Stolen Focus: A Short Book Review

As I read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel from his work to what I’ve been experiencing over the last few months. I’ve lost sight of the things that matter, and I’m starting to operate in a state of extreme and perpetual chaos. I’m distracted from the things I should be doing – like reading, working out – and instead, I’m filling my day with mundane and pointless activities. I’m unable to read for long stretches without picking up my phone, without switching over to tasks that don’t need doing; the fact that I spend close to four hours a day on average on my phone – without any social media apps on it – is an indication of how frenzied my existence has become. I’m unable to find joy in the things that made me happy, and the only moment of clarity I experience is when I’m watering the plants on the terrace. Through all of this, I kept blaming myself. That something in my head had shifted and I was probably going through a phase, not too dissimilar to ones I’ve experienced in the past. Johann’s book gave me something else to ruminate on… Something that has changed drastically over the last two years of the pandemic. My environment.

Relying on scientific studies, interviews with experts, and personal experience, Johann Hari attempts to make a case for a crisis not recognized – that of our shrinking attention spans and our inability to focus. Johann presents his case in a lucid and accessible manner, never laboring the reader with esoteric and technical details of the studies he references, and always using his personal experiences and ruminations as a navigational tool. Regardless of the anecdotal halo to his book, his work is backed by solid research (as is evident from the 46 pages of end-notes) and anchored in today’s dominant scientific view. He lists 12 causes of this crisis, calling out some obvious ones such as technology and social media, to some less intuitive ones such as the rise of what he calls cruel optimism – the belief that individual changes will be enough to respond to a crisis triggered by a changed and overloaded environment. Meticulous and well-structured, Johann’s work is honest and a joy to read, and it showcases his ability to break down complex problems into smaller, more digestible chunks.

Data points from Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus. Taken out of context, they may not mean much. But if any of these shock you, it might be worthwhile to pick up the book! A key callout is that these are mostly relevant in an American/ British context and not really a global one.

We’re overloaded with information and we’re fighting a losing battle to absorb it. We’re constantly trying to multi-task, thinking of it as a virtue when it’s not. We’re no longer experiencing flow states, periods of unwavering focus on a pleasurable activity. We’re tired and exhausted, anxious and insecure. We’re sleeping less and replacing that with screen time on Instagram or on Netflix. We’ve stopped reading, playing and letting our minds wander. We’re eating food that causes energy spikes and crashes, and breathing air that is literally dulling our senses. And lastly, we’re all trying to find an individual solution to this, harboring a delusion that somehow, holding ourselves accountable is the key to all this. When was the last time we succeeded in limiting our social media use? Or the last time we could read a book without picking up our phones?

Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. Very few things worth saying can be explained in 280 characters. If your response to an idea is immediate, unless you have built up years of expertise on the broader topic, it’s most likely going to be shallow and uninteresting.

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