95. The 10 Most Important Quotes from Johann Hari's "Stolen Focus"
Key takeaways from Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again
For the past few years, I’ve felt a primal urge to disengage from the world around me. This inner restlessness is strongest when I’m in public and forced to witness the current state of our culture and values—garbage littering the streets, people Face-timing without headphones, rampant obesity, fourteen year old girls with false eyelashes and lip injections. It’s all inner pain manifested in the physical world, fueled by a system preying on people’s vulnerabilities to make money.
Bit of a bitch for cultivating happiness, eh?
As much as I see evidence of generational cultural improvement—for example, the expansion of gay and women’s rights over the past 50 years (save for the recent Supreme Court idiocy)—the cynic in me doubts we’ll see meaningful change in our lifetime when it comes to the environment, mental health, and ethical technological application. CO2 emissions, Big Pharma, and AI aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The speed, money, and power generated from these industries is simply too persuasive under the current system. Perhaps a shift will occur one day, but for now, it seems to me that the real game is figuring out how to thrive as an individual in a toxic environment.
Enter Johann Hari and his new-ish book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How To Think Deeply Again. It’s one of the may books I’ve been reading when I retreat back into my sanctuary to think about how in the hell I’m going to maintain my sanity in a world so far removed from our animal nature.
It’s also a book that sat on my shelf for a long time because I said to myself, “I just wrote and published a book. My focus is just fine.”
Except, in the months since MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS came out, I’ve been a scattered mess. No queue without a scroll through Instagram. No stoplight without an email check. No evening without an iPad.
Finally, after a conversation with a client who told me how he’s been leaving his phone at home and walking to his local library just to have a long stretch of uninterrupted time, I realized it was time for me to address my hijacked attention span.
Stolen Focus is one of the most powerful books I’ve read about living in the modern world. I encourage all of you to buy a hardcopy and read it in full (and I stress the hardcopy part, as opposed to an ebook or audio. People understand and remember less of what they read on screens.) But given that time is currency and that people just don’t read much any more (over 50% of Americans didn’t read a single book in 2022), I’m featuring ten of what I believe to be the most important quotes from Johann’s work. I hope these ideas will get you thinking about the world you live in and encourage you to take control and make active changes in your life and the life of your children.
On the breakdown of democracy:
“Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attentional long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions, and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver them…people who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions—and less likely to see clearly when they fail.”
On why time seems to be speeding up:
“In 1986, if you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being—TV, radio, reading—it amounted to 40 newspapers’ worth of information every day. By 2007, they found it had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. The increase in volume of information is what creates the sensation of the world speeding up.”
On why more information does not mean a better society:
Physicist Sune Lehmann, a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science said of the increase in perceived speed, “ ‘What we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth. Depth connected to your work in relationships also takes time…all these things that require depth are suffering. It’s pulling us more and more up onto the surface.”
Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology, phsiology, and psychiatry at the Univeristy of California explained it this way: “Think of your brain as like a nightclub where, standing at the front of that club, there’s a bouncer. The bouncer’s job is to filter out most of the stimuli that are hitting you at any given moment—the traffic noise, the couple having an argument across the street, the cellphone ringing in the pocket of the person next to you—so that you can think coherently about one thing at a time. The bouncer is essential. This ability to filter out irrelevant information is crucial if you are going to be able to attend to your goals…In addition to switching tasks like never before, our brains are also being forced to filter more frantically than at any point in our past…The bouncer is overwhelmed, and the nightclub becomes full of rowdy assholes disrupting the normal dancing.”
On why you should really care about your ability to pay attention:
“Sune [Lehmann] had seen a photograph of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, standing in front of a room of people who were all reaching virtual reality headsets. He was the only person standing in actual reality, looking at them, smiling, pacing proudly around. When he saw it, Sune said, ‘I was like—holy shit, this is a metaphor for the future.’ If we don’t change course, he fears we are headed toward a world where ‘there’s going to be an upper class of people that are very aware’ of the risks to their attention and find ways to live within their limits, and then there will be the rest of society with ‘fewer resources to resist the manipulation, and they’re going to be living more and more inside their computers, being manipulated more and more.’ ”
On why you should engage in deliberately slow practices like yoga, tai chi, or meditation:
“If you go too fast, you overload your abilities and they degrade. But when you practice moving at a speed that is compatible with human nature—and you build that into your daily life—you begin to train your attention and focus. Slowness nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.”
On why multi-tasking is a myth that leads to creativity drain:
“When people think they’re doing several things at once, they’re actually “juggling” as Professor Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains. He continues, “ ‘They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because the brain sort of papers it over, to give a seamless experience of consciousness…but if you spend a lot of this brain processing time switching and error correcting, you are simply giving your brain less opportunity to follow your associate links down to new places and really [have] truly original and creative thoughts.’ “
In short: “If you spend your time switching along, then the evidence suggests you’ll be slower, you’ll make more mistakes, you’ll be less creative, and you’ll remember less of what you do.”
On distracted driving:
“The cognitive neuroscientist Dr. David Strayer at the University of Utah conducted detailed research where he got people to use driving simulators and tracked how safe their driving was when they were distracted by technology—something as simple as their phone receiving a text. It turned out their level of impairment was “very similar” to if they were drunk. The distraction all around us isn't just annoying, it’s deadly: around one in five car accidents are now due to a distracted driver.”
On the manipulation of light and how it affects sleep:
“We evolved to get a rush of energy when the sun began to set. This was very helpful to our ancestors…[who] got a fresh rush of energy just as the light waned so they could safely get back to their tribe and finish the things they needed to do that day. But now we control the light. We decide when the sunset happens. So if we keep bright lights switched on right until the moment we decided to go to sleep, or we watch TV on our phones in bed, when we switch them off we accidentally trigger a physical process—our bodies think this budding waning of light is the arrival of sunset, so they release a rush of fresh energy to help you get back to your cave.”
Johann spends a good chunk of the book exploring the ADHD topic, but in my opinion, it boils down to the following:
“To pay attention in normal ways, you need to feel safe. When children can’t pay attention, it’s often a signal that they are under terrible stress. If you’re medicating a child in that situation, you’re colluding with them remaining in a violent or unacceptable situation.”
On the hypocrisy of Big Tech:
Aza Raskin, former creative lead at Firefox, designed the now-ubiquitous “infinite scroll” that keeps content continuous on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. What started off as a way to make browsing more convenient has now been usurped by Big Tech to keep eyeballs on screens, because “the longer you make people look at their phones, the more advertising they see—and therefore the more money Google gets.”
Aza says, “one of the ironies is there are these incredibly popular workshops at Facebook and Google about mindfulness–about creating the mental space to make decisions nonreactively—and they are also the biggest perpetrators of non-mindfulness in the world.”
Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former Vice President of growth, explained in a speech that the effects [of Facebook] “are so negative that his kids ‘aren’t allowed to use that shit.’”
James Williams, former Google strategist, once “addressed an audience of hundreds of leading tech designers and asked them a simple question: ‘How many of you want to live in the world you are designing?’ There was a silence in the room. People looked around them. Nobody put up their hand.”
✈️ Upcoming Event
I will be part of a panel in Virginia Beach on January 26, 2023 to discuss society’s over reliance on psychiatric drugs. The event will be held in conjunction with the documentary Medicating Normal and the Richard Scott Fee Foundation. Details available here.