Book review of Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Stolen Focus is partly a personal account of the author’s life experiment of getting off the internet for 3 months.  He managed to find, with some difficulty, a phone that did not connect to the internet at all (even for email), and moved to Provincetown, MA where he went through emotional stages of relief, adjustment, withdrawal, and eventually feeling far more peaceful, creative, and centered. For me, this personal report was the most engaging, and probably beneficial part of the book, and I’d estimate that it comprises 25% of the book.

The rest of it (also good) is a combination of scientific journalism and persuasive writing that makes a case for how modern life has “stolen” a great deal of the focus and attention of most humans.  The book is organized into topics including technology/social media, anxiety/trauma and stress, nutrition, sleep, and others. 

While I don’t agree with all of the author’s ideas and prescriptions for how to fix the problem of stolen focus (such as making social media platforms into public utilities), I do think that he is an engaging writer and a self-aware person who was able to successfully weave together his personal experience, relevant and interesting science, surprising information and stats, and his own analysis, to present and convey a more thorough and conscious understanding of focus and attention: what cultivates it and what impedes it – both internally, and in our social, emotional, and mental environments.

It has been a few weeks since I finished the book, so many of the details have already left me, but a few takeaways that still remain are:

  • The author’s comparison of how bad news used to spread (slowly and through word of mouth and slow printed and dispersed documents) and how it spreads now (he gives the examples of mass shooting being live-streamed worldwide), which inundates us with information – often stressful and outside of our control.  This leaves us with a feeling of overwhelm and fatigue, which prevents us from focusing on the positive in our lives and what we can control and improve.
  • The fact that information flows more quickly now, and so people spend far less time on any piece of information to deeply understand it, instead always moving on to the next issue or concern (usually distant and removed from our lives), causing us to see much but understand little, and leaving us feeling confused and disoriented.
  • The idea that social media algorithms only care about keeping us on their platforms.  They do not care what we feel, but it so happens that human, “negativity bias” leads us to engage and stay on platforms that show us anger and anxiety-provoking content.  If we were shown happy and peaceful content, we’d spend less time on them, so our apps and content providers are usually “trying” to upset us.
  • The author points out that stress and anxiety causes our attention to broaden and become “hypervigilant”, and how a society that feels unsafe and is unsafe for many (physically or economically) leads to a type of attention that shifts more rapidly and is spread thin, to scan for threat and danger.  A deep and effective focus on a task or project requires some level of relaxation, safety, and ease – so we can immerse ourselves in a creative or productive pursuit by leaving our survival concerns aside for extended lengths of time.  A society that cannot provide a basic level of physical and economic security for it’s people will be a society that lacks effective focus and attention.
  • A focus only on individual responsibility (e.g. to stay away from phones) but that does not address the sociological factors that steal the focus of the masses, can be compared to relying on gasmasks to not breathe pollution.  At a certain point, the pollution problem should be addressed at a collective level.

In summary, I think anyone who feels they struggle with focus and attention problems (probably most people today) could benefit from this book.  It strikes a good balance between individual changes we can make, and increasing awareness of environmental obstacles and focus “pollutants” (e.g. technology, economic problems, etc) that present formidable challenges for anyone who is trying to live a consciously focused life.

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