Taking Back Our Focus
In "Stolen Focus," Johann Hari unplugs from digital media and regains his concentration.
To write his latest book, Johann Hari put himself through something most professionals his age would never dare, and something most young people have never lived through — something they may never even have conceptualized. Hari went offline.
In 2018, he bought a “dumbphone” that lacked internet access, and found an old laptop that wouldn’t let him connect to the World Wide Web, check email, or access social media. With a backpack stuffed with paperbacks, he boarded a ferry for Provincetown, Massachusetts, and, with a pang of anxiety, stepped out of the modern world. For the next three months, Hari searched for something he had felt slipping away for many years: his concentration.
“In my life before I fled to Cape Cod, I lived in a tornado of mental stimulation,” he writes in Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. “I would never go for a walk without listening to a podcast or talking on the phone. I would never wait two minutes in a store without looking at my phone or reading a book. The idea of not filling every minute with stimulation panicked me.”
“I was thirty-nine, and I had been working nonstop since I was twenty-one,” he continues. Those years were eventful for Hari. He’s had a prominent and controversial career, and most recently published two bestsellers: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs and Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions. But he could no longer ignore what such a prolonged frenetic pace was doing to him.
An interaction with his godson finally prompted Hari to make a change. The pair had traveled together from London to Memphis, Tennessee, to visit the home of their hero, Elvis Presley. And Hari’s godson couldn’t get off his phone. “I know something’s wrong,” the 15-year-old boy told Hari. “But I have no idea how to fix it.” Then he returned to his screen.
Hari and I have been journalists for roughly the same number of years, have both ingested information obsessively that whole time, and, I learned from his book, have both grown increasingly worried that our attention spans are shrinking to resemble a fruit fly’s. As I write this, I can’t help but glance down at my phone whenever it vibrates with a news alert. I’ve already taken two short breaks to skim through my Twitter interactions, and I’ve alt-tabbed six times to check the prices of a bunch of stocks I don’t even own.
Hari and I aren’t alone in this. Hari quotes studies in Stolen Focus that found the average American spends 3 hours, 15 minutes on their phone during the workday, and that we touch our phones 2,617 times per day. From 1978 to 2014, the proportion of Americans who didn’t read a book in a given year roughly tripled. And from 2013 to 2017, the duration a subject remained in Twitter’s top-50 trending topics declined from 17.5 hours to 11.9.
This is happening for many reasons. We don’t sleep as much as we used to. Food dyes have been associated with children’s hyperactivity and are in seemingly everything we eat that’s not ripped directly out of the ground. Chemicals in pesticides, plasticizers, flame-retardants, and cosmetics all have potential side effects on our ability to pay attention. (When asked how to avoid common substances that harm our minds, one researcher said, “There is no way we can have a normal brain today.”) And many of the largest and most powerful corporations on the planet dedicate their entire existence to deploying algorithms that have the explicit goals of getting us to scroll faster, click more often, and tap through one TikTok video after another. Hari writes that a poll he conducted with the Council for Evidence-Based Psychiatry and YouGov shows that nothing affects our focus worse than stress. And with the middle class shrinking and globalization’s hypercompetitiveness making jobs ever more demanding, chronic stress is becoming our new baseline.
Stolen Focus has some answers. Eat from the edges of the supermarket (fruit, veggies, fish, meat, and fresh baked goods); take extended breaks from social media to give your brain time to recover from its addictive diet of comments, likes, shares, and hearts; and attempt to understand what we are avoiding when we immerse ourselves in the relentless cascade of words, images, and videos.
Hari warns that simply deleting your Facebook account won’t get you reading Russian literature again. It wasn’t with the invention of television or the internet that we began to lose our focus, although those technologies certainly hastened the trend. There is evidence that our attention spans have been shrinking gradually since at least the 1880s. The reason for that is the very basis of the modern world: capitalism and economic growth.
“Growth can happen in one of two ways,” a social anthropologist explained to Hari. “The first is that a corporation can find new markets—by inventing something new, or exporting something to a part of the world that doesn’t have it yet. The second is that a corporation can persuade existing consumers to consume more.” In order for the basic structure of our society to remain in place, we need to take in more and more information, which means that we have to pay attention to each piece of information for a shorter amount of time.
“In the long run, it will ultimately not be possible to rescue attention and focus in a world that is dominated by the belief that we need to keep growing and speeding up every year,” Hari writes. “The growth machine has pushed humans beyond the limits of our minds.”
Hari calls the break required from this perpetual acceleration the “Attention Rebellion.” It will feel like an insurmountable challenge, he concedes. But the consequences of not beginning this societal shift are equally difficult to imagine.
In Montreal, Hari interviewed a professor of psychiatry specializing in sleep who told him that while we don’t know for sure, dreams might help us adapt emotionally and better respond to events that occur throughout the day. But dreams often happen during rapid eye movement sleep, and REM sleep mostly occurs toward the end of a seven- to eight-hour sleep cycle. As humans pack each 24-hour period with more obligations and activities and leave less time for sleep, those valuable REM dreams are vanishing into the ether.
“As he said this,” Hari writes, “I wondered: What does it mean to be a society and culture so frantic that we don’t have time to dream?”