Book Summary: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari

Quick Summary: Johann Hari identifies twelve major factors that are contributing to our collective loss of concentration and shortening our attention span in Stolen Focus (2022). Hari explains how all of these forces have combined to create a perfect storm that is stealing our attention. As we become addicted to fast-paced social media sites, our sleep suffers, we become mentally and physically exhausted, and we lose interest in slow-paced activities like reading, meditation, and free play. Surveillance capitalism thrives on capturing our attention, but Hari outlines ways we can fight back.

You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book summary provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.

Let’s get started without further ado.

Stolen Focus Book Summary

Attention Crisis

People all over the world are finding it increasingly difficult to focus on a single task in the twenty-first century because so many things compete for their attention. When you go to a museum, you almost never see people looking at the art. Instead, they take selfies with the artworks and post them on social media. Younger people, in particular, find it difficult to break free from the shackles of their phones. They spend so much time on social media because they are afraid of missing out that they miss out on actually living. But it doesn’t stop with teenagers. Johann Hari, at the age of 40, has struggled to focus and be present. Even Roy Baumeister, a 66-year-old researcher who has extensively researched willpower and published a book on the subject, admitted to Hari that his ability to focus was fading.

The attention crisis, like the obesity epidemic, is a result of our changing environment. Obesity is unavoidable for some people who are forced to eat cheap processed foods and work extremely hard in sedentary occupations due to today’s food supply and difficulties in maintaining regular physical activity. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself because gaining weight and losing concentration aren’t usually considered personal flaws. Instead, conduct research to better understand the problem and how to solve it.

According to research, there are twelve factors that reduce the human capacity to focus. Several of these forces have grown significantly in recent decades. On the plus side, the attention problem can be solved through a series of concrete steps that you can take on an individual basis.

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Speed and Switching

The first factor is the increased speed of our lives, which causes us to constantly switch and filter our focus. When presented with more data, people tend to focus less on a single piece of information. According to scientific studies, attention spans have been decreasing since the invention of the internet. We receive information more quickly than ever before. We are constantly inundated with information, data, stimuli, messages, and notifications vying for our attention. As a result, our brains struggle to filter out the noise and maintain attention switching between tasks.

This constant switching has three negative effects on one’s ability to focus. The first is the cost of switching. If you frequently check your messages while working, you’re wasting not only the minutes you spend reading them, but also the time it takes to refocus, which could be much longer. The screw-up effect is the second way switching disrupts your concentration. The human brain is prone to errors by nature, and switching between activities increases the likelihood of making mistakes you would not otherwise make. Finally, you will experience a creative drain. You have a much lower level of imagination. When you devote a large portion of your brain’s processing power to switching and error-correction, your brain has fewer opportunities to wander off and generate creative ideas.

Reaching Flow

The second factor is that you are not in a flow state. When you’re in flow, you’re immersed in a unique psychological state that is anchored in the present and in which your self-consciousness and ego vanish. You merge with your task. Unless you try very hard, being in flow is nearly impossible to achieve in today’s extremely fast-paced world. This necessitates three essential components.

The first step is to establish a well-defined goal. You must commit to achieving it and put your other goals on hold. Monotasking, or focusing on only one task at a time, is the only way to achieve a state of flow. Distraction and multitasking destroy flow, and no one can achieve it if they are attempting to do more than one thing at the same time. To achieve flow, you must devote all of your mental resources to a single goal.

Second, you must be involved in activities that are personally meaningful to you. Humans, for the most part, evolved to focus their attention on what is important to them. When you force yourself to work on something that has no meaning for you, your attention frequently wanders.

Third, doing a task that tests but does not exceed your abilities can be beneficial. A goal that is too easy will not stimulate your flow, while a goal that is too difficult will cause you to become anxious and unfocused.

Sleep Well

The third factor is physical and mental exhaustion, which is primarily caused by our lack of sleep. It is widely acknowledged in the scientific community that sleeping too little impairs your ability to pay attention. Even minor sleep deprivation has negative consequences. Charles Czeisler, a sleep expert, discovered that when you are tired, your brain enters a “local sleep” state in which it is partially awake and partially asleep. When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies react as if we’re in a state of emergency. Short-term and long-term focus are both reduced.

Until the invention of the light bulb, human life revolved around the cycle of the sun. Humans can now control light, which has an effect on their internal rhythms. To change this, limit the amount of light you are exposed to before going to bed. You should also limit your exposure to screens and avoid bringing them into your bedroom at least a few hours before going to bed.

The Decline of Reading

The fourth factor is the decline in our reading ability. According to the American Time Use Survey, the percentage of Americans who read a book for pleasure has dropped by 40% since 2004. Furthermore, the book market has declined by 40% since 1978.

Reading books teaches us to read in a specific and linear pattern, concentrating on one thing for an extended period of time. Using a screen, on the other hand, teaches us to read in a different way. We rush from one item to the next, scanning the data in front of us to find what we need. Unfortunately, prolonged screen reading has a negative impact on our ability to read on paper. Skimming and scanning habits transfer to paper and become the norm. As a result, reading takes on a new meaning; it ceases to be a delightful engagement in an alternate universe and becomes akin to rushing through a crowded store to get what you need and then leaving. When our screen reading habits are transferred to paper, books become less appealing.

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Let Your Mind Wander

The fifth factor is that we no longer allow or cannot allow our minds to wander. We are constantly rushing around, focusing on the outside world and distracting ourselves with tasks, distractions, and entertainment. We never give our minds the breathing space they need to wander. And, while mind-wandering may sound like the definition of being distracted, it is actually a necessary process.

Three things occur during a state of mind-wandering. First, you begin to rationalize your surroundings. Allowing your mind to wander will help you be more effective at setting and achieving personal goals, coming up with new ideas, and making long-term decisions. Allowing your thoughts to wander and slowly making sense of your existence will help you perform better.

Second, allowing your mind to wander allows it to form new connections between ideas and thoughts, which can often solve problems. Third, while wandering, your mind will engage in “mental time-travel.” It examines your past and makes predictions about your future. When you are free of the constraints of only thinking about what is right in front of you, your mind will begin to consider what might come next—and will help prepare you for it.

Surveillance Capitalism

The rise of surveillance capitalism, which is technology that tracks your every move and uses it against you, is the sixth factor. Your words are scanned, categorized, and saved every time you use Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or Google to send a message or change your status. A profile of you is being created with the intention of selling it to marketers. For example, if you send an email mentioning that you need to buy diapers, Gmail will recognize that you are a new parent and will target you with advertisements for baby supplies.

Surveillance capitalism is the economic model used by digital corporations, and it is constantly being refined in order to gain a better understanding of us and our behaviors. As part of their business strategy, they develop applications and websites designed to increase distraction. They rely on you spending the majority of your time on their websites in order to generate revenue from the advertisements they serve to you.

Surveillance capitalism harms our attention in six ways. For starters, our brains have been programmed to expect regular rewards from websites and applications. Through likes and comments, we seek the attention and approval of others. If you’ve been hooked into this system, you’ll find yourself reaching for your phone more than usual. Taking time away from your job and relationships to obtain retweets will become a habit.

Second, these platforms encourage you to switch between activities and apps more frequently than you would otherwise. According to research, this is just as bad for your ability to think clearly as being drunk.

Third, these services learn exactly what you enjoy doing and how you prefer to spend your time. Sites continue to feed you content that will keep you engaged based on your previous browsing habits in order to keep you scrolling. Traditional media, such as print or television, could never target you in this way. Fourth, these sites want to make you angry in order to keep you interested. Researchers have been conducting trials for years to demonstrate how anger impairs your ability to pay attention. Fifth, these sites give you the impression that you are surrounded by other people’s rage. When you come here, you get the impression that you are in a hostile environment, which makes you more cautious. Slower activities, such as reading a novel or playing with your children, become increasingly difficult to engage in as your focus shifts to looking for threats. Sixth, these sites have set the world on fire, and we must pay attention right now. On social media, fake news spreads faster than true news, making us all more vulnerable to inaccurate information, and society suffers as a result.

Rejecting Cruel Optimism

The seventh factor is cruel optimism, which occurs when people are given a simple and individualistic answer to a complex issue, such as surveillance capitalism, through deceptively optimistic rhetoric. One well-known example is convincing people that by not using plastic straws, they can significantly reduce ocean pollution, when in reality, the harm from plastic straws is negligible in comparison to the massive amount of pollution generated by large factories. Another example is the promotion of web browsers that claim to protect your privacy and not share your information, but do nothing to address the broader issue of surveillance capitalism.

Cruel optimism assumes that we can’t change the systems that disrupt our concentration, so we must instead concentrate on improving our isolated selves. But why must we accept this as the norm? Isn’t it absurd that we surround ourselves with things designed to addict and enrage us? We must be honest and admit that most of us will not be able to get out of this hole using only individual solutions. The forces that are stealing our attention must be confronted and forced to change.

We appear to be in the midst of a race between the increasing power of intrusive technology and a collective movement demanding that technology serve us rather than the other way around. Advocates for humane technology argue that only government regulation can change the social media business model. Ending surveillance capitalism may appear impossible, but the feminist movement has shown that even seemingly intransigent forces can be overcome. After all, while Big Tech today wields enormous power, it arguably pales in comparison to men’s collective power in 1962; however, it was still possible to challenge that power back then, and thus it is possible to challenge surveillance capitalists today.

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A Need for Vigilance

The eighth factor is a sudden increase in stress, which causes us to become more vigilant. To pay attention normally, you must feel secure. Rather than constantly scanning the horizon for threats, you should be able to switch off those parts of your brain and concentrate on a single, safe issue.

However, if you find yourself in a dangerous situation, you must keep an eye out for signs of danger all around you. With stress coming at us from all sides, we lose the ability to focus on the safe things that aren’t in immediate danger.

Bad Diets, Worse Pollution

The ninth and tenth factors, which are deteriorating diets and increasing pollution, go hand in hand. In the last two generations, there has been a significant shift in one of the most fundamental aspects of being human: what we consume. Because it causes energy surges and collapses, our current diet causes us to lose concentration. Our children’s concentration will improve if we stop feeding them sugary and processed carbohydrates. Our diets also impair concentration by depriving us of the minerals and vitamins we require to function properly.

The majority of the pollution we encounter is in the form of particles in the air we breathe, and these particles affect our brains. These findings are especially concerning for children, whose brains are still developing. Despite the well-documented dangers of lead exposure, which have been known since at least ancient Rome, it was added in large quantities to gasoline in the early twentieth century. As a result, between 1927 and 1987, approximately 68 million American children were exposed to hazardous levels of lead through the use of leaded gasoline. According to research, lead exposure significantly reduces your ability to concentrate and pay attention. If you were exposed to lead in the air as a child, you are 2.5 times more likely to have ADHD.

The eleventh factor is the rise of ADHD. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of ADHD diagnoses in the United States increased by 43%. ADHD is currently diagnosed in 13% of teenagers in the United States. Because the problem multiplies, it will only get worse. When small children become upset or angry, they require the comfort and assistance of an adult. When children are properly cared for, they eventually learn to calm themselves. Stressed parents, on the other hand, find it difficult to calm their children because they cannot calm themselves. Their children do not learn how to relax and center themselves. As a result, when faced with adversity, their children are more likely to become angry or upset, which may impair their ability to concentrate.

Kids Who Don’t Play

The twelfth and final factor is the decline in childhood free play. Free play teaches children how to interact with others, socialize, and experience joy and pleasure. They also learn how to deal with exclusion and how to develop new games. However, significant changes in childhood have occurred over the last thirty years. By 2003, only 10% of children in the United States spent time outside freely on a regular basis.

Childhood is now mostly spent behind closed doors, and when children do get to play, it is either supervised or done through screens. Unrestricted experimentation and play have all but vanished. How can you improve your attention if it is constantly regulated by others? How do you find out what interests you? How do you discover your inner motivations, which are so important in honing your focus?

Reclaiming Our Attention

We will remain an attention deficit society if we are chronically sleep deprived and overworked, switch tasks every few minutes, are monitored and surveilled on social media, and eat diets that cause our energy levels to spike and crash. There is, however, another option. We must band together and fight back against the forces that are directing our attention.

Taking back our attention could look like this. The first step is to make surveillance capitalism illegal. Second, add a third rest day to the work week so that no one is too tired to concentrate. Third, we must reimagine childhood as a place where children can play freely, both at home and at school. Individuals’ ability to pay attention will greatly improve if we achieve these goals. Then we’ll have a solid core of concentration to drive the battle further and deeper.

Stolen Focus Book Review

Johann Hari’s writing is interesting, if a little disjointed. He frequently switches between topics and ideas, which is ironic given that constant switching is the first factor of attention loss he discusses. Unlike other books in the genre, the chapters lack a defined structure. Hari overuses the em dash, which appears more than 1,200 times in the book.

About The Author

Johann Hari is a British-Swiss author and journalist. He graduated from King’s College, Cambridge, with a degree in social and political sciences. He’s written for the Huffington Post and the Independent, both of which suspended him after he admitted to plagiarism and fabrication.

Stolen Focus is not intended to be a self-help book that promises improved focus by following a few simple steps, and Hari admits that he still struggles with staying focused. He would rather raise awareness of the main factors that reduce focus and emphasize the importance of taking action against surveillance capitalism.

Stolen Focus Quotes

“When the all-clear sounded in the mornings, people would leave politely and go to work. ”

“When he was thirteen, he quit school, because he couldn’t see how all this adult wisdom was going to help him when it had driven European civilisation off a cliff. He found his own way to Rome, and he started working as a translator in that trashed, half-starved city. ”

“When they finished, the object, the outcome was not important. ”

“What was so enthralling about painting was something about ‘the process of painting itself’–but what. ”

“Until his research, professional psychology in the US had been focused either on when things go wrong – when you’re mentally distressed – or on the manipulative vision of B. F. Skinner. ”

View our larger collection of the best Stolen Focus quotes

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