. I can still do this in a limited capacity, particularly with games like Transport Fever and Civilization V. Yet, as I’ve been more “normalised” in society, my attention and focus has been compromised. I now feel guilty for sitting and focusing on one topic, feeling like I should be doing more. Even sitting at the computer to write, I constantly find myself unable to focus properly, feeling like I’ve got more to do when I really don’t.

A lot of this, I think, has come from the years of trying to “normalise” me. With how messed up our world is, we think people who hyper focus on something are weird while multitasking is normal. However, it is multitasking that is weird, as I found highlighted in Stolen Focus. We think we’re like our tech that can run multiple programs at a time, but we’re not. Humans were not biologically made to multi-task, which is why we invented these machines in the first place. It’s only been in the last 200 years, as highlighted in the book, that we’ve started to act like this. Upon discovering this, I’ve started to think what really is weirder; me hyper focused on one activity, or being told multi-tasking is normal?

Summary

Stolen Focus is one of the most thought-provoking non-fiction books I’ve read in a long time. It has allowed me to step back and really think about my attention and focus, making it more of a priority to fix. It does well to highlight the issue of lost attention and focus in the contemporary world, and how we can eventually improve it. While I don’t agree with the points made about ADHD, it is still a great read with so much thought and research put into it.

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