This Book is For:
*Individuals who feel as though they're experiencing a reduction in their ability to focus on meaningful or cognitively demanding tasks, and who want to improve their ability to block out distractions, design their environment for increased focus, and get their brains back.
*Educators and parents, especially of young children, who are witnessing this same reduction in the ability to focus in their students' lives, and who want to develop an understanding of how exactly they can help reverse this trend.
*Anyone who is concerned about the influence of reduced attention spans on our ability to come together and take effective, collective action toward solving some of the world's biggest and most important problems.
“We cannot put off living until we are ready...Life is fired at us point-blank."
-Jose Ortega y Gasset
This important book demands the kind of attention and deep, nuanced thought that we as individuals and as a society are becoming less able to devote to anything.
In Stolen Focus, Johann Hari investigates 12 distinct causes of our dwindling attention spans - several of them systematic causes - and offers a degree of hope, even though none of us are able to win the battle for our attention alone.
Perhaps one of the most important takeaways from the entire book is that your increasing inability to focus is not completely your fault, and believing that it is a personal failing of yours is simply unhelpful in the very worst way.
The fact is that you and I are living within a society that is systematically siphoning off your attention, and as valuable as self-discipline is, it's not going to be enough to solve what Hari calls "the attention crisis."
And it really is a crisis. I mean, you've got the average American worker being distracted roughly once every three minutes, and even the average CEO of a Fortune 500 company gets just twenty-eight uninterrupted minutes a day. A day!
As discussed in the Key Ideas section below, the average American in 2017 spent just 17 minutes a day reading, compared to 5.4 hours on their phone. And I'm sure that not many of them were reading books on their phone, either!
The reality is that today, around one in five car accidents is due to a distracted driver, and untold millions of people struggle every day with the simple act of putting down their phones. But it's not their fault, says Hari, because every time you try to put down your phone, there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you. What kind of personal will or self-discipline can stand alone against that?
So, it's obvious that our ability to pay attention is collapsing, but Johann Hari was determined to find out why this is happening.
In the process of attempting to reclaim his own mind and his own ability to focus, he ended up interviewing a multitude of experts - computer scientists, social scientists, educators, psychologists, neuroscientists, technologists, etc. - and the result is this impeccably researched and insightful book.
The attention crisis is partly a personal problem, but like all the most important things in life, it extends much further than just ourselves:
“When attention breaks down, problem-solving breaks down. Solving big problems requires the sustained focus of many people over many years. Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them. If we lose that, we lose our ability to have a fully functioning society."
The constant assault on our attention spans by the 12 forces that Hari identifies (Key Idea #3) is one of our most pressing problems because the inability to pay attention and come together to work for common goals impedes our ability to solve our other problems as well:
“People who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions - and less likely to see clearly when they fail. A world full of attention-deprived citizens alternating between Twitter and Snapchat will be a world of cascading crises where we can't get a handle on any of them."
I highly recommend reading the entire book instead of "just" this breakdown - which is usually the case for books I feature on the Stairway to Wisdom. I choose them because they are excellent, important, and worth reading all the way through.
In the case of Stolen Focus, it's packed with big ideas and alarming facts, but it's also structured in a way that is exciting and compulsively readable. The 12 causes Hari talks about could fill dozens of books each, but he makes his case in a compelling way that's also easy to read.
He starts off detailing his own inability to focus, and the struggles of people he knows personally, finally ending up living alone and screen-free in Provincetown for three months while he tries to make sense of the crisis and its causes. His time there in relative seclusion enabled him to gain a clearer sense of his own self, but also to read books again, think deeply and creatively, sleep better, and ultimately put together this phenomenally valuable book.
Now, obviously, there's an element of "must be nice" about this whole thing, and he recognizes that. Hari doesn't tell us that the solution to our problems is just to go off the grid, move to the woods, and live freely ever after. The solution is going to come from systematic and society-wide changes, along with individual efforts to reclaim our attention.
But it starts with realizing that we have a problem. There's this big beautiful world out there, encouraging us to build the lives we were meant to live, but many people are too busy scrolling to hear the call.
They - and maybe you, too - have to realize that social media is not free. It costs your attention - a piece of your life - and these costs matter. Our lives matter. Our real ones, not the simulacrum of life that exists on screens.
Will we ever take meaningful action to recover our focus? Will we ever stop switching back and forth between tasks, polluting our minds and bodies with chemicals, and letting social media companies control where our attention goes?
“It’s possible that a hundred years from now, when they look back at us and ask why we struggled to pay attention, they will say, 'They were surrounded by pollutants and chemicals that inflamed their brains and harmed focus. They walked around exposed to BPA and PCBs, and breathing in metals.
Their scientists knew what it did to their brains and their ability to focus. Why were they surprised they struggled to pay attention?' Those people in the future will know whether, after learning this, we banded together to protect our brains - or whether we allowed them to continue to degrade."
#1: Blame the System, Not (Necessarily) the Individual
“The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world's attention burns."
The current attention crisis has numerous, diverse causes (Johann Hari identifies 12 of them in his book), and it's important to note that most of them don't have to do with individual failures of will.
It's not (necessarily) that we're lazy or undisciplined, and it's certainly not the case that we're completely to blame for our struggles in paying attention. Just as Krishnamurti said that it's a dangerous error to change the system while leaving the individual unchanged, it's not totally a personal problem either. It's both.
The 12 causes that we'll explore in this breakdown work together, immediately and over time, to ruin our ability to focus, and beating yourself up for your supposed "shortcomings" probably isn't going to do you much good. Not when your very environment has been intentionally designed to sap your attention, focus, and willpower, and when the entire system conspires against you in favor of distraction.
There are things you can do as an individual to reclaim at least part of your attention - to start taking back your own mind - but the complete reclamation of what we've lost - what has been stolen from us - will require a collective effort.
Going on a digital detox, or implementing these little tiny lifestyle changes can be helpful, but it's not "The Answer," for the same reason that wearing a gas mask a few times a week isn't the answer to global pollution. As Johann Hari rightly says:
“I am strongly in favor of individuals making the changes they can in their personal lives. I am also in favor of being honest about the fact there are limits to how far that can take you."
#2: The 4 Forms of Attention
“I began to wonder if there is, in fact, a fourth form of attention. I would call it our stadium lights - it's our ability to see each other, to hear each other, and to work together to formulate and fight for collective goals."
Before getting into the deeper causes of our attention crisis and why people are having more trouble than ever focusing, it's helpful to define what exactly your attention actually is. Your attention can be broken down, Hari believes, into four distinct forms. They are:
First: Your Spotlight is what you use to perform immediate actions, such as typing a sentence, lifting weights, making yourself a cup of coffee, etc. It involves a narrowing of your focus down to the minutest of actions, and when this form of attention is disrupted, you get derailed from your intention to perform these specific actions and tasks.
Second: Your Starlight is the focus you bring to bear on longer-term goals or projects with longer time horizons. Writing a book, winning a fitness competition, earning a promotion - these are things that can't be checked off a "To Do" list, but rather they take shape over time. It represents your direction, because when you feel lost, you look up at the stars and remember where you're headed. Lose this, and you don't stand a chance of accomplishing anything meaningful across time.
Third: Your Daylight is what allows you the mental space and clarity to know what your long-term goals actually are in the first place. Without it - without being able to reflect on your life in the light of day - you won't be able to clarify your direction to yourself, and you become lost in your own life.
Fourth: Our Stadium Lights are, according to Hari, our ability to see each other, hear each other, and work together to formulate and fight for collective goals. We turn on our stadium lights and we realize that we're all in this together and that we never have to be alone again. There are thousands, millions, billions of us, and if, as individuals, there are limits to our potential, together, there's virtually nothing we can't do.
#3: The 12 Causes of Our Fractured Attention
“On the long walks I try to go on now without any devices at all, I spend a lot of time reflecting on Marcus's metaphor. A few days ago, I wondered if it could be taken further. If thinking is like a symphony that requires all these different kinds of thought, then right now, the stage has been invaded. One of those heavy-metal bands who bite the heads off bats and spit them at the audience has charged the stage, and they are standing in front of the orchestra, screaming."
You could fill dozens of books with discussions and analyses of each of the 12 causes of our attention crisis that Hari identifies, but here they are, in outline form:
Cause #1 - The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering: Information is being fired at us faster and faster, and as the volume of that information increases, it becomes more and more difficult to filter it effectively. We don't know what to pay attention to, so we try to pay attention to everything, and we're quickly overwhelmed.
Worse, we think we can "multitask," which is essentially a lie because trying to do that comes with "switching costs." We're not really doing two things at once, but switching back and forth between them, and every time we do that, we dilute our attention.
Cause #2 - The Crippling of Our Flow States: A flow state is what we experience when we're completely immersed in a pleasurable and/or sufficiently challenging activity - when our attention is totally consumed by the task at hand, and we feel "weightless," as though the work is being done of itself. It's effortless.
Flow states arrive when we're doing one single thing at a time - something that's both meaningful to us and right at the edge of our current abilities, not too hard and not too easy.
When we keep getting distracted, however, we preempt the necessary conditions for flow, and we lose the ability to perform deep, meaningful work.
Cause #3 - The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion: Several of these causes feed into each other, and perhaps nowhere is this more self-evident than in the case of our physical and mental health.
The constantly-expanding workweek and the proliferation of demands on our attention and focus are directly contributing to overwhelm, and this, combined with our unhealthy diets and increased stress - not to mention the pollution hanging over our heads - all takes a toll on us.
Cause #4 - The Collapse of Sustained Reading: In 2017, the average American spent just 17 minutes a day reading, while spending a troubling 5.4 hours on their phones.
Many of us are reading less than we used to, and less often purely for pleasure, and this works to undermine our ability to pay attention as well. Reading trains our attention, and when we spend hours with a great book, we're also learning how to focus on one thing for extended periods of time.
In contrast, social media trains us to be superficial in our reading habits, and to flit back and forth between insubstantial and inconsequential material until we've done it so often and for so long that we don't know how to read anything longer than a status update anymore.
Cause #5 - The Disruption of Mind-Wandering: Far from being a sign of laziness or lack of discipline, mind-wandering is essential to creativity, and for allowing us the space with which to make sense of our own lives.
However, when we reflexively fill every spare moment with stimuli - constantly distracting ourselves from the possibility of ever spending one, unstimulated moment alone with ourselves - these crucial periods of free thinking start to disappear.
Cause #6 - The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You: Also referred to as "surveillance capitalism," Hari found that the modern social media landscape is intentionally and specifically designed to pull you away from your own life.
These social media companies make money every time they show you an advertisement, and to be able to show you more advertising, they need to keep you on the apps for longer. They lose money whenever you put your phone down.
You may have exceptional self-control, but is it really strong enough to withstand the greatest psychological manipulators and tech engineers in the entire world? The tech companies are betting that it isn't, and the massive ad revenues these companies pull in are evidence that they're right.
Cause #7 - The Rise of Cruel Optimism: I had never heard this term before reading Stolen Focus, but now, I can't unsee it. I discuss this idea further, below, but cruel optimism is basically when you take a really big problem, one with various, deeper causes in our culture, and then you offer people simplistic, individual solutions that barely make a difference in addressing the real problem.
Where it relates to attention is that we're told that we can just disable our notifications, put on noise-canceling headphones, etc., and our attention problem will be solved. In reality, there are vast, systemic causes contributing to our collective failure of attention, and these piecemeal, personal "solutions" are not the whole answer. To pretend that they are is just cruel optimism.
Cause #8- The Surge in Stress: Stress is expensive, and it costs us the resource of our attention. The majority of doctor's visits today have their origins in stress- and anxiety-related causes, and this isn't surprising in the least, given what unchecked stress levels can do to our immune systems.
Where it concerns our attention, stressful situations - stressful lives - cause us to be hypervigilant, always on the lookout for new threats. The pace of the modern world being what it is, with all these stressors piling up on us at once, is causing us to revert to these hypervigilant states, and it's ruining our ability to pay attention.
Cause #9 - Our Deteriorating Diets: The foods that most of us are consuming are literally poisonous to the only bodies we will ever have.
See, many of these causes work together, because taking care of yourself in a high-stress environment usually takes a back seat to simply staying alive.
If information is coming at you faster and faster, and your responsibilities are looming large in front of you, with your focus already weakened by addictive apps and games, you're not going to have the energy to cook a decent meal at home.
So, you take shortcuts with your health and choose the cheaper, faster, deadlier option. But even this is harming your ability to focus, because of all the sugar and caffeine that's in everything. Not only are you consuming this garbage as fuel for your body, but it's taking its toll on your mind, too, in the form of sugar crashes and caffeine withdrawal.
Cause #10 - Rising Pollution: The tenth cause that Hari identifies is one that we don't normally associate with the attention crisis, but it's perhaps the most widespread problem that he deals with in the book. We're destroying the only planet we've ever been blessed to call home and the air that we breathe is literally turning on us, crippling our brains' ability to focus.
Cause #11 - The Rise of ADHD: This is the chapter that Hari found most difficult to write, and he goes into it more deeply in Key Idea #7. There are a number of competing views on the ADHD epidemic, with world-class experts disagreeing with each other on even basic facets of the problem, such as its underlying causes. I highly recommend you read Key Idea #7 below for more information on this.
Cause #12 - The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically: The basis of our ability to pay attention is formed in childhood, and this is the final cause that Hari identifies for attention problems in later life.
We're overprotecting and overdirecting our children (full disclosure: I write this as someone without kids of my own, so please, come to your own conclusions), and as a result, they're not developing in a way that's conducive to being able to focus as an adult.
We've already mapped the territory, writes Hari, and we're basically telling children that it's no longer safe to explore, make mistakes, ask questions, and face danger - that it's no longer safe to be a child.
The "cult of safetyism" is depriving children of key developmental opportunities that will allow them to pursue what interests them, and forge their own identity. We tell them what to study, when and for how long, and whom they're allowed to study with, and remove any and all possibility of ever getting hurt in any way. Then, once they become adults, they have to face the adult world lacking these crucial skills.
#4: Depth Takes Time
"What we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions...Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there's no time to reach depth.
Depth connected to your work in relationships also takes time. It takes energy. It takes long time spans. And it takes commitment. It takes attention, right? All of these things that require depth are suffering. It's pulling us more and more up onto the surface."
Life is far too wide for any single individual to stand high enough above it and take it all in. Some people may try to get around that by jumping frenetically back and forth and across between all these different sights, attractions, distractions, opportunities, mysteries, etc. But life is endlessly mysterious, and we'll never be able to see all that there is to see.
But life is also deep - perhaps as deep as it is wide - and again, no single human being will ever reach the "core" of life.
Whether we decide to go wide or go deep, become specialists or generalists, there will always be more "life" out there than we'll ever have time to attend to. We'll never get to the end or the bottom, for sure, but we won't ever even come close to finding out what life is all about if we sacrifice depth, and that's exactly what we do when we consistently choose width at the expense of depth.
It doesn't take any time at all to move from one thing to the next thing, but depth takes time, and the evidence says that society as a whole is getting shallower every year. For example:
“On Twitter, you can track what topics people are talking about and how long they discuss them for. The team began to do a massive analysis of the data. How long do people talk about a topic on Twitter for? Has the length of time they focus, collectively, on any one thing changed? Do people talk about the topics that obsess them - the trending hashtags - for more or less time now, compared to in the recent past?
What they found is that in 2013 a topic would remain in the top fifty most-discussed subjects for 17.5 hours. By 2016 that had dropped to 11.9 hours. This suggested that together, on that site, we were focusing on any one thing for ever-shorter periods of time."
That was 2016. By now, it's almost a certainty that we're spending less than 11.9 hours on one thing before quickly moving on to something shinier. A common complaint is that the world seems to be speeding up, and it is, but it's primarily the increase in the volume of information that creates this sensation.
Life is being fired at us point blank, and the rapid-fire movement of our feeds across our eyes tells us that our lives are passing us by more quickly now than ever.
We should have seen this coming. As Hari writes in Stolen Focus:
“We told ourselves we could have a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to, and the speed at which it hits us, with no costs. This is a delusion: It becomes exhausting."
#5: Conflicts of Interest and Big Money
“The longer you make people look at their phones, the more advertising they see - and therefore the more money Google gets."
Facebook knows what they're doing. It's not like they're blissfully unaware that their service - and others like it - are causing so much harm. They are complicit, and, for reasons that will surprise no one, it's because of the advertising dollars.
The business model of these social media companies is to sell your attention to advertisers. If users are content to see an ad or two placed between every few posts on their feed, then the platform can charge big money to businesses in order to place their advertisements there.
I would say that almost everyone knows that by now. But there's a second element of their business model that most people forget about.
Over time, as you keep entering your data while browsing these apps, social media companies slowly build a profile on you, your habits, and your preferences over time. They start to learn what you like and don't like, what you're likely to click on, and what is more or less likely to make you leave the app.
You can think of it almost like a voodoo doll made in your likeness, made up of little fragments of your personality, preferences, and tastes. You enter some info, and the doll starts to look a little bit more like you, and then a little bit more, and then before you know it, they have this frighteningly complete picture of who you are, stored on some server somewhere that they can then sell to advertisers. This lets them hyperfocus their ads so that they only show you what you're likely to click on and then buy.
But it goes deeper than simple commerce because it's not just companies that want to find willing customers, but also hate groups and proponents of dangerous ideologies that want to find willing adherents, and they're also on social media, putting out content, polarizing people, and turning them against each other.
Because of the way the human brain works, material that angers you and arouses strong emotions is more engaging and will tend to hold your attention for longer. Content creators of all types know this, and in a weird way, the interests of extremist groups and advertisers are aligned with those of Facebook, Instagram, and others:
“An algorithm that prioritizes keeping you glued to the screen will - unintentionally but inevitably - prioritize outraging and angering you. If it's more enraging, it's more engaging."
In the interests of keeping you engaged on the platform, the YouTube algorithm is going to keep showing you more engaging and enraging content, and eventually, you're going to find yourself recommended a video from some hate group. It's not that YouTube or any other platform is trying to radicalize you - any more than Exxon Mobil wants to melt the icecaps - it's just the inevitable consequence of their business model and their algorithms.
Eventually, these fringe views start to filter through society, and the entire social fabric begins to wear thin:
“If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, that starts to change the culture. As Tristan told me, it 'turns hate into a habit.'"
#6: Cruel Optimism
“This is when you take a really big problem with deep causes in our culture - like obesity, or depression, or addiction - and you offer people, in upbeat language, a simplistic individual solution.
It sounds optimistic, because you are telling them that the problem can be solved, and soon - but it is, in fact, cruel, because the solution you are offering is so limited, and so blind to the deeper causes, that, for most people, it will fail."
Both Johann Hari and I - and Nir Eyal, whom you'll meet in just a few sentences - are in favor of personal responsibility, and of taking ownership of your own role in reclaiming your attention and your ability to focus.
Individual solutions do help, but as Hari explains, they are just not enough. To ply people with the idea that they might be - and to tell them that if they fail it's because they're "bad people" who just aren't trying hard enough - is cruel optimism at best.
One of the technologists that Hari interviews for the book is Nir Eyal, the author of two completely opposite books called Hooked, and Indistractible. The former is a playbook for how to create the most addictive app that you possibly can, and the latter is about how individuals can protect themselves from the people who have read Hooked. I've read both, and enjoyed them both, but here's what Hari has to say:
"Nir's approach is absolutely in line with how the tech companies want us to think about our attention problems. They can no longer deny the crisis, so they are doing something else: subtly urging us to see it as an individual problem that has to be solved with greater self-restraint on my part and yours, not theirs. That's why they began to offer tools they argued would help you to strengthen your willpower."
We're basically told that it's not the apps' fault that we can't focus, and that we should really be more disciplined. If we had stronger willpower or were more "virtuous" or whatever, then maybe we wouldn't have these kinds of attention problems. But Hari goes on:
“Nir was one of the people who led Silicon Valley in the charge to 'drive them crazy' - and yet when people like my godson Adam were, in fact, driven crazy, he told me that the solution was primarily to change our individual behavior, not the actions of the tech companies.
When we talked, I explained to him that, for me, it seemed like there was a worrying mismatch between his two books. In Hooked, he talks about using ferociously powerful machinery to get us 'fiendishly hooked' and in 'pain' until we get our next techno-fix.
Yet, in Indistractible, he tells us that when we feel distracted by this machinery, we should try gentle personal changes. In the first book, he describes big and powerful forces used to hook us; in the second, he describes fragile little personal interventions that he says will get us out."
This is cruel optimism in practice, and it doesn't look like anyone's trying very hard to hide it. Hari uses the example here of workplace "mindfulness" seminars that are supposedly believed to compensate for people drowning in stress and overwhelm:
“You can see clearly how this is cruel. You tell somebody there's a solution to their problem - just think differently about your stress and you'll be fine! - and then leave them in a waking nightmare. We won't give workers insulin, but we'll give them classes on how to change their thinking. It's the twenty-first-century version of Marie Antoinette saying, 'Let them eat cake.' Let them be present."
#7: Double Standards for Our Children
“When it comes to our own attention problems as adults, we often readily acknowledge a whole range of influences on us - the rise of invasive technologies, stress, lack of sleep, and so on. But when our children face the same challenges, over the past twenty years, we have been drawn to a starkly simple story: that this problem is largely the result of a biological disorder. I wanted to investigate this in depth.
Of all the chapters in this book, this is the one I've found hardest to write, because it's the topic about which serious scientists disagree the most. By interviewing them, I learned that they don't agree on even the most basic questions - including whether ADHD actually exists in the way most people have been told it does, as a biological illness. So I want to go through this chapter slowly and carefully.
This is the topic where I interviewed the most experts - over thirty of them - and I kept going back with more questions for a long time. But I want to make clear a few things at the start that every expert I spoke with agreed on: Everyone being diagnosed with ADHD has a real problem. They aren't making it up or faking it.
Whatever the cause, if you or your child is struggling to focus, it's not your fault; you're not incompetent or undisciplined or any of the other stigmatizing labels that might have been applied to you. You deserve compassion and practical help to find solutions.
Most experts believed that for some children, there can be a biological contribution to their poor focus - though they disagreed on how large a contribution that is. We should be able to have a calm and honest conversation about the other aspects of the ADHD controversy while holding these truths in our minds."
#8: Essential Nutrients for the Mind
“Imagine you bought a plant and you wanted to help it grow. What would you do? You would make sure certain things were present: sunlight, and water, and soil with the right nutrients. And you would protect it from the things that could damage or kill it: you would plant it far from the trampling feet of other people, and from pests and diseases. Your ability to develop deep focus is, I have come to believe, like a plant.
To grow and flourish to its full potential, your focus needs certain things to be present: play for children and flow states for adults, to read books, to discover meaningful activities that you want to focus on, to have space to let your mind wander so you can make sense of your life, to exercise, to sleep properly, to eat nutritious food that makes it possible for you to develop a healthy brain, and to have a sense of safety.
And there are certain things you need to protect your attention from, because they will sicken or stunt it: too much speed, too much switching, too many stimuli, intrusive technology designed to hack and hook you, stress, exhaustion, processed food pumped with dyes that amp you up, polluted air.
For a long time, we took our attention for granted, as if it was a cactus that would grow in even the most dessiciated climate. Now we know it's more like an orchid, a plant that requires great care or it will wither."
#9: What Can Be Done?
“With this image in mind, I now had a sense of what a movement to reclaim our attention might look like. I would start with three big, bold goals.
One: ban surveillance capitalism, because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can't focus.
Two: introduce a four-day week, because people who are chronically exhausted can't pay attention.
Three: rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely - in their neighborhoods and at school - because children who are imprisoned in their homes won't be able to develop a healthy ability to pay attention.
If we achieve these goals, the ability of people to pay attention would, over time, dramatically improve."
Yeah, right, "ban surveillance capitalism." Just tell the social media giants that they'll have to give up billions of dollars in market share because we can't focus anymore on reading Don Quixote or go 10 minutes without clutching at our phones, right?
Well, maybe it's not so far-fetched! In the book, Johann Hari uses the example of several human rights campaigns that were long thought to be hopeless, yet are areas in which we've made astounding progress, such as the rights of women.
It wasn't too long ago that men controlled basically everything and that if you ever said that a woman might run for President of the United States you'd have been laughed out of the room. And yet here we are.
There is historical precedent for taking on established powers and wresting freedom from totalitarianism, so the dismantling of surveillance capitalism isn't such a massive stretch.
At the very least, social media apps could be designed to be less addictive, and even to help us achieve our goals, rather than distract us from them. It's a matter of political will, not an inherent difficulty.
It's even possible that social media sites could become subscription-based, and no longer rely on advertising revenue. We see this already in the case of Substack. Right now, social media is designed to shape your priorities and thought processes, but it could also be designed to help you understand your most basic intentions and drives, and then help you actualize them in the world.
Then there's the 4-day workweek and the right to disconnect. In France, there are actually laws that prevent your employer from contacting you outside of work hours, and this is just the beginning.
The right to disconnect is an important right, but a 4-day workweek has actually been shown to increase productivity in the places where it's been tried. Even though Henry Ford's original intention for creating the "weekend" was to give people time to shop and spend money on his cars, he hit upon an important concept and one that we could think about expanding.
And then, finally, there's the third goal of rebuilding childhood around free play. This isn't about letting kids do whatever the hell they want to, but about encouraging them to actually be kids.
We have the resources and the knowledge to make our children's lives a wonderful adventure, change the entire trajectory of their lives, and give them the best possible chance at succeeding - in every sense of the word:
“As I type out those facts, I keep thinking about my fifteen-year-old niece. Like her great-grandmother, she loves to draw and paint, and every time I see her doing it, I think of Lydia, doing the same thing in her Swiss village eighty-five years before. Lydia was told to stop wasting her time and start serving men. My niece is told: You're going to be a great artist - let's start looking at art schools."
“I went to see the Mona Lisa in Paris, only to find she is now permanently hidden behind a rugby scrum of people from everywhere on earth, all jostling their way to the front, only for them to immediately turn their backs on her, snap a selfie, and fight their way out again. On the day I was there, I watched the crowd from the side for more than an hour. Nobody - not one person - looked at the Mona Lisa for more than a few seconds."
“For a long time, I reassured myself by saying this crisis was really just an illusion. Previous generations felt their attention and focus were getting worse too - you can read medieval monks nearly a millennium ago complaining that they were suffering from attention problems of their own."
“Later, I asked him - if I put you in charge of the world, and you wanted to ruin people's ability to pay attention, what would you do? He thought about it for a moment, and said: 'Probably about what our society is doing.'"
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."
“If we don’t change course, he fears we are headed toward a world where 'there's going to be an upper class of people that are very aware' of the risks to their attention and find ways to live within their limits, and then there will be the rest of the society with 'fewer resources to resist the manipulation, and they're going to be living more and more inside their computers, being manipulated more and more.'"
“Internally, at Google, the unofficial motto among the staff is 'If you're not fast, you're fucked.'"
“He has analyzed what happens to a person's focus if they engage in deliberately slow practices, like yoga, tai chi, or meditation, as discovered in a broad range of scientific studies, and he has shown they improve your ability to pay attention by a significant amount.
I asked him why. He said that 'we have to shrink the world to fit our cognitive bandwidth.' If you go too fast, you overload your abilities, and they degrade. But when you practice moving at a speed that is compatible with human nature - and you build that into your daily life - you begin to train your attention and focus.
'That's why those disciplines make you smarter. It's not about humming or wearing orange robes.' Slowness, he explained, nurtures attention, and speed shatters it."
“If you are focusing on something and you get interrupted, on average, it will take twenty-three minutes for you to get back to the same state of focus. A different study of office workers in the U.S. found most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.
If this goes on for months and years, it scrambles your ability to figure out who you are and what you want. You become lost in your own life."
“If you’re spending a lot of your time not really thinking, but wasting it on switching, that's just wasted brain-processing time. This means that if your Screen Time shows you are using your phone four hours a day, you are losing much more time than that in lost focus."
“So if you spend your time switching a lot, then the evidence suggests you will be slower, you'll make more mistakes, you'll be less creative, and you'll remember less of what you do."
“How do you slow down in a world that is speeding up?”
“By the time the war ended, Europe was in ruins, and his family had lost everything. They got word that one of his brothers had been killed in the fighting, and another, Moricz, had been taken by Stalin to a Siberian concentration camp. 'By the time I was ten years old,' he remembered years later, 'I was convinced that grownups didn't know how to live a good life.'"
“If you’re not sleeping well, your body interprets that as an emergency.”
"Once I was in Zimbabwe and I spoke to some rangers who - as part of their jobs - had to knock out rhinos in order to give them medical treatment. They explained that they did it by darting them with a very powerful tranquilizer. As they described how the rhinos would stagger about in a panicked funk and then crash to the ground, I thought, hey, that's my sleep routine too."
“In Provincetown, I noticed I wasn't just reading more - I was reading differently. I was becoming much more deeply immersed in the books I had chosen. I got lost in them for really long stretches, sometimes whole days - and I felt like I was understanding and remembering more of what I read. It seemed like I traveled farther in that deck chair by the sea, reading book after book, than I had in the previous five years of shuttling frantically around the world."
“When you read a novel, you are immersing yourself in what it's like to be inside another person's head. You are simulating a social situation. You are imagining other people and their experiences in a deep and complex way.
So maybe, he said, if you read a lot of novels, you will become better at actually understanding other people off the page. Perhaps fiction is a kind of empathy gym, boosting your ability to empathize with other people - which is one of the most rich and precious forms of focus we have."
“When they got the results, they were clear. The more novels you read, the better you were at reading other people's emotions. It was a huge effect. This wasn't just a sign that you were better educated - because reading nonfiction books, by contrast, had no effect on your empathy."
“Fiction is a far better virtual reality simulator than the machines currently marketed under that name.
Each of us can only ever experience a small sliver of what it's like to be a human being alive today, Raymond told me, but as you read fiction, you see inside other people's experiences. That doesn't vanish when you put down the novel.
When you later meet a person in the real world, you'll be better able to imagine what it's like to be them. Reading a factual account may make you more knowledgable, but it doesn't have this empathy-expanding effect."
“Empathy makes progress possible, and every time you widen human empathy, you open the universe a little more.”
“When you expose yourself to complex stories about the inner lives of other people over long periods of time, that will repattern your consciousness. You, too, will become more perceptive, open, and empathetic.
If, by contrast, you expose yourself for hours a day to the disconnected fragments of shrieking and fury that dominate social media, your thoughts will start to be shaped like that. Your internal voices will become cruder, louder, and less able to hear more tender and gentle thoughts.
Take care what technologies you use, because your consciousness will, over time, come to be shaped like those technologies."
"If we're just frantically running around focusing on the external world exclusively, we miss the opportunity to let the brain digest what's been going on."
“The more you let your mind wander, the better you are at having organized personal goals, being creative, and making patient, long-term decisions. You will be able to do these things better if you let your mind drift, and slowly, unconsciously, make sense of your life."
“Creativity is not where you create some new thing that's emerged from your brain. It's a new association between two things that were already there. Mind-wandering allows more extended trains of thought to unfold, which allows for more associations to be made."
“In situations of low stress and safety, mind-wandering will be a gift, a pleasure, a creative force. In situations of high stress or danger, mind-wandering will be a torment."
“We don’t just pay attention as individuals; we pay attention together, as a society.”
“She got the message that whatever was on my phone was more important than she was.”
“It doesn’t talk about the crisis in our food supply, which surrounds us with addictive, highly processed foods that bear no relationship to what previous generations of humans ate. It doesn't explain the crisis of stress and anxiety that drives us to overeat. It doesn't address the fact that we live in cities where you have to squeeze yourself into a steel box to get anywhere.
Diet books ignore the fact that you live in a society and culture that are shaping and pushing you, every day, to act in certain ways. A diet doesn't change your wider environment - and it's the wider environment that is the cause of the crisis. Your diet ends, and you're still in an unhealthy environment that's pushing you to gain weight.
Trying to lose weight in the environment we've built is like trying to run up an escalator that is constantly carrying you down. A few people might heroically sprint to the top - but most of us will find ourselves back at the bottom, feeling like it's our fault. If we listen to Nir and the people like him, I fear we will respond to the rise of attention problems in the same way that we responded to the rise in weight problems - and we will end up with the same disastrous outcomes.
It's not just Silicon Valley that pushes this approach. Almost all the existing books about attention problems (and I read a lot as research for this book) present them simply as individual flaws requiring individual tweaks. They are digital diet books. But diet books didn't solve the obesity crisis and digital diet books won't solve the attention crisis. We have to understand the deeper forces at work here."
"There was a different way we could have reacted to the obesity crisis when it began forty or so years ago. We could have listened to the evidence that purely practicing individual restraint - in an unchanged environment - rarely works for long, except in one in twenty cases like Nir's.
We could have looked instead at what does work: changing the environment in specific ways. We could have used government policy to make fresh, nutritious food cheap and accessible, and sugar-filled junk expensive and inaccessible. We could have reduced the factors that cause people to be so stressed that they comfort eat. We could have built cities people can easily walk or bike through. We could have banned the targeting of junk food ads at children, shaping their tastes for life.
That's why countries that have done some of this - like Norway, or Denmark, or the Netherlands - have much lower levels of obesity, and countries that have focused on telling individual overweight people to pull themselves together, like the U.S. and the U.K., have very high levels of obesity.
If all the energy people like me have put into shaming and starving ourselves had been put instead into demanding these political changes, there would be far less obesity now, and a lot less misery."
“Children who had experienced four or more types of trauma were 32.6 times more likely to have been diagnosed with attention or behavior problems than children who had not experienced any trauma."
“Sami does still occasionally continue the prescription of stimulants to children, but it's rare, it's short-term, and it's after trying all other options. He said that with the vast majority of cases of kids with attention problems that come into his office, if he listens carefully and offers practical support to change the child's environment, it almost always reduces or ends the problem they have."
“Parenting takes place in an environment - and if that environment floods parents with stress, it will inevitably affect their children."
“The scientific evidence we have so far suggests 'there are three main areas [of child development] where play has a major impact. One is creativity and imagination' - it's how you learn to think about problems and solve them.
The second is 'social bonds' - it's how you learn to interact with other people and socialize. And the third is 'aliveness' - it's how you learn to experience joy and pleasure.
The things we learn from play aren't trivial add-ons to becoming a functioning human being, Isabel explained. They are the core of it. Play builds the foundation of a solid personality, and everything that adults sit down and explain to the child afterward builds on this base.
If you want to be a person who can pay attention fully, she told me, you need this base of free play. Yet suddenly, we have been 'taking all this out of kids' lives,' Lenore says. Today, even when children do finally get to play, it's mainly supervised by adults, who set the rules and tell them what to do."
“Free play has been turned into supervised play, and so - like processed food - it has been drained of most of its value."
"Adults are saying: 'Here's the environment. I've already mapped it. Stop exploring.' But that's the opposite of what childhood is."
“If your attention is constantly managed by other people, how can it develop? How do you learn what fascinates you? How do you find your intrinsic motives, the ones that are so important to developing attention?"
“Her struggles to get him to read had ended, because now he was reading all the time about how to build stuff. It struck me: When L.B. was being told what to do constantly - when he was being forced to act on extrinsic motivations - he couldn't focus, and he was bored all the time.
But when he was given the chance, through play, to find out what interested him - to develop an intrinsic motivation - his ability to focus flourished, and he worked for hours and hours without a break, building his boats and wagons."
“I felt a flush of anger, and looked around me. I thought, Wait, what's happening here? Who are these people to tell me what I will be doing at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday morning? I haven't committed any crime. Why am I being treated like a prisoner?"
“After a week, I was told to ‘shut up and learn.’”
“The more something is meaningful, the easier it is to pay attention to and learn, for adults and kids."
“Sometimes, hackers decide to attack a website in a very specific way. They get an enormous number of computers to try to connect to a website all at once - and by doing this, they 'overwhelm its capacity for managing traffic, to the point where it can't be accessed by anyone else, and it goes down.' It crashes. This is called a 'denial-of-service attack.' James thinks we are all living through something like a denial-of-service attack on our minds.
'We're that server, and there's all these things trying to grab our attention by throwing information at us...It undermines our capacity for responding to anything. It leaves us in a state of either distraction, or paralysis.' We are so inundated 'that it fills up your world, and you can't find a place to get a view on all of it and realize that you're so distracted and figure out what to do about it.'"
"A heat wave was just starting in Siberia - a sentence I never thought I would write."
“He was on his phone almost every waking hour, seeing the world mainly through TikTok, a new app that made Snapchat look like a Henry James novel."
“When I look now at the orange, fire-scarred skies over San Francisco on this grainy webcam, I keep thinking about the light in Provincetown in the summer I spent there without my phone or the internet, and how pure and perfect it seemed.
James Williams was right: our attention is a kind of light, one that clarifies the world and makes it visible to us. In Provincetown, I could see more clearly than I ever had before in my life - my own thoughts, my own goals, my own dreams. I want to live in that light - the light of knowing, of achieving our ambitions, of being fully alive - and not in the menacing orange light of it all burning down.
When I hung up on my friend in Sydney so he could unscrew his fire alarm and switch it off, I thought, if our attention continues to shatter, the ecosystem won't wait patiently for us to regain our focus. It will fall and it will burn.
At the start of the Second World War, the English poet W.H. Auden - when he looked out over the new technologies of destruction that had been created by humans - warned: 'We must love one another, or die.' I believe that now we must focus together - or face the fires alone."
Important Insights from Related Books:
What does it feel like to imagine oneself as intimately connected with Reality - with everything that exists - and to live with your eyes, and your heart, wide open?
Anthony de Mello points the way to an understanding - and awareness - of what such a fully realized life feels like, and just like life, this book is full of surprises. Awareness began as a series of lectures that were later combined into a book, so it helps to imagine him speaking to an audience while you read it, and that you are in that audience.
De Mello was a Jesuit priest and spiritual teacher and he uses stories, parables, jokes, and striking insights - which he combines with his deep humanity and infinite care and affection - to wake people up to the life that's been sitting right in front of them the whole time they've been alive.
De Mello taught that you don't have to "add" anything to your life to make it - or yourself, for that matter - into everything it could be; rather, it's a process of subtraction, of dropping your attachments, your labels, your concepts, and all the other obstructions to your happiness, which is, after all, your natural state.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“The most difficult thing in the world is to listen, to see. We don't want to see. Do you think a capitalist wants to see what is good in the communist system? Do you think a communist wants to see what is good and healthy in the capitalist system? Do you think a rich man wants to look at poor people? We don't want to look, because if we do, we may change.
We don't want to look. If you look, you lose control of the life that you are so precariously holding together. And so in order to wake up, the one thing you need the most is not energy, or strength, or youthfulness, or even great intelligence. The one thing you need most of all is the readiness to learn something new.
The chances that you will wake up are in direct proportion to the amount of truth you can take without running away. How much are you ready to take? How much of everything you've held dear are you ready to have shattered, without running away?"
“But I’ll promise you this: I have not known a single person who gave time to being aware who didn’t see a difference in a matter of weeks. The quality of their life changes, so they don’t have to take it on faith anymore. They see it; they’re different. They react differently. In fact, they react less and act more. You see things you’ve never seen before."
“The moment you put things into a concept, they stop flowing; they become static, dead. A frozen wave is not a wave. A wave is essentially movement, action; when you freeze it, it is not a wave. Concepts are always frozen. Reality flows."
Read the Full Breakdown: Awareness, by Anthony de Mello
You don't have to go all the way to Antarctica to find silence, but Erling Kagge did. Way back in 1993, he became the first person to walk to the South Pole, solo. The airplane company that dropped him off insisted he take a radio with him, but he dumped the batteries in the trash before leaving the plane. Over the next 50 days, he would experience the most profound silence of his life to date.
We don't have to take the same sort of radical action as Kagge did, but we do have to realize that the modern world isn't going to just give us the silence that we crave.
Many times, we're going to have to consciously create these rejuvenating moments of silence, and protect them from incessant intruders such as email notifications, IMs, DMs, Netflix trailers, and ceaseless crowd noise.
In a sense, silence is becoming a new type of luxury, in the same way that sleep and time are becoming luxuries. It's actually difficult to imagine that one has control over one's life if silence, sleep, and time is scarce. Achieving this control over your life starts with limiting toxic inputs, and with controlling what you let into your mind in the first place.
It's easy to think silence is about turning your back on the world, but for Kagge, "it’s the opposite. It’s opening up to the world, respecting more and loving life.”
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“We spend a lot of time looking for happiness when the world right around us is full of wonder. To be alive and to walk on the Earth is a miracle, and yet most of us are running as if there were some better place to get to. There is beauty calling to us every day, every hour, but we are rarely in a position to listen."
“What we are experiencing is experiential poverty. Such poverty may not only be about a lack of experiences, where nothing is happening. An abundance of activities can also create a feeling of experiential poverty. And this last point is interesting. Things just get to be too much. The problem, according to Lars Fr. H. Svendsen, is that we carry on seeking ‘increasingly more powerful experiences’ instead of pausing to breathe deeply, shut out the world and use the time to experience ourselves.
The idea that boredom can be avoided by constantly pursuing something new, being available around the clock, sending messages and clicking further, watching something you haven't yet seen, is naive. The more you try to avoid boredom, the more bored you become. Routine is like that too...Busying oneself becomes a goal in and of itself, instead of allowing that same restlessness to lead you somewhere further.”
“Shutting out the world is not about turning your back on your surroundings, but rather the opposite: it is seeing the world a bit more clearly, staying a course and trying to love your life. Silence in itself is rich. It is exclusive and luxurious. A key to unlock new ways of thinking. I don’t regard it as a renunciation or something spiritual, but rather as a practical resource for living a richer life.”
Read the Full Breakdown: Silence: In the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge
If you can tolerate enough boredom, you can achieve pretty much anything. Almost everything that’s worth achieving isn’t going to be the result of one single exciting event, but rather the sum total (or sometimes, the exponential total) of relatively unexciting actions, repeated over and over and over again until your personal summit is reached.
The realms of stillness and achievement are inextricably linked, and Ryan Holiday makes that abundantly clear in Stillness is the Key. As an aside, it only seems like a trite title for a book until you know that Stillness is part of a trilogy: The Obstacles is the Way; Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key.
I’d also invite you to consider that boredom can actually be interesting! When you lift a weight and put it back down again, there is a universe of observable phenomena available to you, possible subjects of your attention when you put your mind inside the muscle, really feeling the contraction of every muscle and tendon you’re working, and experiencing directly the perfect, synchronous functioning of the human body doing exactly what it was designed to do.
Or take the example of writing a book. It’s lonely, it’s hard, you’re not sure whether anyone is going to read it or even notice it, but there you are by yourself anyway, slaving away. You put your mind inside the page, recognize the miracle of creativity, how one sentence emerges and not another, how a simple typo can lead you down a trail of thought that would never have even appeared otherwise. How did your prefrontal cortex do that?
Clearly, there’s a lot more to stillness than boredom, and indeed, whenever such a wide range of societies, belief systems, and successful individuals all converge on one idea as being of singular importance - in this case, stillness - then you know that it’s important and that you overlook its significance at your peril.
Through the stories of people like Confucius, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Thich Nhat Hanh, Nietzsche, Fred Rogers, Anne Frank, Winston Churchill - and on and on - Ryan Holiday’s book will show you that stillness isn’t just “sitting still,” or silence, but a superpower that will lead directly to self-mastery, discipline, focus, achievement, and, indirectly, to personal fulfillment.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“The call to stillness comes quietly. The modern world does not.”
“You can’t escape - with your body - problems that exist in your mind and soul.”
“How different would the world look if people spent as much time listening to their conscience as they did to chattering broadcasts? If they could respond to the calls of their convictions as they answer the dings and rings of technology in their pockets?”
Read the Full Breakdown: Stillness is the Key, by Ryan Holiday
The main thrust of Essentialism (both the book and the idea itself) is that almost everything is completely worthless.
Discerning the "vital few" from the "trivial many" is going to be one of the most in-demand skills in the economy of the future, and those who can do this well are going to reap the majority of the rewards and experience the highest possible meaning in their lives, while the rest of us are drowning in distraction.
If it's true that most things don't mean anything, it can also be said that life is a patient search for what does mean something.
What's truly essential in life is hidden amid all the mess and confusion of modern life, and once you do discover what is essential, it's then time to go all-in. That's what McKeown's book can help you do.
Sample Quotes from the Book:
“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”
“The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable."
"Essentialism is about creating a system for handling the closet of our lives. This is not a process you undertake once a year, once a month, or even once a week, like organizing your closet.
It is a discipline you apply each and every time you are faced with a decision about whether to say yes or whether to politely decline. It's a method for making the tough tradeoffs between lots of good things and a few really great things.
It's about learning how to do less but better so you can achieve the highest possible return on every precious moment of your life."
Read the Full Breakdown: Essentialism, by Greg McKeown
The View from the Opposition:
No one's ideas are beyond questioning. In this section, I argue the case for the opposition and raise some points you might wish to evaluate for yourself while reading this book.
#1: Hari's Solutions Aren't All That Realistic
I've addressed this in the Summary above, but it's not like Johann Hari is suggesting that we all give up our technology forever, and move to some remote location where we can all get more reading done. Although, hey, that doesn't sound half bad!
Rather, we should endeavor to do what we can, where we are, with what we have.
If you do have more control over your work conditions than most people, you should absolutely take advantage of that. But if you have the kind of job where you are interrupted every few minutes and there's not much you can do about it, then you might be incredulous that Hari would propose some of these personal "solutions."
Additionally, some people may point out that this kind of society-wide change is going to be exceptionally difficult to implement, especially where surveillance capitalism is concerned.
The companies who are generating billions of dollars in ad revenue each year aren't going to be relinquishing their power over our attention without a fight, but:
“No source of power, no set of ideas, is so large it can't be challenged. Facebook would love us to believe that their power is impregnable and there's no point fighting for change because that never works. But these companies are as fragile as every other powerful force that was torn down in the end."
#2: The Plagiarism Thing
Almost every book review and summary that I read while doing research for this breakdown mentions Johann Hari's history of plagiarism and the reputational damage that he's suffered because of it. Hell, I'm even mentioning it!
The question is, Does this make his thesis in Stolen Focus any less convincing?
For some people, it probably does. In fact, Hari has even made audio recordings of several of the interviews for this book available online in an attempt to remain transparent about his research process.
I believe that people can change, and it's unfortunate that he hasn't been able to shake these errors in judgment from his past, but it does kind of make you think. As one reviewer kept wondering,
“Whose side am I not hearing? Is there more to it than this? Are these studies reputable? Are these interview subjects representative of what many others in the field think? Did Hari quote these people accurately?”
If you don't know enough about these fields yourself to be able to question the accuracy of his claims, you sort of just have to trust him. Check his references, sure, but most people probably won't.
"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
Questions to Stimulate Your Thinking:
The quality of your life is determined by the quality of your questions. That's also how you get the absolute most out of any book that you decide to read:
You ask great questions the whole time - as though the book was on trial for its life.
Here in this section are a few questions that can help guide and stimulate your thinking, but try to come up with your own additional questions, especially if you end up deciding to read this book the whole way through...
#1: "How valuable do you believe your attention to be? Is it something that you're willing to give up, freely and easily, to anyone who wants it? Or do you value it enough to be extremely selective about where you direct it?"
#2: "How many times a day do you reach for your phone? Have you ever kept track of this? And when you do find yourself reaching for your phone, what are you normally feeling in that moment? Boredom? Anxiety? Stress? Curiosity?"
#3: "When's the last time you entered a flow state? Do you remember what you were doing and what led up to it? Was it a pleasurable enough experience that you want to repeat it?"
#4: "Are you an opponent of surveillance capitalism, or do you feel as though it's the responsibility of individuals to control their own social media use and the amount of information they hand over to these tech companies?"
#5: "What kind of changes are you going to make to your life after reading this breakdown? Are the changes likely to be confined to your own actions? Or do you feel responsible for helping others reclaim their attention too?"
So you've finished reading. What do you do now?
Reading for pleasure is great, and I wholeheartedly support it. However, I am intensely practical when I'm reading for a particular purpose. I want a result. I want to take what I've learned and apply it to my one and only life to make it better!
Because that's really what the Great Books all say. They all say: "You must change your life!" So here, below, are some suggestions for how you can apply the wisdom found in this breakdown to improve your actual life.
Please commit to taking massive action on this immediately! Acting on what you've learned here today will also help you solidify it in your long-term memory. So there's a double benefit! Let's begin...
#1: Sleep! Now!
Most of your problems can probably be solved with a good night's sleep. Cruel optimism? Hardly! Maybe "solved" isn't exactly the right word, but with proper rest, you'll at least have the energy and mental clarity to address the challenges that confront you.
This is so critically, foundationally important, and it's a step that's so easy to skip. Especially for new parents, people who are providing for one or more family members, high-achievers fighting to get ahead, etc.
But again, it's just one of the most important things you could ever do for yourself, and your attention will thank you if you make getting enough sleep the priority that it deserves to be. The fight for your attention begins in the bedroom.
#2: Practice Single-Tasking
Multitasking is for computers, not people. The human brain literally cannot multitask, and everyone - including you - works best when they devote 100% of their energy toward one single thing. Call it "single-tasking."
You could also call it flow, which is essentially what it is. Pick something that's personally meaningful to you, preferably something that's just on the edge of your current abilities, and devote all your energies in this moment to performing that one action, or working on that one thing.
This even works for things you "have to" do. Your energies are hopelessly diluted if you try to do too much at once. Walking while listening to an audiobook is fine, but if two things take brainpower and cognitive space in order to focus on them, then they deserve your full focus, separately.
#3: Join a Group for Collective Action
The first two Action Steps are individual solutions, and they're steps worth taking. But, as has been stressed repeatedly, individual solutions won't solve collective problems. For that, we have to band together, and in the back of the book, Johann Hari provides some links to groups working to take on our attention crisis.
There are plenty of places to start, but take a look at the following organizations and see if their work interests you:
On Fighting to Change How the Internet Works: Humane-Tech.com
On Fighting for a Four-Day Week: 4-Day-Week.com
On Children Being Allowed to Play: Let-Grow.org
About the Author:
Johann Hari is the author of three New York Times best-selling books and the Executive Producer of an Oscar-nominated movie and an eight-part TV series starring Samuel L. Jackson. His books have been translated into 38 languages and been praised by a broad range of people, from Oprah to Noam Chomsky, and from Elton John to Naomi Klein.
Johann’s TED talks have been viewed more than 80 million times. The first is named ‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong'. The second is entitled ‘This Could Be Why You Are Depressed or Anxious'.
He has written over the past decade for some of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Spectator, Le Monde Diplomatique, the Sydney Morning Herald, and Politico. He has appeared on NPR’s All Thing Considered, HBO’s Realtime With Bill Maher, The Joe Rogan Podcast, the BBC’s Question Time, and many other popular shows.
Johann was twice named ‘National Newspaper Journalist of the Year’ by Amnesty International. He has also been named ‘Cultural Commentator of the Year’ and ‘Environmental Commentator of the Year’ at the Comment Awards.
He lives half the year in London and spends the other half of the year traveling to research his books. To read about what Johann is working on now, and what you can do to support him, please click here.