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  • Toby Sinclair

Book Summary: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Updated: May 1


🤔 Should You Read This?

Toby's Rating: 7/10

I'm constantly distracted. I open LinkedIn and 45 minutes later I'm still scrolling. I'm not alone. This is the challenge of our times. Staying focused in a highly distracted world. Stolen Focus doesn't give any easy answers. I was hoping for a silver bullet. I did not find one. However it does accurately describe the problem and a few suggestions that might help.

👋 Hey - I'm Toby. This summary wasn't written by AI. I'm a real leader, managing teams in large organisations. I read to solve tough problems. I share book summaries to help other leaders tackle scary challenges.

💡3 Big Ideas from Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

This Stolen Focus book summary explores why you can't pay attention:

Big Idea 1 - We now live in ‘an attentional pathogenic culture’ – an environment in which sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us, and you have to swim upstream to achieve it. It is not your fault you cannot focus.

Big Idea 2 - Attention spans are decreasing at the time we need them most. One of the biggest contributors to inaction on big issues such as climate change is the lack of focus. When attention breaks down, problem-solving breaks down.

Big Idea 3 - Most office workers never get an hour to themselves without being interrupted. The average CEO of a Fortune 500 company, for example, gets just twenty-eight uninterrupted minutes a day.

💬 2 Best Quotes from Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Empathy is one of the most complex forms of attention we have – and the most precious. Many of the most important advances in human history have been advances in empathy
It’s not your fault you can’t focus. It’s by design. 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.

Toby's Top Takeaway

‘If we want to do what matters in any domain – any context in life – we have to be able to give attention to the right things … If we can’t do that, it’s really hard to do anything.’

There are many staggering facts and case studies within Stolen Focus by Johann Hari. One particular area is the collapse of sustained reading. If you are reading this Stolen focus book summary it might be that you cannot focus on reading an entire book. 57% of Americans do not read a single book in a typical year. Instead, they spend around 5.4 hours on their phone.

If you find it difficult to read, it's easy to blame yourself. You’re lazy, you’re not good enough, what’s wrong with you? Stolen Focus by Johann Hari argues that you are not the problem. Your difficulty in focusing is a system problem. The big tech companies have designed an environment to steal your attention. This is not a battle you can win through willpower. Johann Hari argues that whilst the average person can make changes, the whole system requires an overhaul. The problem is there are no easy answers:

I have not entirely solved this problem in myself. In fact, at this moment, as I write this in lockdown, my attention has never been worse.

Johann Hari - Stolen Focus


💡Big Ideas Expanded

Stolen Focus Book Summary

Here are the big ideas from this Stolen Focus book summary expanded.

Six things Johann Hari has done to improve his attention:

  1. Use pre-commitment to stop switching tasks so much. e.g. buying a kSafe

  2. Don't listen to negative self-talk - You’re lazy, you’re not good enough, what’s wrong with you?

  3. Take extended times away from social media. Johann takes six months of the year totally off it.

  4. Embrace mind-wandering. Letting your mind wander is not a crumbling of attention but in fact a crucial form of attention in its own right.

  5. Sleep is not a luxury. It is essential for sustained focus.

  6. Embrace play and unstructured free time. This can be the greatest form of focus.

A small study investigated how often an average American college student actually pays attention to anything, so the scientists involved put tracking software on their computers and monitored what they did in a typical day. They discovered that, on average, a student would switch task once every sixty-five seconds. The median amount of time they focused on any one thing was just nineteen seconds. If you’re an adult and tempted to feel superior, hold off. A different study by Gloria Mark, professor of infomatics at the University of California, Irvine – who I interviewed – observed how long on average an adult working in an office stays on one task. It was three minutes.

A study by Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon found that 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 US found most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.

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.

Three ways task switching degrades your focus:

  1. Switching cost - You lose focus switching between tasks

  2. Screw-up effect. When you switch between tasks, errors that wouldn’t have happened otherwise start to creep in.

  3. Creativity drain - In the long run, you are likely to be much less creative.

A digital detox is ‘not the solution, for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep, at an individual level, certain effects at bay. But it’s not sustainable, and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.’

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