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Stolen Focus Book Summary

Stolen Focus Book Summary – Johann Hari

What you will learn from reading Stolen Focus:

Dopamine’s Role in Addiction: Exploring how dopamine affects addiction and compulsive behaviours.

Balance Between Pleasure and Pain: Understanding the delicate balance in our brains between pleasure and pain, and how substances can disrupt it.

Impact of Technology: How modern technology influences dopamine release and contributes to addictive behaviours.

 

Introduction

The dwindling capacity to maintain focus is not solely an individual shortcoming, whether it be mine, yours, or that of your child. Rather, we are collectively subject to this phenomenon, which is driven by formidable forces. Johann Hari has pinpointed twelve significant factors that are eroding our ability to concentrate.

Research conducted by Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon revealed that an interruption while concentrating can set one back by an average of twenty-three minutes before regaining the same level of focus.

A lapse in attention can lead to a breakdown in problem-solving capabilities. Addressing major issues necessitates the concerted and prolonged focus of numerous individuals over extended periods. Moreover, a functioning democracy is contingent upon the populace’s ability to remain attentive long enough to recognise genuine problems, differentiate them from illusory ones, devise solutions, and hold their leaders accountable when they fall short of resolving these issues.

 

1 – Cause One: The Increase in Speed, Switching and Filtering

We are being overwhelmed with information every day, and this is changing our ability to pay attention. The more information we receive, the less we can focus on each piece. Sune describes this as trying to ‘drink from a fire-hose’ because there is just too much information coming at us all the time. We are constantly soaking in information.

In 1986, the average person was exposed to the equivalent of 40 newspapers worth of information daily, from TV, radio, and reading. By 2007, this had increased to 174 newspapers per day. And it has probably increased even more since then.

But as we try to keep up with all this information, Sune warns that we are losing depth in many areas of our lives. Depth requires time, reflection, and commitment. When we are constantly checking emails and trying to stay on top of everything, we don’t have time to develop depth in our work or our relationships. This lack of depth means that we are all staying on the surface of things, rather than really diving deep into them.

Sune’s scientific paper sums this up by saying we are experiencing ‘a more rapid exhaustion of attention resources.’ This means our ability to pay attention is running out more quickly because we are trying to process so much information.

 

Speed and Comprehension

Many scientists have dedicated years to understanding whether it’s possible for humans to read extremely quickly. Their findings show that while speed can be increased, it often results in less understanding of the material.

When professional speed-readers were studied, the results were consistent; even though they are proficient at reading quickly, their comprehension suffers as well.

Additionally, researchers found that when individuals are made to read quickly, they are less likely to engage with complicated or challenging content, instead favouring simpler and easier-to-understand statements.

When we examine focus not from a perspective of speeding up, but rather from intentionally slowing down, we encounter the insights of Guy Claxton, a prominent learning sciences professor at the University of Winchester. Claxton emphasises the importance of adapting our pace to our cognitive capacities, suggesting that moving too quickly can overwhelm our abilities and diminish their effectiveness. On the other hand, aligning our pace with what is natural for humans, and incorporating this approach into our everyday lives, serves to enhance our focus and attentiveness. Slowness, he explained, nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.

 

Why haven’t we tried to slow things down to a pace where we can think clearly?

Professor Earl Miller, a renowned neuroscientist who has received some of the highest awards in his field, emphasises a crucial fact that he believes everyone should understand. This fact is the foundation of everything else he explains: our conscious mind can only handle one or two thoughts at a time. In other words, we are inherently single-minded.

Despite this, as a society, we have created a myth that we can multitask effectively, handling three, five, or even ten things simultaneously.

In the past, some scientists believed in the power of human multitasking and set out to prove it. They brought people into labs, gave them multiple tasks to do at once, and monitored the results. What they found, however, was that when people think they are multitasking, they are actually just switching between tasks rapidly. As Miller explains, this constant switching and reconfiguring of the brain from one task to another comes with a cost.

 

The costs of constant focus switching

Earl Miller has identified three primary ways in which our habitual task-switching undermines our focus.

Firstly, there’s the switch cost effect. Moving from one task to another requires your brain to reconfigure itself, recall what you were previously doing, and remember your thoughts about the task. “That takes a little bit of time,” Miller explains, during which your performance dips. In other words, while your Screen Time might show you’re using your phone for four hours daily, you’re actually losing additional time due to this diminished focus.

Next, we have what we might call the screw-up effect. As you switch between tasks, your brain, prone to errors, must backtrack slightly to figure out where it left off. This backtrack introduces the possibility of mistakes that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.

The third cost comes over the medium to longer term and can be termed the creativity drain. According to Miller, our creative ideas and innovative thoughts stem from the brain forming new connections based on absorbed information. When your mind has undistracted time, it automatically processes everything it has taken in, drawing links in new and creative ways. However, constant switching stifles this creative process.

Johann Hari puts forth a fourth impact, which we might call the diminished memory effect. Our experiences transform into memories through a process that requires mental space and energy. However, if most of your energy is spent on rapid task-switching, you end up remembering and learning less.

In conclusion, as Miller firmly stated, the key to excelling lies in focusing on one task at a time.

Perhaps our wish to take in a flood of information without losing focus is similar to our hope of eating anything we please while maintaining a slim figure – it’s simply an unattainable fantasy.

 

2 – Cause Two: The Crippling of Our Flow States

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a prominent psychologist and researcher known for his work in the field of positive psychology. Csikszentmihalyi is best known for his concept of “flow,” a state of heightened focus and immersion that people experience when they are deeply engaged in an activity they find both challenging and rewarding.

Professor Gloria Mark, who has extensively researched interruptions, explains that frequent interruptions in our daily lives can condition us to interrupt ourselves, even in the absence of external disruptions. This self-interruption makes it harder for us to achieve a flow state, where we become completely absorbed in our activities, losing track of time and self, fully merging with the experience.

The flow state represents the pinnacle of focus and attention. When we successfully tap into this state, we unlock a reservoir of concentration, enabling a steady stream of attention that effortlessly propels us through challenging tasks, transforming them from painful obstacles into enjoyable activities.

 

Finding Flow

Mihaly’s research pointed out various facets of flow, but fundamentally, there are three key components to achieving it.

Firstly, set a clear, defined goal and commit to it, putting aside all other objectives. Flow necessitates single-minded focus; distractions and multitasking are its adversaries.

Secondly, engage in activities that hold personal significance. Our attention is naturally drawn to things that matter to us, rooted in our evolutionary development.

Thirdly, challenge yourself, but within your capabilities. If a task is too simple, you’ll coast on autopilot, but if it’s too complex, you’ll feel overwhelmed, hindering flow.

To summarise, flow requires a singular, meaningful goal that pushes you to your limits.

Addressing our dwindling attention spans isn’t just about eliminating distractions; it’s about filling that space with opportunities for flow. We now stand at a crossroads between two significant forces – fragmentation and flow. The former diminishes us, making us more superficial and irritable, while the latter enriches us, deepening our experiences and bringing tranquility. In essence, fragmentation constricts us, whereas flow broadens our horizons.

 

3 – Cause Three: The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion

In 1981, a young scientist named Charles Czeisler was conducting sleep deprivation experiments in a Boston lab. Despite never having a particular interest in sleep research, Charles, a tall man with a deep voice and wire-framed glasses, quickly noticed the significant impact lack of sleep had on people’s ability to focus.

Participants in his study, who were kept awake for an entire night and into the next day, took significantly longer to respond to prompts—sometimes up to six seconds, compared to the usual quarter of a second.

This observation led Charles to explore the concept of “attentional blinks,” moments when an individual’s attention completely lapses, even if just for a fraction of a second. He found that, as people become more fatigued, their attention not only blinks but can also lapse into a state he termed “local sleep.” In this state, an individual may appear awake and alert, but parts of their brain are actually asleep, leaving them unable to think clearly or sustain attention.

Years of subsequent scientific research have supported Charles’s findings, and it is now widely accepted that a lack of sleep can significantly impair attention and focus.

Roxanne, a researcher in the field of sleep studies, revealed that it doesn’t take much sleep deprivation for our abilities to be affected. For example, if you wake up at 6 a.m. and go to bed at midnight, staying awake for 18 hours straight, your reaction times by the end of the day could be similar to someone with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent. This comparison highlights just how critical adequate sleep is for maintaining optimal cognitive function.

 

Sleep and ADHD

Dr. Sandra Kooij, a prominent expert on adult ADHD in Europe, points out that our Western society mimics symptoms of ADHD due to widespread sleep deprivation. She emphasizes the multitude of benefits that come with improved sleep, noting that it can alleviate issues such as mood disorders, obesity, and concentration problems, ultimately contributing to overall health and wellness.

 

So why do we sleep less?

Given the serious impacts of insufficient sleep, it’s perplexing that we often neglect this fundamental need. Why do we compromise a vital aspect of our health and wellbeing, especially when we know its significance? Several factors contribute to this conundrum.

One surprising factor is our interaction with light. Before the 19th century, human lives were predominantly dictated by the sun’s patterns, and our natural rhythms evolved accordingly. We would feel energized by daylight and sleepy once darkness fell. As such, humans have developed a profound sensitivity to changes in light. Today, we are bombarded with ten times the amount of artificial light than people were just fifty years ago.

 

How do we solve the sleep crisis?

Solving this issue requires a multi-faceted approach.

On a personal level, we should significantly reduce our exposure to light before bedtime.

Additionally, our relationship with technology needs to change. Ideally, phones should be charged overnight in a separate room, out of sight and earshot. Furthermore, the temperature of the room is crucial; it should be kept cool, bordering on cold.

Johann Hari identified a paradox in modern living. The steps we need to take are straightforward and almost trite: slow down, focus on one task at a time, and get adequate sleep. Yet, paradoxically, we are trending in the opposite direction: more haste, more multitasking, and less sleep.

This contradiction highlights a gap between our knowledge of what is beneficial and our actions. The crucial question then becomes: What is the root cause of this discrepancy? Why are we unable to take the simple steps that would significantly enhance our attention? What are the forces that impede us?

 

4 – Cause Four: The Collapse of Sustained Reading

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified reading a book as one of the most common ways people experience flow, a state now at risk in our distraction-laden society.

Anne Mangen, a professor of literacy at Stavanger University in Norway, has spent two decades researching this subject and found something crucial. Reading books cultivates a particular type of linear and focused reading over an extended period. In contrast, screen reading fosters a fragmented approach, encouraging us to scan and skim for necessary information.

Anne is concerned that we are losing our capability to engage with long texts and the associated cognitive patience, stamina, and ability to grapple with challenging materials.

 

The power of Books:

Johann Hari contemplates whether the medium of a printed book itself conveys a message before the reader even delves into the text. The book as a medium communicates that life is multifaceted and requires time and deep contemplation to be fully understood. It emphasizes the value of single-minded focus, encouraging readers to immerse themselves in the narrative, line by line and page by page. It also underscores the importance of delving deep into the lives and minds of others.

Exposing ourselves to complex narratives about the inner worlds of different individuals over extended periods can reshape our consciousness. Through this prolonged exposure, we can cultivate a greater sense of openness, perception, and empathy.

 

5 – Cause Five: The Disruption of Mind-Wandering

In 1890, William James, a pioneering figure in American psychology, described attention as a spotlight in what is considered one of the most influential Western texts on the subject. This metaphor continues to shape our understanding of attention, which is commonly defined as the capacity to selectively focus on specific elements in our surroundings. Consequently, when we claim to be distracted, we are essentially saying that we struggle to confine our attentional spotlight to the particular object or task at hand.

 

The different forms of attention:

In reality, this spotlight metaphor represents just one facet of the multifaceted concept of attention necessary for coherent thought. Equally crucial, and presently even more endangered, are other forms of attention that work in conjunction with this spotlight.

The prevailing assumption has been that our brains are largely inactive during moments of unfocused thought, lying dormant like unused muscles. Yet, emerging research challenges this perception, revealing a hive of activity occurring in the brain during these seemingly idle periods.

This shift in understanding was propelled by the discovery of the ‘default mode network’, a term coined to describe a specific brain region that springs to life when we aren’t actively engaging with the world around us. This finding, illuminated by brain scans showing the default mode network illuminated with activity, has reshaped our comprehension of the brain’s functioning during periods of rest or inattention.

 

The Power of a wandering mind:

Mind-wandering has three key processes.

Firstly, it allows us to integrate new information with our personal experiences, for example take reading a book. While the primary focus is on the text, part of our mind is simultaneously relating the content to our own lives, a process integral to comprehension.

Secondly, mind-wandering fosters creativity by facilitating the formation of novel connections, often leading to the resolution of pressing issues or the genesis of innovative ideas.

Lastly, mind-wandering enables us to engage in ‘mental time-travel,’ a reflective process in which we traverse our past and forecast possible future scenarios, thereby aiding in decision-making and planning.

So we shouldn’t feel guilty about letting our mind wander. It is a different form of attention – and a necessary one.

 

Mind-wandering in the current environment:

In today’s fast-paced environment, we often find ourselves neither fully focused nor genuinely mind-wandering, but instead trapped in a superficial cycle of skimming that leaves us unsatisfied and disoriented. This constant distraction makes us even more susceptible to the next interruption, further muddling our ability to process the world around us.

While mind-wandering can be a source of creativity and insight, it can also lead to discomfort. This is because mind-wandering can quickly turn into rumination, wherein we find ourselves caught in a tumult of stressful thoughts. The context in which mind-wandering occurs plays a crucial role in determining its effects; in relaxed and safe environments, mind-wandering can be a delightful and creatively fruitful activity, while in high-stress or dangerous situations, it can become a source of torment and distress.

 

6 – Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part One)

There are six ways in which our current technology undermines our ability to focus, all of which are interconnected by a single, deeper issue that must be addressed.

Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer who gained fame through his appearance in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” was one of the first to guide Johann Hari in understanding this. Harris, who had a childhood fascination with magic, discovered that the essence of magic lies in understanding the limits of human attention. A magician’s primary task is to manipulate the viewer’s focus, making the seemingly impossible occur right before their eyes.

In 2002, while attending Stanford University, Harris first encountered the Persuasive Technologies Lab, a mysterious research facility led by Professor B.J. Fogg, a behavioural scientist. Fogg’s teachings would later become instrumental in shaping the digital world we live in today. Harris, with the mentorship of Fogg, created an app designed to provide users with straightforward summaries of topics they highlighted.

This innovation caught the attention of Google, who purchased the app and hired Harris. Working at Google was like being at the epicentre of a digital revolution, where the primary metric of success was “engagement,” or the amount of time users spent on a product. However, the pursuit of engagement often conflicted with Harris’s beliefs in the ethical use of technology.

Despite his best efforts to promote ethical persuasion and structure of attention, Harris found that the dominant narrative within Google was solely focused on increasing engagement. This eventually led him to leave the company. Before leaving, he compiled a presentation for his colleagues, urging them to consider the ethical implications of their work. The presentation resonated with many at Google, leading to the creation of a new position for Harris as Google’s first “design ethicist.”

In this new role, Harris attempted to introduce less intrusive product designs but was met with resistance from those above him, highlighting the fundamental contradiction inherent in Google’s business model.

 

The Invention of the Infinite Scroll

You may not be familiar with Aza Raskin, but his work has likely had a direct impact on how you spend your time online.

A child prodigy in the world of coding, Raskin gave his first talk on user interfaces at just ten years old. By his early twenties, he was a key figure in the development of early internet browsers and served as the creative lead for Firefox. In this role, he created “infinite scroll,” a feature that revolutionised the way we navigate the web. Previously, the internet was organised into distinct pages, and users had to actively choose to click to the next page. This format provided a natural break for reflection: “Do I want to continue?”

Raskin initially took pride in his invention, viewing it as a means of streamlining online interaction. This design philosophy stems from the belief that increased speed and efficiency inherently constitute progress.

Today, infinite scroll is a staple of social media platforms and numerous other websites. However, as Raskin observed the behaviour of those around him, he noticed a troubling trend: people seemed tethered to their devices, endlessly swiping through content facilitated by his infinite scroll feature. This realisation left him feeling conflicted.

Reflecting on the impact of his work, Raskin noted a disconnect between the lofty goals touted by Silicon Valley, such as “connecting everyone in the world,” and the reality of day-to-day operations, which are driven by the pursuit of higher user numbers and prolonged engagement. This disparity led him to question the true value of technological ease and convenience. “Making something easy to use doesn’t mean it’s good for humanity,” he concluded.

 

7 – Cause Six: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Part Two)

If you want to delve into the root problems with our current technology, particularly how it disrupts our focus, consider this seemingly straightforward thought experiment:

Picture yourself in New York, keen to see which friends are in the vicinity for a possible meet-up. You check Facebook, but it doesn’t provide a simple “who’s nearby and free to hang out” option. Technologically, this feature is far from complex; Tristan, Aza, and their peers could likely develop it in a day. It would be a popular addition, so why doesn’t it exist?

The reason, as Tristan and his colleagues say lies in the business model of Facebook and other social media giants. Facebook’s profits rise with every second you spend on their platform and fall the moment you step away. Yet there is a secondary but more insidious reason for Facebook’s design to keep you endlessly scrolling is the data collection aspect.

Every message, status update, or Google search you conduct is analysed, catalogued, and stored. These companies are constructing detailed profiles to then sell to advertisers who want to target you specifically.

Starting from 2014, Gmail’s automated systems would sift through your emails to create a personalised advertising profile. If, for instance, you tell your mother you need diapers, Gmail registers you as a parent and starts targeting you with baby product ads. Mention ‘arthritis’ and you’ll likely start seeing ads for relevant treatments.

Aza described this process using the metaphor of a voodoo doll. Inside Facebook and Google’s servers, there’s a model of you, initially rudimentary. This model is progressively refined using all the metadata you might deem inconsequential. The result is an eerily accurate digital doppelgänger.

Aza shared an anecdote from his presentations. He often asks audiences if they think Facebook eavesdrops on their conversations because they’ve received unnervingly precise ads. Typically, half to two-thirds of the audience raise their hands. In reality, the platforms are not listening in; their virtual model of you is just astoundingly predictive.

Whenever a tech company offers a free service, it’s ultimately to enhance this digital effigy. Why is Google Maps free? So it can incorporate your daily routes into the voodoo doll. This business model, brilliantly termed ‘surveillance capitalism’ by Harvard Professor Shoshana Zuboff, underpins and sustains the platforms that dominate our digital lives.

 

Big Tech Incentives

Tristan has witnessed firsthand the workings of business incentives in the tech industry. During his tenure at Google, he observed an engineer introduce an update meant to enhance user engagement or foster more time spent connecting with friends. “But then, a few weeks later during a metrics review, the engineer’s manager might question why site engagement decreased three weeks prior, pointing to the new features as the likely cause,” he explained.

Let’s be clear: this isn’t a conspiracy theory. It’s as straightforward as saying KFC wants you to eat its fried chicken. It’s a direct consequence of the incentive structures we’ve allowed to persist.

We often attribute our dwindling attention spans to personal shortcomings or the mere existence of smartphones. However, the true culprit lies in the design of the apps on our phones and the websites on our laptops.

According to Tristan, our phones and the software they run were meticulously engineered by some of the brightest minds in the world with a single aim: to capture and retain our attention as effectively as possible.

Once you understand this, framing the discussion as a pro-tech vs. anti-tech debate is misleading and lets those responsible for pilfering our attention off the hook. The real debate should center on what kind of technology is being developed, for what purposes, and in whose interests.

 

The Algorithm

When Facebook (or any other similar platform) curates your news feed, it sifts through thousands of potential content pieces to display. This selection process is conducted by a unique piece of code, or an algorithm.

The algorithm’s functioning parameters might fluctuate, yet one fundamental principle remains constant: it prioritises content that is likely to retain your attention on the screen. The underlying motive is straightforward—more screen time translates to more revenue for the platform. Consequently, the algorithm is specifically designed to gauge what captivates your interest and continually floods your screen with such content, ensuring you remain glued to your phone.

James Williams, an ex-Google strategist, invites us to envision the following scenario: You use a GPS, and it functions perfectly on your initial attempt, seamlessly guiding you to your destination. However, during your subsequent usage, the GPS misdirects you a few streets away, and later, it even takes you to an entirely different town. This deviation occurs because advertisers, who financially support the GPS service, have paid to influence the route. Williams points out the paradox that while we would immediately cease using such a deceptive GPS, we continue to engage with social media platforms that operate similarly, influenced by advertising dollars to manipulate the content we see.

 

How Tech Harms our Attention

This machinery, in its current form, negatively impacts our attention in six distinct ways.

Firstly, these sites and apps are specifically engineered to cultivate our desire for constant validation, making us crave likes and hearts.

Secondly, they encourage us to frequently shift our focus by prompting us to pick up our phones or switch tabs to Facebook on our laptops. Each time we do this, we experience the attention costs associated with task-switching.

Thirdly, these platforms learn to ‘frack’ us, as Tristan describes. They analyse our behaviours to understand what appeals to us, what excites us, and what infuriates us.

Fourthly, due to the way their algorithms are configured, these platforms often expose us to content that makes us angry. Scientific experiments have consistently shown that anger significantly disrupts our ability to focus.

Fifthly, these sites don’t just make us angry; they also create an environment where we feel engulfed by the anger of others.

Lastly, and perhaps most destructively, these platforms set society ablaze. This complex web of harm unfolds in several stages, ultimately having the most detrimental effect on our collective attention.

Collective Attention

Our attention is not only a personal commodity but a shared societal one.

To enact political and societal change, we require activist groups. These groups, comprised of ordinary citizens, advocate for policy changes and bans, while also working to elevate certain issues to urgent political matters. This heightened attention puts pressure on politicians, prompting them to enact changes. Historically, our shared attention has been crucial in identifying and mitigating risks to our species.

However, there is mounting evidence that social media platforms are now significantly impairing our ability to unite as a society, to pinpoint our problems, and to collaboratively find solutions. These sites are eroding not only individual attention spans but also our collective societal attention.

According to Tristan, what we are witnessing is ‘the collective downgrading of humans and the upgrading of machines.’ This shift is rendering us less rational, less intelligent, and less focused as a society.

 

The rise of Fake News

Research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed that on Twitter, false information spreads six times faster than the truth, and during the 2016 US presidential election, blatantly false information on Facebook garnered more engagement than the top stories from nineteen mainstream news outlets combined. As a result, we are constantly bombarded with misinformation and absurdities that distort our perception of reality.

These platforms not only impair individuals’ ability to focus, but they also flood the public’s consciousness with grotesque fabrications, blurring the line between genuine threats (such as an authoritarian leader threatening violence) and imaginary dangers (such as absurd claims about baby bottles). If a society is exposed to this barrage of falsehoods and rage-inducing content for an extended period, it risks losing its ability to identify real problems and work collectively towards viable solutions.

 

8 – Cause Seven: The Rise of Cruel Optimism (or: Why Individual Changes are an Important Start, But Not Enough)

Nir Eyal is an Israeli-American author, lecturer, and investor recognised for his contributions to behavioural design and habit-forming technology. His book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” explores the mechanisms behind the addictive nature of some technologies and how businesses can use these principles to create engaging products.

Like Tristan, Eyal learned from B.J. Fogg. He attended a retreat at Fogg’s home and attended some of his lectures before working with influential Silicon Valley companies to help them engage their users.

Eyal offers a unique approach to the attention crisis, differing from the strategies developed by Tristan and Aza. He argues that while people like Tristan and Aza criticises these companies, they often haven’t made any attempts to address the issue. Eyal advocates for individual change as the first line of defense, starting with introspection and self-understanding. He acknowledges the changing environment and the unavoidable presence of technology. Eyal emphasises that while users didn’t create this environment, it is their responsibility to adapt to it.

 

Managing our Internal Triggers

In his book “Indistractible”, he proposes what he believes are the best solutions. There is one tool, in particular, that he thinks can resolve this issue. He posits that everyone has ‘internal triggers’ – instances in our lives that push us towards undesirable habits.

According to him, an ‘internal trigger’ is an uncomfortable emotional state. It’s all about avoidance – about how to escape from this uncomfortable state. He advocates that we all need to examine our triggers non-judgmentally, contemplate them, and find ways to mitigate them.

The process of altering a habit involves understanding what the internal trigger is and ensuring there’s a pause between the urge to perform a behaviour and the behaviour itself.

 

The problem with Nir

Every specific intervention that Nir recommends is useful. Johann Hari has tried each one, and several have made a small yet significant difference to him. However, something about Nir’s perspective made Johann feel uneasy. Nir’s approach aligns perfectly with how tech companies want us to view our attention issues. They can’t deny the crisis any longer, so they’re shifting tactics: subtly suggesting that it’s an individual problem, requiring more self-restraint from us rather than accountability from them.

If we heed Nir and others like him, we’ll address the surge in attention problems similarly to how we addressed the increase in weight issues – and we’ll experience the same disastrous results.

 

Cruel Optimism

Ronald Purser, a management professor at San Francisco State University, has coined the concept of ‘cruel optimism’. This occurs when a major problem rooted in our culture, such as obesity, depression, or addiction, is addressed with a simplistic individual solution, presented in upbeat language. While it sounds optimistic because the problem seems solvable, it is, in fact, cruel. The proposed solution is often so limited and so oblivious to the deeper causes that it will most likely fail for most people.

Purser uses a best-selling book by a New York Times reporter as an example. The book tells its readers, ‘Stress isn’t something imposed on us. It’s something we impose on ourselves.’ It argues that if you learn to think differently, your stress will dissolve. You just need to learn to meditate because stress results from a failure to be mindful. This message might seem full of optimistic promise.

However, promising someone that simply changing their perspective on stress will solve their problem, then leaving them to struggle, is ultimately cruel. On the surface, cruel optimism may seem kind and hopeful, but it often has a dark aftermath. When the simplistic solution fails, as it often does, the individual typically blames herself rather than the system.

One of the problems with cruel optimism is that it takes exceptional cases, often achieved under extraordinary conditions, and presents them as common. Finding serenity through meditation is much easier when you haven’t just lost your job or are not worrying about eviction.

Most importantly, people shouldn’t have to resort to these measures. Cruel optimism assumes that we can’t significantly change the systems disrupting our attention, so we should mainly focus on changing ourselves. But why should we accept these systems as a given? Why should we tolerate an environment full of programs designed to ‘hook’ us and drive us?

Many existing books on attention issues depict them merely as personal shortcomings that require individual solutions, akin to digital diet books. However, just as diet books did not resolve the obesity crisis, digital diet books will not solve the attention crisis. It’s crucial to understand the underlying forces at play.

The alternative to cruel optimism, which provides a simplistic narrative that sets individuals up for failure, is not pessimism, or the belief that change is impossible. Rather, it’s authentic optimism. This involves honestly acknowledging the obstacles that hinder your goals and collaboratively devising a plan to systematically dismantle these barriers with others.

 

9 – The First Glimpses of the Deeper Solution

We are left with two pressing questions. First, what practical changes can be made to this invasive technology to prevent it from harming our attention and focus? Second, how can we persuade these large corporations to implement these changes in reality?

 

Banning Surveillance Capitalism

Aza spoke to Johann, proposing the idea of banning surveillance capitalism. He explained that this would involve the government prohibiting any business model that tracks users online to decipher their vulnerabilities, then selling that private data to the highest bidder for the purpose of influencing user behaviour. Aza described this model as fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-human, and asserted its need for eradication.

So, Johann posed a question to both Aza and Tristan. If we were to ban surveillance capitalism, what would become of our Facebook and Twitter accounts the next day, week, or year? Aza predicted a crisis moment for these companies, similar to the one Microsoft faced in 2001 when the US government declared it a monopoly. The company had to reinvent itself.

In essence, these companies would need to seek alternative methods of funding the day after a ban. Aza suggested a model that most would be familiar with – subscription. Under this new model, Facebook would no longer serve advertisers by selling your secret desires and preferences as their primary product. Instead, the platform would be dedicated to serving you.

 

Public Ownership

There’s another obvious way that these companies could survive, which is for them to be bought by the government and taken into public ownership.

Using the same model, our governments could acknowledge that social media is now an essential public utility, and explain that when it is run according to the wrong incentives, it causes the psychological equivalents of cholera outbreaks.

 

Change the Incentives, Change the Model

If financial incentives change through subscription, public ownership, or another model, the nature of these websites can evolve in ways we can already envision.

These companies could quickly eliminate the aspects of their apps and sites that intentionally confuse us and keep us online longer than necessary. As Aza suggested, “For instance, Facebook could start batching your notifications, providing only one push notification a day. They could implement this change tomorrow.”

Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms could disable infinite scrolling, requiring a conscious decision to continue scrolling at the bottom of the screen.

These sites could also turn off features that have been proven to polarise people politically, thus preserving our collective attention.

For example, upon setting up a Facebook account, the site could ask you to specify the amount of time you’d like to spend on it daily or weekly. Whether it’s ten minutes or two hours, the website could assist you in achieving your goal.

Currently, social media is designed to capture your attention and sell it to the highest bidder. However, it could be redesigned to understand your intentions better and help you achieve them.

 

10 – Cause Eight: The Surge in Stress and How It Is Triggering Vigilance

Scientists have recently made a significant discovery. When humans find themselves in terrifying situations, such as a war zone, they often transition into a different mental state.

Consider this scenario: you’re walking in the woods and suddenly, an angry grizzly bear confronts you. Your brain immediately stops worrying about mundane concerns like what you’ll eat later or how you’ll pay the rent. Instead, it focuses entirely on the immediate threat. You observe every move of the bear, and your mind starts planning potential escape routes. This heightened state of alertness is what you experience.

Now, imagine that these bear attacks occur frequently. Suppose an angry bear appears on your street thrice a week and attacks one of your neighbours. In such a situation, you would likely develop a mental state known as ‘hypervigilance’.

In this state, your attention is concentrated on spotting potential danger, instead of focusing on the present moment, learning a lesson, or completing your work.

 

Trauma, Feeling Safe and Attention

Children who faced four or more types of trauma were 32.6 times more likely to have attention or behaviour problems compared to those with no trauma. Dr Nicole Brown’s research showed that childhood trauma tripled the likelihood of ADHD symptoms. A big study by the British Office of National Statistics showed that a family financial crisis increases a child’s chances of having attention problems by 50%.

She thought she discovered a key fact about focus: you need to feel safe to pay attention normally. You need to stop worrying about dangers and focus on one secure topic. If children can’t pay attention, it often means they are very stressed.

This raises the question: do other forms of stress affect attention? What about those that are significantly less distressing than sexual abuse?

The scientific evidence is somewhat complex. Lab results indicate that if you are subjected to mild-to-moderate stress, your performance improves on some short-term attention tasks.

Professor Charles Nunn, a renowned evolutionary anthropologist, researched the increase in insomnia. He discovered that ‘stress and hyper-vigilance’ often cause sleep struggles. If you don’t feel safe, it’s hard to relax because your body signals that you’re in danger and need to stay alert. To successfully combat insomnia, Charles concluded that it’s crucial to ‘alleviate the sources of anxiety and stress.’ Addressing the root causes is essential.

 

Poverty and Stress

What could be the underlying causes? Here’s one: Six out of every ten US citizens have less than $500 in savings for emergencies. Many other Western countries are heading in the same direction.

Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of computational science at the University of Chicago, was part of a team that studied sugarcane harvesters in India. They evaluated the harvesters’ cognitive abilities before the harvest (when they were impoverished) and after the harvest (when they had a reasonable amount of money). The results showed that the financial security post-harvest made them, on average, thirteen IQ points smarter. This is a significant difference.

A more stressed society is less capable of resisting distractions. It’s always been challenging to resist the advanced manipulation techniques of surveillance capitalism. However, it seems that we were already becoming more vulnerable and easier to manipulate than before.

 

11 – The Places That Figured Out How to Reverse the Surge in Speed and Exhaustion

Working less can significantly improve focus, challenging the notion that more work equates to better work. There’s a time for work, and there’s a time for rest. Currently, this balanced approach appears to be an unattainable luxury for many. Most people fear that slowing down might cost them their jobs or status.

This perspective ties into another significant hurdle. While a four-day workweek suits salaried employees, many are being pushed into the ‘gig economy’, juggling multiple jobs without contracts or fixed work hours.

This ‘gig economy’ also has more chances for stress where we don’t know when the next pay check is coming or can lose our income in an instant.

 

12 – Causes Nine and Ten: Our Deteriorating Diets and Rising Pollution

Dale Pinnock, one of the most recognised nutritionists in Britain, explained the struggle many people have with concentration. He likened our bodies to engines, saying, ‘If you put shampoo into a car engine, you wouldn’t be surprised when it conks out.’ He argued that we often fuel our bodies with substances far removed from what was intended for human consumption. He stated that sustained attention is a physical process requiring certain body functions. Thus, deprivation of necessary nutrients or introduction of pollutants can disrupt your ability to focus.

The British National Health Service’s official website, renowned for its meticulous fact-checking, warns about the energy crashes caused by our current diets. This indicates a strong scientific consensus on the matter.

 

How diet impacts attention

The first way in which our diets are impacting our children’s focus and attention is the prevalence of unhealthy foods. As Dale pointed out, feeding kids Coke for breakfast and a bowl of sugar-laden cereal is not conducive to optimal brain function.

The second reason is the shift from fresh, nutrient-dense foods to pre-cooked, processed foods. In the mid-twentieth century, there was a significant move towards convenience foods that are sold in supermarkets and designed to be reheated. These processed foods are often filled with stabilisers and preservatives to extend their shelf life, but this industrial processing can strip the food of its nutritional value. Today, in the US and Britain, most of our diets consist of ‘ultra-processed foods,’ which are so far removed from their natural origins that it’s difficult to identify the original ingredients. Michael Pollan has highlighted the detrimental impact of these foods on our health and well-being.

The third reason our diets are affecting our focus and attention is the lack of essential nutrients needed for optimal brain function and development. Dr. Drew Ramsay, a pioneer in the field of ‘nutritional psychiatry,’ explains that the brain requires a broad range of key nutrients to thrive. When our diets lack these nutrients, it can lead to mental health challenges and decreased focus and attention.

Lastly, the fourth reason is the presence of chemicals in our diets that act on our brains almost like drugs. A study conducted in 2007 by a team of scientists in Southampton, Britain, examined the impact of common food additives on children’s behaviour. They divided 297 children into two groups, with one group receiving a drink containing food additives and the other group receiving a drink without these additives. The results showed that the children who consumed the food dyes were significantly more likely to exhibit hyperactive behaviour, demonstrating the potential harmful effects of these additives on children’s mental health and attention.

 

The impact of Pollution

The next significant contributor to our attention crisis, which might be the most impactful of all the factors discussed in this book, is pollution. Growing evidence suggests that pollution is severely impairing our ability to focus.

Most of us are familiar with air pollution, which is why I spoke to Barbara Maher, a professor of environmental science at the University of Lancaster in England. She has conducted potentially revolutionary research on how air pollution affects our brains.

In our conversation, Professor Maher explained that residents of major cities are exposed daily to a mixture of contaminants, including those emitted by car engines. Our brains didn’t evolve to process these chemicals, such as iron, through our respiratory systems, and therefore, they don’t know how to handle them. She noted that living in a polluted city subjects your brain to a “repeated chronic insult,” resulting in inflammation.

Her findings reveal a direct correlation between the degree of pollution and the extent of brain damage. Years of exposure to high pollution levels increase the likelihood of developing severe forms of brain degeneration, like dementia.

In another study, Professor Jordi Sunyer of Barcelona assessed the attention span of school children across the city. He discovered that higher pollution levels correlated with poorer performance in attention-related tasks among the children.

 

Lead and Attention

What actions can we take to combat pollution’s impact on our attention span? I began uncovering some possible solutions after delving into the historical context, focusing particularly on the consequences of lead exposure on human attention.

Lead toxicity in humans has been recognised since the time of ancient Rome. In 1925, when General Motors proclaimed that adding lead to gasoline was a “gift of God,” the CEO was cautioned by Dr. Alice Hamilton, the leading U.S. expert on lead, that this decision was fraught with danger. Dr. Hamilton warned, “Where there is lead, some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops.”

It’s worth noting that a non-leaded gasoline alternative, devoid of these risks, was always available. However, large corporations vehemently opposed it for commercial reasons; the leaded version could be patented, thus potentially yielding higher profits.

During a research project, children in Rochester were subjected to blood tests to measure their lead levels. The findings were alarming: one in three children in the town had lead poisoning. Bruce and his fellow researchers discovered that lead exposure severely impairs attention and focus. According to Bruce, children exposed to lead are “two and a half times more likely to meet criteria for ADHD.”

 

13 – Cause Eleven: The Rise of ADHD and How We Are Responding to It

From 2003 to 2011, the prevalence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnoses in the United States surged by 43 percent overall, with a 55 percent increase among girls. Currently, 13 percent of American adolescents have been diagnosed with ADHD, the majority of whom are prescribed powerful stimulant medications as treatment.

While adults often attribute their attention difficulties to a variety of factors including invasive technologies, stress, and insufficient sleep, the narrative surrounding children’s attention challenges has simplified over the last two decades. The prevailing belief has shifted towards attributing these issues predominantly to a biological disorder.

 

A Controversial Topic

The debate surrounding ADHD is one of the most contentious in the scientific community, with experts unable to agree on fundamental aspects, including its existence as a biological illness.

It is universally acknowledged among experts that the difficulties faced by those diagnosed with ADHD are genuine, and not a result of pretence or lack of effort. The individuals are not to blame, and such challenges are not indicative of personal failure or lack of discipline.

The notion that attention difficulties represent a biological problem is relatively recent and has undergone significant shifts in perspective over time. By 1968, the concept had gained traction within psychiatric circles, initially thought to affect only a small demographic of children. However, in recent times, diagnoses have surged dramatically, particularly in the southern United States where, in some areas, up to 30% of boys are diagnosed with ADHD by age eighteen.

This dramatic increase has given rise to a deeply divided discourse. On one side, some argue that ADHD is a disorder rooted in genetic and neurological abnormalities, advocating for widespread use of stimulant medications. This view is especially prevalent in the United States. Conversely, others assert that while attention problems are indeed serious and distressing, framing them as a biological disorder that necessitates extensive medication is misguided and potentially harmful. They propose alternative forms of intervention.

 

Biological Causes

The narrative begins with the prevalent biological explanation for behavioural disorders, which offers parents facing a child’s diagnosis a mixture of shock and solace. While the sting of a disability label is undeniable, the reassurance comes in being absolved of blame, receiving empathy for enduring hardships, and the hopeful prospect of a tangible remedy.

Enter Nicholas Dodman, a revered veterinary authority in the U.S. with three decades of experience and a reputation for advocating pharmaceutical interventions in animal psychiatry. His groundbreaking perspective emerged unexpectedly from an incident involving a horse named Poker who exhibited ‘cribbing,’ a neurotic behaviour common in stabled horses. After observing the cessation of this behaviour following an injection of naloxone, an opioid antagonist, Dodman began to consider that animals might benefit from treatments traditionally reserved for humans.

This pivot in approach has led to a broad application of psychiatric drugs across animal species, turning to medication as a means to manage behaviour that deviates from the norm. The contemporary zoo landscape, where animals are regularly administered mood-altering drugs, reflects this shift, with these substances being lauded as invaluable tools for ensuring manageable and less stressed captive creatures.

However, Dodman’s rationale for using pharmacological interventions diverges from the conventional medical narrative often relayed to parents of children with attention disorders. Instead of attributing such problems solely to biology, he points to environmental factors, specifically the profound stress of animals being unable to fulfil their instinctual drives due to unnatural living conditions—a phenomenon he terms ‘frustrated biological objectives.’

Dodman acknowledges the limitations of his approach, recognising that while medication may alleviate symptoms of what is known as ‘zoochosis,’ it is, at best, a stopgap measure that does not address the underlying issue—the inherent distress animals experience when prevented from engaging in their natural behaviours.

 

The Environmental problem for the modern child

This raises an important inquiry – could it be that children who have difficulty focusing are akin to Poker the horse, potentially being treated with medication for issues that are rooted in their environment?

Consider how the lifestyles of children have shifted. The freedom to play outdoors has been largely replaced by more time indoors, confined to homes and classrooms. Nutritional changes have also been stark, with diets often lacking essential nutrients for brain health and increasingly loaded with sugars and additives that can disrupt concentration. Educational systems have evolved to prioritise high-pressure testing, leaving little room for fostering innate curiosity. With these significant societal changes paralleling the rise in ADHD diagnoses, one might question whether there is a direct link.

The assumption surrounding an ADHD diagnosis may lead some to liken it to a medical condition such as pneumonia, where a clear-cut pathogen is identified and treated. However, ADHD lacks any physical diagnostic tests. Instead, the process involves conversations and behavioural assessments against a checklist developed by psychiatrists, which ultimately says a child struggles to focus but sheds no light on the underlying reasons.

Nevertheless, the dilemma persists. Stimulant medications like Adderall or Ritalin undeniably enhance focus in the short term for children diagnosed with ADHD.

For a long time, a common belief among parents, fuelled by certain medical opinions, was that the effect of ADHD medication could distinguish an affected child from one without the condition. It was thought that while a child with ADHD would become calmer and more focused with these drugs, a non-ADHD child would react by becoming manic. However, this notion has been debunked by scientific studies that show stimulants improve concentration temporarily for all children, regardless of an ADHD diagnosis, challenging the simplistic interpretation of the medication’s effects and the nature of the condition itself.

The effectiveness of the medication doesn’t necessarily confirm the presence of a pre-existing biological condition; it simply confirms that you’re experiencing the effects of a stimulant.

Moreover, it’s important to recognise that the early benefits of stimulant medications tend to wane over time. As tolerance to the substance builds, the body adapts and requires increasingly larger doses to achieve the initial level of efficacy. This escalation continues until it reaches the upper limit of what is considered a safe dosage for children.

 

Where does the genetic argument come from?

The high percentages often cited as evidence of ADHD’s genetic roots don’t come from direct genetic analysis. Johann Hari learned that the source is instead twin studies. Researchers compare identical twins (who share almost all their DNA) with fraternal twins (who are no more genetically similar than regular siblings), on the basis of whether both twins in a pair have been diagnosed with ADHD. Since twins are raised in the same environment, the thinking goes, any significant differences in diagnosis rates between identical and fraternal twins might be attributed to genetics.

Consistently, studies show that ADHD is more commonly shared among identical twins than fraternal ones, leading to the assertion of a genetic influence. However, Dr. Jay Joseph, a psychologist, points out a critical flaw in this reasoning. Identical twins often share more similar experiences than fraternal twins, due to factors like spending more time together and being treated more similarly by others. This could mean that it’s these shared experiences, rather than genes, accounting for the observed differences.

Joseph explains that these studies fail to separate genetic influence from environmental factors conclusively. Therefore, the oft-quoted statistics claiming a 75 to 80 percent genetic determination for ADHD could be resting on shaky ground, potentially misrepresentative and misunderstood.

 

14 – Cause Twelve: The Confinement of Our Children, Both Physically and Psychologically

As of 2003, a mere 10 percent of children in the United States engaged in free outdoor play regularly. Modern childhood is predominantly an indoor affair, and even when children play, it is often under adult supervision or within the digital realms of screens.

Enter Lenore Skenazy. While she is not a scientist, she is a fervent activist. Her journey into the exploration of childhood changes was spurred by a personal incident that left a profound impact on her. This event propelled her to collaborate with leading social scientists to examine the implications of these shifts on children’s development. Together, they have been at the forefront of developing and advocating for practical strategies to understand and tackle the growing difficulties children face with concentration.

 

The 5 Elements that are ruining children’s attention.

To really get why things are different for kids today, we need to look at five simple things that have changed, and see what the research says about each one:

      1. Less Exercise – Schools don’t let kids move around as much as they used to.
      2. Less Play – Kids don’t get to play as freely anymore.
      3. More Anxiety – There’s a lot more pressure because of all the tests at school. High-stakes testing engenders increased stress and anxiety.
      4. Lack of Motivation – Schools aren’t great at helping kids find out what they really like to do.
      5. Lack of Mastery – We don’t give kids enough chances to get really good at something they enjoy which is crucial for their self-esteem and motivation.

     

    1 – Less Exercise

    The first point is really clear. There’s a lot of research out there showing that being active—like running around or doing other exercises—helps people focus better. Moving around makes the brain develop and work better. There’s so much proof of this that we can be sure it’s true. If kids don’t get to move as much as they want to, it’s likely that their focus and their brain health will get worse.

     

    2 – Less Play

    To grasp the second big shift – how kids are missing out on play – we need to think about the important stuff they learn when they’re left to play by themselves. When kids are with other kids, without adults, they come up with their own fun. They get creative to invent games, then they have to get the others to join in. They learn to understand others to keep the game fun for everyone.

    Lenore looks up to Dr. Isabel Behncke, a play expert from Chile. She explained to Johann Hari in Scotland that there are three big ways play affects how kids grow. One is their creativity and imagination – this is how they learn to tackle problems and find solutions. The next is making friends – play is how they learn to get along and interact with others. Lastly, it’s about feeling alive – play is how they learn to enjoy life and have fun. The skills kids get from playing aren’t just little extras; they’re what help them become fully-rounded people. Play lays the groundwork, and anything adults teach them later builds on that.

    Nowadays, kids’ playtime is usually controlled by grown-ups, who set the rules and the agenda. Because of this, play has lost a lot of what makes it so valuable, just like how processed food isn’t as nutritious.

    Playing is the best way for kids to learn how to learn. It’s through play that they learn to adapt to new information. In a world where things are always changing, why should we just stuff their heads with facts?

     

    3 – More Anxiety

    Professor Jonathan Haidt, a well-known social psychologist, points out that the increase in anxiety among young people is partly due to the lack of play. Playtime teaches kids how to handle surprises and challenges. Without these opportunities, they might grow up feeling overwhelmed and less equipped to deal with life’s uncertainties.

    Another reason for the increase in anxiety among children and teenagers has been attributed the heightened emphasis on high-stakes testing in schools. These tests are designed to measure student achievement, school performance, and even influence teacher evaluations. The consequences of these tests are significant, as they can determine everything from academic advancement to school funding.

     

    4 – Lack of Motivation

    Every person has two types of reasons for doing things. We concentrate better and keep at something longer if we’re doing it because it matters to us personally—these are our intrinsic motivations. On the other hand, if we’re doing something because we have to, or to get a reward later, these are extrinsic motivations and it’s harder to stay focused. Lenore thinks that today’s kids might be missing out on finding their own intrinsic motivations because their lives are mostly run by what adults set for them.

    She wondered how kids can discover what really matters to them when their entire day is scheduled with what others think is important. “How can you find what you truly care about if you never have the time to explore and see what excites you? Without that time, finding meaning is tough.”

    If adults are always directing your attention, how can you learn to focus on your own? How will you discover the things that truly capture your interest and motivate you from within? These intrinsic motivations are key for developing the ability to focus.

     

    5 -Lack of Mastery

    The fifth way we’re making it hard for kids to focus is linked to their self-confidence. Jan Tonnesvang, a psychology professor in Denmark, explains that feeling like we’re skilled at something is really important. This feeling is called “mastery.” When you know you’re good at something, it’s much easier to keep your attention on it. But if you think you’re not good at anything, it’s hard to focus — like a snail shrinks when you put salt on it.

    Our schools often don’t help with this. They focus on a few subjects, and this can make many kids (it seems like boys especially) feel like they can’t do anything right. They go to school and come home feeling like they just can’t succeed at anything.

     

    Hunter-gatherer learning

    Professor Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, shared some insights with Johann Hari about how children have learned throughout most of human history. His research looked at kids in hunter-gatherer cultures, which is how all humans lived until quite recently in our evolutionary past. In these societies, children learn without strict lessons or schedules. They play, wander around, copy what adults do, ask many questions, and gradually get good at various tasks without a lot of formal teaching.

    Children are naturally curious and want to understand the world around them. They are built to learn, and they do it best when they are free to follow what interests them. Their main way of learning is through unrestricted play.

     

    Creating a better environment

    After understanding all of these factors, it’s evident that children have fundamental requirements that we, as the grown-ups in their lives, are responsible for fulfilling.

    Unfortunately, in today’s society, we’re failing to meet these essential needs. We’re restricting their opportunities for spontaneous play, confining them within the walls of our homes with little to engage with beyond electronic screens, and subjecting them to an education system that often stifles their enthusiasm and bores them. We’re also providing them with diets that can lead to energy slumps and include additives that might make them overactive, all the while lacking in the essential nutrients their developing brains need. Additionally, we’re allowing them to be exposed to environmental chemicals that can interfere with their brain function.

    This constitutes a significant oversight in the environment we’ve constructed for our children.

     

    Conclusion Attention Rebellion

     

    Layers of Attention

    James Williams, a former Google strategist, has identified three forms of attention, all of which he believes are being stolen in the modern era.

    The first layer, he explains, is your “spotlight” attention. This involves focusing on immediate actions, such as making coffee or finding your glasses. If this form of attention is disrupted, it prevents you from carrying out near-term tasks.

    The second layer is your “starlight” attention. This pertains to the focus you apply to longer-term goals or projects. It’s called “starlight” because you look up to the stars when you feel lost, reminding yourself of the direction you’re heading in. If you become distracted from your starlight, you lose sight of these long-term goals.

    The third layer is your “daylight” attention. This form of focus enables you to understand your long-term goals in the first place. How do you know you want to set up a business or be a good parent? Without the ability to reflect and think clearly, these larger goals become unclear.

    Williams believes that losing your daylight is the most profound form of distraction, leading to a state of “decoherence”. This is when you stop making sense to yourself because you lack the mental space to understand your own narrative. You might become obsessed with minor goals or overly dependent on external validation, like retweets.

    According to Williams, finding your starlight and daylight requires sustained periods of reflection, mind-wandering, and deep thought. He argues that our attention crisis is depriving us of all three forms of focus; we are losing our light.

    The Fourth Layer

    Johann hypothesises the existence of a fourth form of attention, which he likens to stadium lights. This metaphor represents our capacity to perceive one another, engage in meaningful communication, and collaboratively establish and advocate for shared objectives.

     

    Johann Hari made six big changes after his research:

    Firstly, he implemented pre-commitment strategies to reduce task-switching.

    Secondly, he transformed his approach to distraction. Instead of self-reproach, he now engages in constructive self-dialogue, asking himself questions like: “What can I do now to enter a flow state and access my deep focus? What meaningful activity can I engage in? What aligns with my abilities? How can I meet these criteria now?”

    Thirdly, after learning about social media’s design to hijack our attention spans, he now opts to take six-month breaks from social media each year.

    Fourthly, he recognised the importance of mind-wandering. Contrary to seeing it as a lack of focus, he understands that it is a vital form of attention that facilitates processing past events, envisaging the future, and connecting different learned concepts.

    Fifthly, he transitioned from perceiving sleep as a luxury or adversary to prioritising eight hours of sleep each night.

    Sixthly, as a significant figure in the lives of his godchildren and young relatives, he shifted from organising busy, educational activities to allowing more freedom for unstructured play, without the constraints of excessive supervision or management.

     

    Johann Hari says we would start with three big, bold goals.

    Firstly, we need to prohibit surveillance capitalism, as the practice of hacking and deliberately addicting individuals impedes their ability to concentrate.

    Secondly, the implementation of a four-day workweek is essential, as individuals who are perpetually tired are unable to maintain focus.

    Thirdly, it is crucial to redesign childhood to allow children the freedom to play in their communities and at school. Restricting children to their homes hinders their capacity to develop a healthy attention span.

    The reality is, most people are not seeking a fast-paced life; rather, they desire a fulfilling life. At the end of one’s journey, reflections are not on contributions to economic growth, but on the quality and richness of one’s life experiences.