Stolen Focus (2022) begins with author Johann Hari experiencing a common problem: his attention span is diminishing. He can’t seem to focus on much outside of Twitter and online news. Over three years, Hari tries to identify the root causes of this problem. He uncovers a collective attention crisis that’s affecting the entire globe. From social media to the culture of productivity, Hari identifies the culprits behind our stolen focus – and wonders if, and how, we can claim it back.
In the following book summary, you’ll learn how to counteract two troubling trends and take back your focus.
“The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day…” – Johann Hari
Who is it for?
- Anyone who feels like they just can’t concentrate the way they used to
- Multitaskers with brimming to-do lists who still feel like they don’t get much done
- Anyone scrolling through social media while they’re reading this!
Focus = fulfillment
- Without deep focus, we will fail to complete rewarding projects.
- Without sustained focus on a big goal, we will wander through life. To paraphrase Victor Frankl, “What man needs is to strive and struggle for a worthwhile goal.”
- And without internal focus, we will lack the self-awareness to know what worthwhile goals to pursue.
Therefore, fulfillment requires three types of focus: spotlight, starlight, and daylight.
- A steady spotlight lets us focus on a task long enough to make meaningful progress or acquire valuable insights.
- Starlight helps us recall our long-term goals.
- Daylight helps us evaluate our experiences and determine which long-term goals to pursue.
Unfortunately, our spotlights, starlight, and daylight are getting dimmer thanks to two troubling trends – the great acceleration and the gradual deprivation.
The great acceleration
In 2013, a discussion in the top 50 trends on Twitter trended for 17.5 hours on average. Three years later, a top 50 discussion trended for just 11.9 hours on average. As exposure to information increases, we grow impatient and have less desire to go deep on a subject or tackle challenging work. Just think back to the last time you skimmed through a huge amount of information – going through a backlog of emails, catching up on group chats, browsing the news, reading a few Reddit posts, or scrolling through social media – did you feel calm, present, and willing to do deep work afterward? And how much information do you remember?
Johann Hari says, “My desire to absorb a tsunami of information without losing my ability to focus was like my desire to eat at McDonald’s every day and stay trim—an impossible dream. The size and capacity of the human brain hasn’t significantly changed in 40,000 years.”
The gradual deprivation
Over the last hundred years, the National Sleep Foundation estimates the average sleep per night has dropped 20%…and continues to drop. In 2017, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted that his company’s goal was to keep us watching shows and movies at night. He said, “We compete with sleep, and we’re winning.” Companies like Netflix, Facebook, and Google have long used armies of engineers to capture our attention and delay sleep. But today, companies are deploying advanced AI that has studied millions of hours of human behavior to optimize content and keep us up at night.
If we have a 6:00 AM wake-up time, we may assume going to bed at midnight instead of 10:30 PM is not a big deal. However, 80% of our REM sleep occurs in the final 20% of the seven to eight hours of sleep we need each night. During REM sleep, we process and organize information from the day. If we miss 80% of our REM sleep, we go into the next day feeling mentally full and unable to concentrate or easily absorb new information. Sleep researcher Matthew Walker has found that, “Ten days of six hours of sleep a night was all it took to become as impaired in performance as going without sleep for twenty-four hours straight.”
Use the first 60 minutes of the day to restore daylight and starlight and then strengthen your spotlight.
- Reflect on three questions – What matters most to me? What are my strengths and values? How can I be uniquely valuable to others?
- Write down long-term objectives and think of weekly and daily goals that will get you to those objectives.
- Go deep on one daily goal until the 60-minute morning focus block ends. Whatever you choose to do, do it slowly and methodically. As Johann Hari says, “Slowness nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.”
Incorporate a “book first” phone checking-habit: when you unlock your phone to consume new content (check the news, social media, email, etc.), you must open an eBook reader app and read a few paragraphs of a book first. Developing a “book first” habit will condition deeper focus because books encourage us to consume information in a linear fashion and go progressively deeper on a subject, rather than manically skip from one thing to another. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the “flow state” for decades and found that reading books was the most common way people experience flow.
Counteracting chronic sleep deprivation begins by assuming technology will keep you up at night unless you pre-commit to a good night’s sleep. For example, schedule an app-blocking program like Freedom to block all apps two hours before bedtime. Or make a family rule:
“We turn off all devices at 8:00 PM and play games or read books.” You’ll feel like a hypocrite if you’re on a device after 8:00 PM.
“We have to decide now: Do we value attention and focus? Does being able to think deeply matter to us? Do we want it for our children? If we do, then we have to fight for it.” – Johann Hari
The tale of how we lost the ability to focus – and how we can get it back.
We’ve all been there. You sit down, ready for work, and you get a text. As you’re texting back, a news alert appears – so you shift over to read what’s happening. But as you’re halfway through reading the headline, you get another ping: someone’s liked the photo that you posted last night. And after checking who it was, you realize they’ve also posted new photos . . . is that a new partner?! As you start swiping through the images, a Slack notification chimes. Wait, what were you doing again? Oh, right: work.
If you’re wondering what’s happened to your capacity for concentration, you’re not alone. Collectively, our attention spans seem to be dwindling at an alarming rate. And every year, there are more and more distractions and interruptions added to the pile.
Sadly, that’s not a coincidence. From Silicon Valley to the structure of the contemporary workplace, forces beyond our control are constantly working to deplete our ability to focus deeply and resist distraction.
But how did we get here? And is there any way to escape this dizzying attention spiral? These are the questions we’ll be covering in the summaries to Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus. So, set your devices to airplane mode, and try to give your full attention to these five chapters as we uncover the story of a crisis that’s reached a global scale.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- how social media is actually designed to sap your focus;
- what 1950s animal experiments have to do with Instagram’s “like” button; and
- why spending less time at work might actually boost your productivity.
It’s not just you – everyone is struggling to focus.
Unless you’re living off the grid, you’ve probably noticed that it’s getting increasingly difficult to focus. You’re busy all the time, yet you struggle to actually get anything done.
In 2016, Sune Lehmann was having these exact problems. His capacity for deep focus was dwindling, and he was more susceptible to distractions than ever before. Lehmann is a professor at Denmark’s Technical University – so he didn’t simply dismiss the nagging feeling that his concentration was waning. Instead, he spearheaded a study to find out if there was actually evidence to back up his suspicion.
By analyzing various metrics across online platforms, he and his team discovered something interesting: In 2013, conversation topics trended on Twitter for an average of 17.5 hours before people lost interest and moved on to a new topic. By 2016, that number had dwindled to 11.6 hours. That’s a six-hour decrease in only three years. The study records similar results across platforms like Google and Reddit as well. In short, the more time we’ve spent in online spaces, the shorter our attention spans have become.
So, is it really just the internet that’s eroding our focus?
Well, yes. But also no. It’s not quite as simple as ones and zeros.
See, Lehmann also analyzed every book that’s been uploaded to Google Books between the 1880s and today. And he found that this phenomenon actually predates the internet. With every passing decade, trending topics appear and fade with increasing speed.
Lehmann’s study is indicative rather than comprehensive, of course. And measuring these metrics isn’t a definitive way to map our evolving attention spans. But, if we accept the premise that our concentration is suffering, the next question is: Why?
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely, but a good jumping-off point is what think-tank director Robert Colvile calls “The Great Acceleration.” Essentially, the way we receive information is speeding up. In the nineteenth century, for example, news could take days to travel from place to place. Then, technologies like the telegraph, radio, and television sped up the spread of information. On top of this, our information inputs – the different modes through which we receive information – have multiplied. In 1986, the average Westerner ingested the equivalent of 40 newspapers a day through the various available information inputs. By 2004, that figure had risen to an astonishing 174 newspapers worth of information. Today, that figure is almost certainly much higher.
The internet has undeniably supercharged this acceleration. Now, information is not only available to us all the time; it actually intrudes on our lives through the ceaseless pings and notifications coming from our laptops and smartphones.
And our brains just haven’t caught up with this acceleration. Research suggests they never will. Our capacity for focus is an emergent field of study. But research in the area of speed-reading suggests that there’s a finite limit to how quickly we can process information. And, as neuroscientists point out, the cognitive capacity of the human brain has not significantly changed in the last 40,000 years. The amount of information we put into our brains has, however, stratospherically increased.
It’s really no wonder we sometimes find it difficult to focus.
Apps and online platforms are addictive by design, not by accident.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – the fact that these apps and other online platforms suck so much of your time isn’t a design flaw. They’re supposed to be addictive. After all, there’s a reason Silicon Valley calls its customers “users.”
And where did this design originate? That’s easy: the Persuasive Technologies Lab at Stanford University. In the early 2000s, the lab asked whether the theories of influential behavioral psychologists could be incorporated into computer code – in other words, it asked whether tech can change human behavior. And the answer, as you might have guessed, was yes.
Here’s an example. One of the psychologists studied in the lab was B. F. Skinner. Skinner was famous for the experiments he conducted on rats. He’d present a rat with a meaningless task, like pushing a button. But the rat showed no interest in doing this – why would it?
So Skinner modified the task. Now, every time the rat pressed the button, it would be rewarded with a pellet of food. Rewards would motivate animals, Skinner found, to carry out tasks that had no intrinsic meaning to them.
Can’t relate to the rat and the button? Well, Skinner inspired the creation of other buttons you might recognize: like buttons, share buttons, and comment buttons. Those little hearts and emojis and retweet buttons aren’t design quirks; they’re programming us to use social media in addictive ways by rewarding us for the time we spend on the platforms.
These buttons keep us engaging longer. But they’re only one of the many design elements geared at keeping us online. Here’s another one: the infinite scroll. Back in the early days of the internet, web pages were just that: pages. Sites often comprised multiple pages; when you got to the bottom of one, you clicked through to the next. The bottom of each page offered a built-in pause. If you wanted to keep browsing, you had to actively decide to click ahead.
That is, until Aza Raskin stepped in. Raskin invented the infinite scroll – the endlessly refreshing feed of content that now features on the interface of nearly every social media platform, giving the impression that there is a never-ending supply of content. If likes and shares encourage users to stay online longer, the infinite scroll encourages users to stay online in perpetuity.
Raskin, however, has come to regret his invention. At first, he thought the infinite scroll was elegant and efficient. But he became troubled when he noticed how it was changing online habits – including his own. Noticing that he was spending longer and longer on social media, Raskin started to do the math. He estimates that the infinite scroll induces the average user to spend 50 percent more time on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
The business model of most of these platforms is predicated on time – or, as they call it, engagement. This refers to how much time a user spends interacting with a product. That’s the metric tech companies use to measure their success – not money, but minutes. But money does play a part, too. Because the longer you spend “engaging,” the more chances the companies have to sell advertisements. The more you engage, the more companies track your behavior and build a profile uniquely designed to target you with specific ads. We don’t pay for platforms like Facebook and Instagram with our money. But we do pay with another precious, finite commodity: our attention.
In Silicon Valley, time equals money. The money is theirs. And the time – the attention – is yours.
Algorithms privilege outrage over community.
Online platforms erode our focus and exploit one of our most precious resources – our attention – for their own financial gain. But these same platforms can be a force for good, strengthening community and driving collective action.
To better understand this potential, let’s travel to the Complexo do Alemão favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Brazilian government takes a militant approach to this crowded, low-income area, routinely sending in tanks to suppress unrest. And it’s an open secret that the police shoot to kill. When innocent kids get in the way of their bullets, the police plant drugs or weapons on them and claim self-defense.
Raull Santiago lives in Alemão. He also runs the Facebook page “Coletivo Papo Reto,” which collects and disseminates videos of the police shooting innocent people. The page has galvanized many favela-dwellers to rally against their treatment. And it has shifted the tide of public opinion in Brazil, where favelas like Alemão are often reviled.
But the situation in Alemão has only gotten worse since the election of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. And here’s the thing: Bolsonaro’s victory, like Coletivo Papo Reto’s success, can also be partly attributed to Facebook. Bolsonaro’s campaign inundated social media with clickbaity, fear-mongering campaigns – and he ended up getting elected.
So, what connects us can also divide us. Lately, it feels like online platforms have been much more intent on dividing than connecting. And it all has to do with algorithms.
Remember the infinite scroll? The content you see on this infinitely refreshing page isn’t ordered chronologically. It’s arranged by an algorithm that is programmed to feed us content that keeps us scrolling longer. It’s easier to disengage from calm, positive content. But if something strikes us as outrageous or controversial, we tend to keep looking. It’s part of a psychological phenomenon called negativity bias – that is, negative experiences impact us more than positive ones. So it’s in social media’s interest to literally provoke its users.
The algorithm has no ethics. It doesn’t condone or condemn; it just codes. But the people watching it feel, believe, and judge. For some, the more they’re exposed to misinformation, the more normal – even credible – it seems. A 2018 study that analyzed extreme right-wing militants in the US found that the majority of them were initially radicalized on YouTube.
You may not engage with misinformation online. You might put down your phone or close your laptop when you feel outraged by what you see online. You may choose not to spend your attention on provocative content. But this still affects you.
See, when online platforms privilege divisive, shocking content, they also corrode our power for collective attention – our ability, as a society, to focus on issues that affect us.
Back in the ’70s, scientists discovered that there was a hole in the Ozone layer. It had been created by a group of chemicals called CFCs, which are commonly used in hairsprays. The scientists issued a warning: if the hole in the ozone grew, we would lose a crucial layer of protection against the sun’s rays. Life on earth as we knew it was at risk. Activists campaigned against the use of CFCs. They persuaded their fellow citizens to join the cause. Eventually, they put enough pressure on governments that the use of CFCs was banned. This is an environmental success story. But the outcome might have been different if we hadn’t focused our collective attention – first on the science, then on the arguments of our fellow citizens, and finally on the group effort of lobbying the governments for a total ban on CFCs.
Would we be able to collectively train our focus on a similar issue today? We already know the answer to this question. Climate change poses a real and present danger to life on earth. But as a species, we can’t seem to absorb the science – or even agree on whether we should be listening to scientists in the first place.
Social media can be a powerful force for good. But rather than harness this force, platforms like Facebook are intent on exploiting our attention – and, as a consequence, they’re sowing division and controversy.
Recently, Facebook conducted an internal investigation called “Common Ground.” Its aim was to uncover whether the company’s algorithms really did promote controversy and misinformation to keep users engaged. According to the report, the findings were very clear: “Our algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.”
Facebook hasn’t done very much about this disturbing finding, however. And neither have we. We’re too busy infinitely scrolling.
Ditch multitasking – recovering focus is about finding flow.
How many things are you doing right at this second? You might be listening to this chapter – and nothing else. If that’s you, then you’re monotasking.
More likely, you’re doing a range of things: listening to this chapter, cooking dinner, scrolling through the news, or chatting with your roommate or partner.
It’s easy – and not inaccurate – to blame our shrinking attention spans on our devices and the easy access they offer to an attention-sucking online world. But, like an artfully cropped Instagram snap, that’s not the whole picture.
See, there’s a fundamental flaw in the way we frame “focus.”
We live in an accelerating, consumerist society – one that values speed and output. And in this climate, we’re encouraged to “quantify” our attention in terms of what immediate results it yields. Our focus is a resource that allows us to produce, to earn, to tick items off our to-do lists. And that’s where multitasking comes in. The more we can simultaneously achieve, the better our focus is spent. So why not distribute our attention across several tasks at once?
Well because, as it turns out, humans are really bad at multitasking. The word “multitask” was coined by computer scientists in the ’60s to describe the function of computers with multiple processors. It was never meant to be applied to humans. After all, we only have one processor: our brain.
When we multitask, we’re not simultaneously performing several tasks at once. We’re switching between them at hyperspeed. And every switch incurs what’s called a “switch-cost” effect. When you switch between tasks – or when you’re interrupted mid-task – your brain needs to recalibrate, which decreases your mental performance. A study commissioned by Hewlett Packard compared a group who worked on a task uninterrupted with a group that was distracted during the course of their task. The study found that members of the distracted group temporarily dropped an average of ten IQ points while they were completing their task.
In a work climate that values multitasking as a sign of peak productivity, distraction is practically encouraged. We’re constantly answering emails, participating in multiple conversations about multiple projects, and working across three or four different computer screens. In fact, in the US, the average white-collar worker spends 40 percent of their time engaging in so-called multitasking.
Luckily, there is an antidote to multitasking – a way of approaching tasks that cultivates deep focus. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi first identified this state, which he called “flow.” You find your flow, Csikszentmihalyi theorized, when you become so absorbed by a task that you lose all sense of your surroundings and are able to access a deep well of internal focus. If you’ve ever concentrated so hard on something – whether that’s rock-climbing, coding, painting, or simply doing a jigsaw puzzle – that you lose track of time, then you’ve been in a flow state. In flow, your focus becomes deeper and better, and you’re far less susceptible to distractions.
The good news, according to Cskiszentmihalyi, is that everyone can access flow – as long as they meet a few key conditions. First, the task you’re tackling needs to be intrinsically rewarding; when you’re in flow, it’s the process rather than the product that engages you. So, unless you’re passionate about data entry, you’re unlikely to find flow filling out spreadsheets.
Second, the task should be challenging enough to demand your full attention – but not so difficult that you’re tempted to give up on it.
Finally, monotasking is essential. To tap into that wellspring of focus, you need to direct all your mental energy toward a single task.
High-performing individuals like athletes, musicians, and scientists often attribute their achievements to their ability to access flow states. But in a society that has decided multitasking is a virtue – and that values speed and output over deep focus – the average person is finding it harder and harder to achieve flow.
We can get our attention back.
In a world obsessed with multitasking, making room for other forms of focus, like flow, is a radical act. And it’s possible – but it’s not as simple as slowing down and switching off. Activating airplane mode won’t do much as long as you live and work in a system that encourages you to multitask, privileges productivity at all costs, and encourages you to spend increasing amounts of time in online spaces designed to sap your focus. It’s the system itself that needs to change.
Luckily, change may be on the horizon in Silicon Valley, where disillusioned designers are beginning to push back against our attention crisis. Former Google engineer Tristan Harris, as well as Aza Raskin – yes, the same Aza who designed the infinite scroll – want to see a non-predatory social media rise from the ashes of our current attention spans.
Social media was designed to steal our attention. But Harris and Raskin are certain it could be redesigned to give our attention back. What would this new social media landscape look like? They have a few ideas.
The infinite scroll would be turned off, for one thing. All those little “rewards” like hearts and likes and shares might be turned off, too. You could instead receive a daily roundup of what’s happened on your feed, designed to discourage you from checking multiple times a day. And technology’s power to influence human behavior could be used for good. You could tell the platform how much time you wanted to spend online, and it could work with you to achieve that goal.
It could help you achieve other goals, too. Want to try going vegan? The platform could connect you with online groups that share vegan recipes. Concerned about climate change? The platform could link you up with local activist groups, both on and offline.
This is all hypothetical, of course. But around the globe, real pushback against our collective attention crisis is seeing inspiring results. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company, instituted a four-day work week. Employees have since reported a better work-life balance, the ability to focus deeper for longer, and decreased susceptibility to distractions.
And it’s not just employees who are reaping the benefits. Shorter workdays and workweeks enable deep focus instead of performative multitasking, and they encourage workers to avoid workplace distractions – like sneaking a scroll through social media when the boss isn’t looking. In fact, when a Toyota factory in Gothenburg cut its workday by two hours, workers actually produced at 114 percent of their previous capacity, and the factory reported 25 percent more profit.
In France, the escalating demands on our focus are seen for what they are: a health crisis. French doctors grew concerned about the rising number of patients experiencing “le burnout” and took those concerns to the government. Now, companies with over 50 employees have to formally agree on the limits of their workweek – meaning it may actually be illegal for a French boss to send their employees emails over the weekend.
In the big picture, these are all small changes. But they should leave us feeling optimistic. They show that there are solutions to this collective attention crisis. We can reclaim our attention . . . if only we can focus on the task at hand.
The key message in these summaries is that:
Our attention spans are shrinking as a result of our accelerated pace of life and speed of communication. The internet – especially the rise of apps and platforms that prey on our focus – has supercharged this attention drain. And it’s not due to a personal flaw or individual weakness. Most of these attention-grabbing methods are intentional; they’re elaborately designed for the very purpose of keeping you distracted. To combat them we need large-scale, systemic change – on an individual level, as well as from the tech designers that invented these systems in the first place.
And here’s a quick piece of actionable advice: Don’t focus harder on your task – instead, let your mind wander.
Doing nothing is actually a valuable form of focus because it facilitates creativity, which arises when you make unexpected mental connections and associations. The longer you can let your thoughts drift, the more unexpected associations your mind can create – which just might help you reclaim some of your stolen focus.
About the author
Johann Hari is a journalist and writer. His books, on topics ranging from the war on drugs to mental illness, have topped the New York Times best-seller list and been translated into 38 languages.
Table of Contents
Introduction Walking in Memphis
Chapter 1 Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering
Chapter 2 Cause Two: The Crippling of Our Flow States
Chapter 3 Cause Three: The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion
Chapter 4 Cause Four: The Collapse of Sustained Reading
Chapter 5 Cause Five: The Disruption of Mind-Wandering
Chapter 6 Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part One)
Chapter 7 Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part Two)
Chapter 8 Cause Seven: The Rise of Cruel Optimism
Chapter 9 The First Glimpses of the Deeper Solution
Chapter 10 Cause Eight: The Surge in Stress and How It Is Triggering Vigilance
Chapter 11 The Places That Figured Out How to Reverse the Surge in Speed and Exhaustion
Chapter 12 Causes Nine and Ten: Our Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution
Chapter 13 Cause Eleven: The Rise of ADHD and How We Are Responding to It
Chapter 14 Cause Twelve: The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically
Conclusion Attention Rebellion
Groups Already Fighting to Improve Attention
New York Times Best Seller Our ability to pay attention is collapsing. From the New York Times best-selling author of Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections comes a groundbreaking examination of why this is happening – and how to get our attention back.
“The book the world needs in order to win the war on distraction.” (Adam Grant, author of Think Again)
“Read this book to save your mind.” (Susan Cain, author of Quiet)
In the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for only 65 seconds at a time, and office workers average only three minutes. Like so many of us, Johann Hari was finding that constantly switching from device to device and tab to tab was a diminishing and depressing way to live. He tried all sorts of self-help solutions – even abandoning his phone for three months – but nothing seemed to work. So Hari went on an epic journey across the world to interview the leading experts on human attention – and he discovered that everything we think we know about this crisis is wrong.
We think our inability to focus is a personal failure to exert enough willpower over our devices. The truth is even more disturbing: Our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. Hari found that there are 12 deep causes of this crisis, from the decline of mind-wandering to rising pollution, all of which have robbed some of our attention. In Stolen Focus, he introduces listeners to Silicon Valley dissidents who learned to hack human attention, and veterinarians who diagnose dogs with ADHD. He explores a favela in Rio de Janeiro where everyone lost their attention in a particularly surreal way, and an office in New Zealand that discovered a remarkable technique to restore workers’ productivity.
Crucially, Hari learned how we can reclaim our focus – as individuals, and as a society – if we are determined to fight for it. Stolen Focus will transform the debate about attention and finally show us how to get it back.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching, and Filtering
I don’t understand what you’re asking for,” the man in Target in Boston kept saying to me. “These are the cheapest phones we got. They have super-slow internet. That’s what you want, right?” No, I said. I want a phone that can’t access the internet at all. He studied the back of the box, looking confused. “This would be really slow. You could probably get your email but you wouldn’t—” Email is still the internet, I said. I am going away for three months, specifically so I can be totally offline.
My friend Imtiaz had already given me his old, broken laptop, one that had lost the ability to get online years before. It looked like it came from the set of the original Star Trek, a remnant from some aborted vision of the future. I was going to use it, I had resolved, to finally write the novel I had been planning for years. Now what I needed was a phone where I could be called in emergencies by the six people I was going to give the number to. I needed it to have no internet option of any kind, so that if I woke up at 3 a.m. and my resolve cracked and I tried to get online, I wouldn’t be able to do it, no matter how hard I tried.
When I explained to people what I was planning, I would get one of three responses. The first was just like that of this man in Target: they couldn’t seem to process what I was saying. They thought I was saying that I was going to cut back on my internet use. The idea of going offline completely seemed to them so bizarre that I had to explain it again and again. “So you want a phone that can’t go online at all?” he said. “Why would you want that?”
The second response—which this man offered next—was a kind of low-level panic on my behalf. “What will you do in an emergency?” he asked. “It doesn’t seem right.” I asked—what emergency will require me to get online? What’s going to happen? I’m not the president of the United States—I don’t have to issue orders if Russia invades Ukraine. “Anything,” he said. “Anything could happen.” I kept explaining to the people my age—I was thirty-nine at the time—that we had spent half our lives without phones, so it shouldn’t be so hard to picture returning to the way we had lived for so long. Nobody seemed to find this persuasive.
And the third response was envy. People began to fantasize about what they would do with all the time they spent on their phones if it was all suddenly freed up. They started by listing the number of hours that Apple’s Screen Time option told them they spent on their phones every day. For the average American, it’s three hours and fifteen minutes. We touch our phones 2,617 times every twenty-four hours. Sometimes they would wistfully mention something they loved and had abandoned—playing the piano, say—and stare off into the distance.
Target had nothing for me. Ironically, I had to go online to order what seemed to be the last remaining cellphone in the United States that can’t access the web. It’s called the Jitterbug. It’s designed for extremely old people, and it doubles as a medical emergency device. I opened the box and smiled at its giant buttons and told myself that there’s an added bonus: if I fall over, it will automatically connect me to the nearest hospital.
I laid out on the hotel bed everything I was taking with me. I had gone through all the routine things I normally use my iPhone for, and bought objects to replace each one. So for the first time since I was a teenager, I bought a watch. I got an alarm clock. I dug out my old iPod and loaded it with audiobooks and podcasts, and I ran my finger along its screen, thinking about how futuristic this gadget seemed to me when I bought it twelve years ago; now it looked like something that Noah might have carried onto the Ark. I had Imtiaz’s broken laptop—now rendered, effectively, into a 1990s-style word processor—and next to it I had a pile of classic novels I had been meaning to read for decades, with War and Peace at the top.
I took an Uber so I could hand over my iPhone and my MacBook to a friend who lived in Boston. I hesitated before putting them on the table in her house. Quickly, I pushed a button on my phone to summon a car to take me to the ferry terminal, and then I switched it off and walked away from it fast, like it might come running after me. I felt a twinge of panic. I’m not ready for this, I thought. Then somewhere, from the back of my mind, I remembered something the Spanish writer José Ortega y Gasset said: “We cannot put off living until we are ready . . . Life is fired at us point-blank.” If you don’t do this now, I told myself, you’ll never do it, and you’ll be lying on your deathbed seeing how many likes you got on Instagram. I climbed into the car and refused to look back.
I had learned years before from social scientists that when it comes to beating any kind of destructive habit, one of the most effective tools we have is called “pre-commitment.” It’s right there in one of the oldest surviving human stories, Homer’s Odyssey. Homer tells of how there was once a patch of sea that sailors would always die in, for a strange reason: living in the ocean, there were two sirens—a uniquely hot blend of woman and fish—who would sing to the sailors to join them in the ocean. Then, when they clambered in for some sexy fish-based action, they’d drown. But then, one day, the hero of the story—Ulysses—figured out how to beat these temptresses. Before the ship approached the sirens’ stretch of sea, he got his crew members to tie him to the mast, hard, hand and foot. He couldn’t move. When he heard the sirens, no matter how much Ulysses yearned to dive in, he couldn’t.
I had used this technique before when I was trying to lose weight. I used to buy loads of carbs and tell myself I would be strong enough to eat them slowly and in moderation, but then I would guzzle them at 2 a.m. So I stopped buying them. At 2 a.m., I wasn’t going to haul myself to a store to buy Pringles. The you that exists in the present—right now—wants to pursue your deeper goals, and wants to be a better person. But you know you’re fallible and likely to crack in the face of temptation. So you bind the future version of you. You narrow your choices. You tie yourself to the mast.
There has been a small range of scientific experiments to see if this really works, at least in the short term. For example, in 2013 a professor of psychology named Molly Crockett—who I interviewed at Yale—got a bunch of men into a lab and split them into two groups. All of them were going to face a challenge. They were told that they could see a slightly sexy picture right away if they wanted to, but if they were able to wait and do nothing for a little while, they would get to see a super-sexy picture. The first group was told to use their willpower, and discipline themselves in the moment. But the second group was given a chance, before they went into the lab, to “pre-commit”—to resolve, out loud, that they were going to stop and wait so they could see the sexier picture. The scientists wanted to know—would the men who made a pre-commitment hold out more often, and longer, than the men who didn’t? It turned out pre-commitment was strikingly successful—resolving clearly to do something, and making a pledge that they’d stick to it, made the men significantly better at holding out. In the years since, scientists have shown the same effect in a broad range of experiments.
“Where other books about our relationship to technology tend to focus on personal responsibility, stressing the importance of self-control, Stolen Focus takes a step back and examines the ecosystem that created the problem. . . . Hari’s writing is incredibly readable.” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Big-name websites and apps strive to distract because that’s the key to profitability. When we’re looking at our screens, these companies make money; when we’re not, they don’t. . . . It’s a call to arms, to be sure, and I’m tempted to tell my Twitter followers about it—but I’ve deleted the app from my phone.” – The Washington Post
“If your New Year’s resolution was to be more focused this year, then this is the book for you. [Adam] Grant describes the author as ‘a thoughtful critic of our modern malaise.’” – Inc.
“A gripping analysis of why we’ve lost the capacity to concentrate, and how we might find it again. Stolen Focus won’t just capture your attention—it will keep you thinking and rethinking long after you’ve finished it. Johann Hari is one of the most insightful critics of our modern malaise, and he’s written the book the world needs in order to win the war on distraction.” – Adam Grant
“Johann Hari writes like a dream. He’s both a lyricist and a storyteller—but also an indefatigable investigator of one of the world’s greatest problems: the systematic destruction of our attention. Read this book to save your mind.” – Susan Cain
“I don’t know anyone thinking more deeply, or more holistically, about the crisis of our collective attention than Johann Hari. This book could not be more vital. Please sit with it, and focus.” – Naomi Klein
“Superb . . . Stolen Focus is a beautifully researched and argued exploration of the breakdown of humankind’s ability to pay attention, told with the pace, sparkle, and energy of the best kind of thriller.” – Stephen Fry
“If you want to get your attention and focus back, you need to read this remarkable book. Johann Hari has cracked the code of why we’re in this crisis, and how to get out of it. We all need to hear this message.” – Arianna Huffington
“In his unique voice, Johann Hari tackles the profound dangers facing humanity from information technology and rings the alarm bell for what all of us must do to protect ourselves, our children, and our democracies.” – Hillary Clinton
“A visionary, systemic, revolutionary, and practical guide for creating the new world . . . Through his tireless research and genius insight, Johann Hari certainly snapped me to attention. This is a life-changing book.” – Eve Ensler
“A necessary book, a miracle of clarity and depth, and a resonant, deeply researched warning followed by a truly inspiring clarion call to action . . . Read it and weep, then dry your eyes and join in.” – Emma Thompson
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