Book Summary: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari
Hari’s New York Times bestseller, “Stolen Focus,” sheds light on how the digital world is taking over our minds and robbing us of a powerful ability – focused attention.
With wisdom-filled anecdotes combined with firm research conclusions, this book shows you why we’re having trouble maintaining concentration in today’s age – then Johann Hari offers actionable ways to take back control of your focus! So let us get started with this Stolen Focus book summary:
Our attention span is as low as it’s ever been. So a Small study investigated how often an average American college student pays attention to anything. The scientist tracked it with software on their computer.
They discovered that, on average, a student switched tasks once every sixty-five seconds.
A different study by Gloria Mark observed how long an adult in an office stays on one track. It was three minutes.
When you’re unable to pay sustained attention, you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve.
A study by Professor Michael Posner found that it will take 23 minutes for you to get back in the same state of focus.
We have to be aware that our attention is on a dangerously declining trend. And Johann Hari explained in eye-opening causes why this is and how we can fix it.
Why We Lose Time When We Multitask
Given the fundamental structure of our brain, our brain can only produce one or two thoughts at once. Therefore, we are very single-minded, and we have very limited cognitive capacity. It’s a myth that we can actually think about three, five, or ten things simultaneously.
The term multitasking originated in 1960 when the computer was invented. Computers can do two things simultaneously.
When humans multitask, we don’t think simultaneously; instead, we switch back and forth.
There are many reasons why switching back and forth comes at a high cost:
- We lose a tremendous amount of time because we have to refocus every time. We lose time.
- When we switch tasks, errors creep in that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. We make mistakes.
- When we have free undistracted time, our brain builds new links between things we know and then things we have learned. When we are constantly distracted, our brains can’t process these links. We are less creative.
- And the last reason is the diminished memory effect. When we do two things at once, we don’t remember them, as well as when we only do one thing at a time. We remember less.
Another big study looked at 136 students. One group switched their phone off, and the other received intermittent text messages.
The students who received messages performed, on average, 20% worse.
Given the circumstances that most of us get distracted because of our smartphones, that’s a lot of brain power for a species to lose.
Our brain’s attention span is like a muscle. So we have to train our brains to stay focused for a longer period of time.
The Optimale State Called Flow
We are most efficient when we’re in a state of flow. The state of flow is the optimal condition for doing tasks. There are some requirements that we can achieve a state of flow, and these are:
- We need to have clearly defined goals. Flow can only come when we are monotasking. Flow requires all of our brain power to be deployed toward one mission.
- We have to do something that is meaningful for us. When we do something that we don’t really interested in, our attention often slips away.
- And finally, we have to do something this is on the edge of our abilities. We don’t achieve the flow state if it’s too hard, and we don’t achieve it if it’s too easy. We need the sweet spot.
People that had a state of flow described it as: “The loss of ego; the loss of time; the sense that I was growing into something bigger than I had been before.”
Sleep And The Impact On Our Brains
Cause three in the Stolen Focus summary is about sleep and sleep deprivation. If we stay awake for 19 hours, we become as cognitively impaired in terms of being unable to focus and to think clearly, as if we are drunk.
And when people are kept awake for a whole night, instead of taking a quarter of a second to respond to a prompt, participants in one study took four to six seconds.
But the tragic news is that 40% of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived today. And 23% are getting less than 5 hours of sleep a night.
Only sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night for a couple of weeks is equally devastating for our cognitive function as if we would have been awake for two full nights.
Our mind transfers things we have learned during the day into our long-term memory when we go to bed at night. And the less we sleep, the less we transfer things in our long-term memory. So the less we will be able to recall.
Our goal should be to have at least 8 hours of sleep, and we have to have a refreshing sleep. Several factors play a huge role in good sleep:
- The artificial light that comes from our electronic devices is unnatural for our brains. Artificial light keeps our brain awake, and this makes us either that we can’t fall asleep or we have troubled sleep. The best thing is to avoid any electronic devices for at least one hour before you sleep.
- Caffeine is another sleep killer. Try to avoid caffeine at least 8 hours before you go to bed.
Mind-Wandering For Greater Focus
Attention is usually defined as a person’s ability to selectively attend to something in the environment. However, there are other forms of attention. For example, mind wandering is essential for things to make sense.
When we let our minds wander, we are better at having organized personal goals, being creative, and making long-term decisions. And secondly, when we let our minds wander, we start to make new connections between things, often producing solutions to our problems.
The best way to let our minds wander is to do nothing. People often let their minds wander when they shower or while doing only light cognitive work like puzzling.
The Harsh Truth About Not Being Online
Before Johann Hari published his book, he was on a retreat with no internet or any other online connection to the outside world for three months. At the end of his retreat, he checked his email as he had to book a flight back.
He calculated that in his absence of 90 days, he had to work for over 40 hours to process all the emails.
However, as he opened his email box, there was hardly anything there. And in just 2 hours, he had seen everything. I cite Johann in the book: “All this mania, all these demands of my time, I realized, made me feel important.”
And then he switched over to Twitter. He had exactly the same number of Twitter followers that he had when he left. And in his book, he wrote: “My absence had been entirely unnoticed.”
John Harry is, of course, not the only one who encounters this. Twitter, Facebook, and email make people feel important, but the hard truth is nobody notices if you are not there. Social media platforms are filled with stuff and other people.
Facebook and Co
But it’s not all our fault that we can’t pay attention. Big players like Google and Facebook are actively implementing features so that we spend more time on their platforms. Things like notifications or daily logins draw us towards these applications, and things like infinite scrolling keep us on these platforms.
Chmath Palihapitiya, who had been Facebook’s vice president of growth, explained in a speech that the effects are so negative that his own kids “aren’t allowed to use that shit.”
Facebook could add a feature that lets people meet up with people who are close by, for example. This will be a really handy future. However, Facebook doesn’t implement this because Facebook doesn’t want you to leave the online platform.
The business model is “screen time,” not “life time.”
But it’s not only Facebook; it’s how our internet is structured. Generally, free apps earn money through advertisements, and the longer a user stays on their platform, the more likely they earn money through these advertisements.
On the other hand, applications that cost money want to provide the best user experience and be as helpful as possible.
So imagine Facebook would implement a fee of 50 Cent or a dollar each month. Facebook will no longer be working for advertisers. Instead, it would be working for you. Its job would be to actually figure out what makes you happy and give it to you instead of figuring out what makes advertisers happy and how they can manipulate you to give it to them.
Diet And The Impact On Our Focus
Diet has a huge role in our ability to stay focused. For example, if we put shampoo into a car engine, we will not scratch our heads when the car breaks and is no longer functioning. And the same happens with our brain ability if we feed ourselves with trash food.
So, for example, if we eat a Twinkie, our blood sugar goes through the roof for about 20 minutes and then crashes back down again. And when this happens, you sit at your desk, and you struggle to think.
So to improve our focus and attention, we have to stop drinking Coke for breakfast and a bowl of sugar and milk. Instead, we have to eat proper food first. The impact the diet has on our ability to focus is huge.
In a 2009 study, a team of Douch scientists took a group of 27 children who had trouble focusing and split them into two groups.
Half of them were assigned to eat junk food and synthetic food (our standard western diet). The other half were assigned to eat a kind of food my grandparents would have recognized, only raw and unprocessed food.
The results of the studies were astonishing. 70% of the kids who cut out the chunk food improved their ability to pay attention.
Play More For More Focus
The last example in the stolen Focus book summary it’s about running around or exercising. For years scientists have been discovering a broad body of evidence showing that when people run around or engage in any form of exercise, their ability to pay attention improves.
If we keep our children at home and don’t let them run around and play with others, they have less focus and can’t pay less attention in general. When children play, it has other benefits, like social bonds; they learn how to interact with other people and socialize. And another reason is for aliveness; they learn how to experience joy and pleasure.
Hari tells about an example of the global Play Day, where teachers filled their classrooms with empty boxes and Legos. On this day, the kids are allowed to play freely with these toys.
However, most of the kids didn’t know where to start. They don’t know how to play by themselves. Their attention had been constantly managed for them by adults for their whole lives.
Final Thoughts About This Stolen Focus Summary
Becoming more aware of how the digital world impacts our lives can be a powerful experience. Although it may be a daunting task, Stolen Focus by Johann Hari gives us tangible tips and tricks to enable us to regain control of our focus.
This book challenges you to take ownership of your life and push yourself toward growth and success. With this knowledge, everyone has access to a truly remarkable gift – the power of concentrated attention. Learning what needs to be done to recapture this stolen focus can be life-changing, so take the opportunity now and seize control of your success.
The idea that your own capacity for focused attention only limits you is incredibly inspiring.
I wish you the best, Fabian.
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