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Stolen Focus
Cover of Stolen Focus
Stolen Focus
Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again
Borrow Borrow
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Our ability to pay attention is collapsing. From the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections comes a groundbreaking examination of why this is happening—and how to get our attention back.
“The book the world needs in order to win the war on distraction.”—Adam Grant, author of Think Again

“Read this book to save your mind.”—Susan Cain, author of Quiet

 
WINNER OF THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Post, Mashable, Mindful
In the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for only sixty-five seconds at a time, and office workers average only three minutes. Like so many of us, Johann Hari was finding that constantly switching from device to device and tab to tab was a diminishing and depressing way to live. He tried all sorts of self-help solutions—even abandoning his phone for three months—but nothing seemed to work. So Hari went on an epic journey across the world to interview the leading experts on human attention—and he discovered that everything we think we know about this crisis is wrong.
 
We think our inability to focus is a personal failure to exert enough willpower over our devices. The truth is even more disturbing: our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. Hari found that there are twelve deep causes of this crisis, from the decline of mind-wandering to rising pollution, all of which have robbed some of our attention. In Stolen Focus, he introduces readers to Silicon Valley dissidents who learned to hack human attention, and veterinarians who diagnose dogs with ADHD. He explores a favela in Rio de Janeiro where everyone lost their attention in a particularly surreal way, and an office in New Zealand that discovered a remarkable technique to restore workers’ productivity.
 
Crucially, Hari learned how we can reclaim our focus—as individuals, and as a society—if we are determined to fight for it. Stolen Focus will transform the debate about attention and finally show us how to get it back.
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • Our ability to pay attention is collapsing. From the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream and Lost Connections comes a groundbreaking examination of why this is happening—and how to get our attention back.
“The book the world needs in order to win the war on distraction.”—Adam Grant, author of Think Again

“Read this book to save your mind.”—Susan Cain, author of Quiet

 
WINNER OF THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Post, Mashable, Mindful
In the United States, teenagers can focus on one task for only sixty-five seconds at a time, and office workers average only three minutes. Like so many of us, Johann Hari was finding that constantly switching from device to device and tab to tab was a diminishing and depressing way to live. He tried all sorts of self-help solutions—even abandoning his phone for three months—but nothing seemed to work. So Hari went on an epic journey across the world to interview the leading experts on human attention—and he discovered that everything we think we know about this crisis is wrong.
 
We think our inability to focus is a personal failure to exert enough willpower over our devices. The truth is even more disturbing: our focus has been stolen by powerful external forces that have left us uniquely vulnerable to corporations determined to raid our attention for profit. Hari found that there are twelve deep causes of this crisis, from the decline of mind-wandering to rising pollution, all of which have robbed some of our attention. In Stolen Focus, he introduces readers to Silicon Valley dissidents who learned to hack human attention, and veterinarians who diagnose dogs with ADHD. He explores a favela in Rio de Janeiro where everyone lost their attention in a particularly surreal way, and an office in New Zealand that discovered a remarkable technique to restore workers’ productivity.
 
Crucially, Hari learned how we can reclaim our focus—as individuals, and as a society—if we are determined to fight for it. Stolen Focus will transform the debate about attention and finally show us how to get it back.
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  • From the cover

    Chapter One

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

    I don’t understand what you’re asking for,” the man in Target in Boston kept saying to me. “These are the cheapest phones we got. They have super-slow internet. That’s what you want, right?” No, I said. I want a phone that can’t access the internet at all. He studied the back of the box, looking confused. “This would be really slow. You could probably get your email but you wouldn’t—” Email is still the internet, I said. I am going away for three months, specifically so I can be totally offline.

    My friend Imtiaz had already given me his old, broken laptop, one that had lost the ability to get online years before. It looked like it came from the set of the original Star Trek, a remnant from some aborted vision of the future. I was going to use it, I had resolved, to finally write the novel I had been planning for years. Now what I needed was a phone where I could be called in emergencies by the six people I was going to give the number to. I needed it to have no internet option of any kind, so that if I woke up at 3 a.m. and my resolve cracked and I tried to get online, I wouldn’t be able to do it, no matter how hard I tried.

    When I explained to people what I was planning, I would get one of three responses. The first was just like that of this man in Target: they couldn’t seem to process what I was saying. They thought I was saying that I was going to cut back on my internet use. The idea of going offline completely seemed to them so bizarre that I had to explain it again and again. “So you want a phone that can’t go online at all?” he said. “Why would you want that?”

    The second response—which this man offered next—was a kind of low-level panic on my behalf. “What will you do in an emergency?” he asked. “It doesn’t seem right.” I asked—what emergency will require me to get online? What’s going to happen? I’m not the president of the United States—I don’t have to issue orders if Russia invades Ukraine. “Anything,” he said. “Anything could happen.” I kept explaining to the people my age—I was thirty-nine at the time—that we had spent half our lives without phones, so it shouldn’t be so hard to picture returning to the way we had lived for so long. Nobody seemed to find this persuasive.

    And the third response was envy. People began to fantasize about what they would do with all the time they spent on their phones if it was all suddenly freed up. They started by listing the number of hours that Apple’s Screen Time option told them they spent on their phones every day. For the average American, it’s three hours and fifteen minutes. We touch our phones 2,617 times every twenty-four hours. Sometimes they would wistfully mention something they loved and had abandoned—playing the piano, say—and stare off into the distance.

    Target had nothing for me. Ironically, I had to go online to order what seemed to be the last remaining cellphone in the United States that can’t access the web. It’s called the Jitterbug. It’s designed for extremely old people, and it doubles as a medical emergency device. I opened the box and smiled at its giant buttons and told myself that there’s an added bonus: if I fall over, it will automatically connect me to the nearest hospital.

    I laid out on the hotel bed everything I was taking with me. I had gone through all the routine things I normally use my iPhone for,...

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine In this thoughtful essay on our shortening attention spans, British writer Johann Hari shares what he learned from interviewing tech and behavioral science experts around the world. He's a personable writer, vulnerable and humble, and this comes across in his appealing performance. Sounding like someone emerging from a natural disaster, he gently describes how a three-month media fast restored his peace of mind by protecting him from the pernicious enticements big tech builds into its smartphones and media platforms. He says our brains are not wired to resist these algorithms, so we become addicted to our screens rather than meeting the world--and ourselves--more directly. The presentation contains strategies for addressing the personal and social obstacles to more fulfilling ways of being and relating. T.W. � AudioFile 2022, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 8, 2021
    Journalist Hari (Lost Connections) explores a growing “crisis”—people’s inability to focus their attention for extended periods—in this provocative study. He presents data that suggests students switch tasks once every 65 seconds, while adults in offices tend to remain focused on one thing for just three minutes. There are costs to this decrease in attention span, he suggests, from both an intellectual and a productivity perspective, as studies have shown that workers’ IQ dropped by an average of 10 points when they faced frequent “technological distraction” in the form of emails and phone calls. Hari lays out a wide array of environmental factors at play in this decline: technology companies promote innovations to keep people glued to their screens; there’s a large-scale sleep deprivation issue (40% of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived); and overall stress levels have increased—meanwhile, “deteriorating diets and rising pollution” do little to help. Although Hari addresses some actions that readers can take (such as locking phones up in a safe and taking six months off social media), he concludes that the issue is beyond individuals and is a regulatory problem—but his call that people need to band together to build “a movement to reclaim our attention” feels somewhat nebulous. Still, it’s a comprehensive and chilling lay of the land.

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Stolen Focus
Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again
Johann Hari
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