I recently finished reading Johann Hari's book Stolen Focus - Why You Can't Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari describes the unsurprising problem of our growing inability to concentrate. Some of the causes of this decline are obvious to most people, while others I hadn't much thought about. In this post, I'll share some reading notes on a few that I found interesting. A TL;DR for his book is that our declining ability to focus, especially in the last 50 years or so, is due to increasing stress, being overworked, more invasive technologies in our lives, becoming more sleep deprived, and the prevalence of bad diets.
First, he calls out digital technologies such as smartphones and social media that have become increasingly invasive about the past decade. As someone who's been concerned about this for a while, going to great lengths to curb my social media usage, this section of the book was no surprise and wasn't anything I already knew. He interviewed and quoted studies from several technologists and psychologists I was familiar with including Tristan Harris and Shoshana Zuboff (author of the book Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power). In his interview, Tristan told him that his biggest worry about the destruction of our attention is that it will prevent us from dealing with climate change. This is a sentiment rings deeply for me - it seems to me that we often fixate on nonsense and side-issues rather than paying attention to potential existential threats to our species like climate change.
Context switching is another critical problem, also fueled by invasive tech, where we're distracted from whatever task we're working on by an email notification, a Slack message, or our phone chiming, which degrades our ability to focus, witching and reconfiguring out brain moment to moment, and task to task. Everything seems to be pulling at our attention. What happens is that when we (humans) have these distractions interrupt our tasks or work flow, our work becomes far more error prone than it would have been without the distraction - our mono-task "flow state" broken. We're also losing the time it takes to refocus on our original task.
Poor diet is another contributor to poor focus. In the western world (and increasingly globally), we're consuming ultra-processed, high sugar foods. For breakfast, it's not uncommon to eat food with equal or greater amount of sugar as a Twinkie, sometimes consuming more in that one meal than the FDA daily recommended sugar intake, and spiking our blood sugar to astronomical levels. When that energy crash arrives, we're usually at our desk in a classroom or in the office, becoming tired, unfocused, and experience brain fog.
High sugar intake is not the only growing problem with our diet. The ultra-processed foods we're consuming are also contributing to this issue. Within the past 50 years, our food has undergone a rapid degeneration. They're designed to not only be as cheap to produce as possible, but also to have a long shelf life. The quality of modern food deprives us of the essential nutrients needed for our brains to develop and fully function, including our ability to concentrate.
Then there's the problem of sleep. 40% of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, getting less than 7 hours of sleep each night. In Britain, 23% are getting less than 5 hours per night. This has resulted in "attentional blinks" as Chares Czeisler calls it, where a person can lapse into what's called "local sleep" where part of the brain is asleep while the other is awake, without even realizing it.
Being over-worked is another factor and directly tied to sleep. In the West, we've been working longer hours with each passing decade. Being overworked and being sleep deprived contributes to higher rates of stress, and this stress negatively effects our ability to focus.
Hari describes several other causes throughout the book including an increase in context shifting, crippling flow states, and the collapse of sustained reading. At the end of his book, he ties all these causes together and points out the root cause: capitalism. I don't always necessarily fall into the "capitalism bad" category, but as an economic system, it certainly seems to generate more problems than it solves. What we need, Hari argues and I wholeheartedly agree with, is stricter regulation and more research into these issues.
Overall, most of the book described causes I was only partially familiar with, and it was insightful to read deeper into the problems plaguing our ability to focus in the modern age. Hari concludes by advocating for what he calls "attention rebellion", a useful term albeit a tad cringe. We need to not only take control and solve these issues at an individual level, but we also need to come together as a communities because these problems are only going to get worse.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments, questions, or recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.