Why You Can't Pay Attention
by Johann Hari
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 6 Jan 2022 | Archive Date 10 Jan 2022
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ), Bloomsbury Publishing
'A really important book . . . Everyone should read it' PHILIPPA PERRY
'A beautifully researched and argued exploration of the breakdown of humankind's ability to pay attention' STEPHEN FRY
'This mind-blowing book explains everything. Read it and be free' SIMON AMSTELL
'Rings the alarm bell for what all of us must do to protect ourselves, our children and our democracies' HILLARY CLINTON
Why have we lost our ability to focus? What are the causes? And, most importantly, how do we get it back?
For Stolen Focus, internationally bestselling author Johann Hari went on a three-year journey to uncover the reasons why our teenagers now focus on one task for only 65 seconds, and why office workers on average manage only three minutes. He interviewed the leading experts in the world on attention, and learned that everything we think about this subject is wrong.
We think our inability to focus is a personal failing - a flaw in each one of us. It is not. This has been done to all of us by powerful external forces. Our focus has been stolen. Johann discovered there are twelve deep cases of this crisis, all of which have robbed some of our attention. He shows us how in a thrilling journey that ranges from Silicon Valley dissidents, to a favela in Rio where attention vanished, to an office in New Zealand that found a remarkable way to restore our attention.
Crucially, he learned how - as individuals, and as a society - we can get our focus back, if we are determined to fight for it.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 33 members
I was unsure at the start how interesting this book would be, with the writer leaving behind his internet connection for three months, but taking Podcasts with him, which seemed a big contradiction. I felt as if the book was going to be about his personal experiment and that I would be reading it with some irritation, but he did quickly realize that they are just one more distraction from the real world and put them aside. Once the book settled into the science of how and why the world has lost its focus, I settled into the book.
I found that there were many moments when I was nodding in agreement, for example about feeling so much better after doing something concrete rather than fiddling about on social media, or in my case playing just one more game of Scrabble. I already feel the power of the smart phone, despite only buying one a few months ago, having become increasingly aware that more and more things could only be done via an app, so I eventually succumbed. I could also strongly relate to his attempt to buy a mobile phone that was just a phone. When I did this myself a few years ago, the sales person reluctantly produced one from under the counter, as if it were something to be ashamed off.
Books are often described as being impossible to put down, a phrase more usually applied to works of fiction, but this was one such book for me. I felt that I was learning on every page, sometimes new things, sometimes confirmation and explanation of things that I already know or had strongly suspected.
I liked that the writer looked at both sides of many arguments and examined the conflicting results of scientific study, though I did feel there were gaps here and there. For example, he concludes that reading fiction increases empathy, which I am sure is true of many novels, but I did wonder about the omission of the effects on readers of horror and violent fiction. A caveat here would have been welcome.
The book vividly describes the extent to which people's minds are being manipulated by the social media giants. Of course I did know this to a degree, but when it's explained in so much detail and so clearly, it is deeply shocking that without their knowledge people are making choices which they think stem from their own free will but in fact are forced on them so cleverly by the tech companies.
With chapters on pollution, stress as a cause of ADHD, lack of sleep, long working hours, poor diet, and failure to allow children the freedom to play, the book explores big and important subjects but in a very readable way without getting bogged down in statistics and science, and it does paint a very worrying and shocking picture of the kind of world man, in his infinite lack of wisdom, has created.
Along the way, solutions are presented to the various topics discussed, but I ended the book feeling more pessimistic than hopeful that a reverse can be achieved.
Again at the end I was somewhat surprised that after all his research the writer still had to lock his phone in a box with a timer in order to give himself time away from it. This is especially frightening, as if a smart phone can exert this sort of pressure on somebody who understands its power, what hope for children?
This is an enormously important book, one that I would urge everybody to read, but particularly parents, grandparents and teachers, so that they can try to guide young people through the minefield that modern life has become.
The premise is that many of us whether young/old rich/poor are suffering from a growing lack of focus - we are becoming unable to concentrate deeply on something other than our phones or tablets for longer than a few minutes. The author argues that this is not a personal failing, but a societal issue, & one that only society as a whole can solve. Don't worry, this isn't a complete bashing of msm saying that we need to throw away all of our electronic devices, the author argues that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with msm, but the way it has taken over our lives is a problem. We have become addicted to these sites for the feedback we get - whether it is likes, hearts, or any type of emoji - & we are like those rats constantly pressing the lever in the cage for treats. Look around you & see how many people are out with friends or family, or even just walking down the street, but are glued to their phones. I know I've been guilty of this.
Other interrelated topics are lack of sleep, pollution, climate change, & one that definitely rang a bell for me - the tendency of people to feel more negative emotions after being online. The reasons for all these issues & the problems they cause for our individual focus, happiness, & wellbeing are explained in an accessible way in the book. As someone who hasn't tackled this subject before, I found the arguments, both for & against, easy to follow. As said before, the solution isn't just individual, & we shouldn't throw out all our devices & live off grid somewhere, but there are small adjustments that people can make individually to perhaps enhance their own life. Societally though, there are big changes needed if these issues are not going to keep getting bigger. Everyone should read this.
My thanks to NetGalley & publishers, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, for the opportunity to read an ARC.
Very informative, would recommend! Thank you for providing an advance copy of this book for review!!
A very interesting and informative well-written book about mental health and society.
It's definitely a book I need and one I will be dipping in and out of over time.
I've found myself far too reliant on my smart phone. looking at one thing on social media, then coming out and then going straight back in. Not sure if that's force of habit or just wanting to see what'd happened in the 30 seconds I was off.
A very interesting and frightening look at how society is manipulated into believing one thing, depending on what the social media sites want us to believe, they show us what to read.
I greatly enjoyed one of Hari's earlier books, 'Lost Connections' about mental health, and a lot of his journalistic flair and focus is on show in this book.
In it, Hari looks at the various reasons underpinning the problems that many of us face with focus, especially given the last couple of years. He deftly avoids the obvious argument of 'it's all phones and social media!' and instead delves more deeply into the various societal problems (environmental collapse, pollution, political instability, growing anxiety, food deserts) that exacerbate the problem.
He does spend some time investigating phones and social media, but in a nuanced way that acknowledges that they are just tools, albeit ones that have been designed to mine data and be highly addictive.
The end of the book is where Hari comes into his own, drawing together the various strands and conclusions from across the book into something substantial and practical- outlining some ways that you can start to wrestle with the issue and bring your own focus back under control.
I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
I haven't read anything on this subject before and found this book to be both fascinating and terrifying. It resonated greatly and is a text I will dip back into.
Definitely a book everyone should put down their smart phone and read.
I'm not a great fan of this kind of book, actually, but I'm grateful to Netgalley for the pre-pub copy and I'm surprised and pleased at how much I enjoyed reading it. Hari is an intelligent, cogent and fluent writer who has made the idea, debates and controversies around the increase in ADHD diagnoses, amongst other issues, a highly compelling read in this book. There is a bit of dancing around (I'm trying not to say 'padding out') with information that isn't new, so if you're familiar with the research around 'focus' and 'attention', you might find yourself skipping though great swathes of this book, but there is some new information and research here that I think could have been developed a bit further. That said, what makes this book is the quality of the writing. Well worth a read. Recommended.
An interesting book mainly dealing with reducing dependency on social media and reconnecting with a more productive life. Some good recommendations But I felt it wasn't that not different to others I have read. Well-written though.
I started reading this book expecting it to be about how social media, and technology in general, has ruined our ability to focus - and indeed the first few chapters were about this issue. But Johann Hari has uncovered so many more aspects of modern life that are contributing to our lack of focus and he looks at all of these in some detail. He has conducted many interviews with researchers in the course of constructing this work and examined their viewpoints, coming to his own conclusions which sometimes agree and sometimes don't.
As a secondary school librarian, constantly battling the distraction of phones, I was initially keen to promote this book to our 6th form students (16-18 year olds) but by the end felt that they would be overwhelmed even more than I was with the task ahead of humanity. This book is, in fact, a call to recognise the focus disrupters as a society so that we can put in place systems and regulations to control their negative effects. That it is going to be a long and arduous battle is readily admitted by Hari.
While I appreciate it is going to be the younger generation that will ultimately need to recognise and take on this task, here and now I think it needs to be delivered in smaller doses to that particular audience.
For the right audience, however, this is a very enlightening book and I will buy it for myself to follow up the suggested actions listed at the end of the book before passing on to other interested parties.
I was offered this book as an ARC and was intrigued to read it as maintaining concentration in the digital world is a complicated issue. The topic particularly resonated when I was interrupted reading a sentence about how an adult is interrupted on average every 3 minutues from the task they are trying to perform. This was only on page 8!
As I am studying a creative arts degree part time, I am particularly interested in the connection between messages and the medium used to convey them. On p79 Hari discusses the impact of social media. I will admit that I am not a fan of social media as I've always struggled to understand how it is possible to have a nuanced discussion on an issue in 280 characters (in the case of twitter). Hari succinctly and clearly outlines potential issues of engaging with the world through the lens (or services) of various social media sites. The only criticism I would have would be that when he did looks at for instance, instagram and summarises the overarching message in the medium as "how you look on the outside", he does not mention how, once this is understood, this can be used to the user's advantage - hence my use of Instagram as a sort of library of artists' work - but that is a very minor issue. The thrust of his argument is that the world is a complex and nuanced place that social media is attempting to simplify.
My original background is in science and computer coding and so I can see how the programmers' may have been naive in their attempts to connect the world. By setting parameters of "success" for a computer such as number of likes or shares, they didn't foresee the problem that computers cannot make a judgement call on the morality of those likes or the veracity (based on peer-reviewed evidence) of articles and statements. These social media sites are acting exactly as they were programmed to behave and I do think it is up to the individual to be aware of these limitations as well as the human instinct to dislike being challenged which can easily descend into us each entering our own echo chamber. After all, who doesn't like to be told they are right?
By page 110, Hari is discussing suggestions for improving the coding such that the services are of more benefit to the user such as batch notifications for emails to create daily rather than instant alerts (there are ways of setting this up) but an argument could be made that like any addiction a person could simply turn off notifications completely and choose to check when it is convenient for them. Similarly, he advocates a warning system that warns you that clicking that friend's photo is likely to distract you for twenty minutes. As someone who is already wondering how much of my life is taken up accepting/rejecting cookies on every website, do I really need to be told that clicking on an image from a friend is likely to distract me further? Truth be told, the fact I am looking at an image feed at all means I know am very likely to already be procrastinating! I can understand the premise that giving the user the extra moment to consider if they really want to do it may make some stop, if you have opened your alcohol cabinet, entered the alcohol aisle in a supermarket or walked into a pub, does the warning label on the bottle really stop you drinking alcohol?
One topic mentioned on p 116 was the invention of the infinite scroll and the discomfort that some programmers felt when they realised the impact it was having. Being of an age where I remember the introduction of this technology, I am highly aware of that devil on your shoulder that says "go on, one more scroll. The best thing you've seen today may just pop up". As soon as I realised that voice was there I put a monitor on my usage and was shocked at how much time was being sucked in even as someone who isn't keen on social media. I now have time-limiting applied to these apps which is something I reco,mend trialling even if it is to make yourself aware of how much time you spend on different activities!
Hari talks to Aza who raises the fact that he was seeing people becoming "more unempathetic, angry and hostile as their social-media use went up" (p116) and I think this does feed into the idea of building your own echo chamber. If you can just delete or dismiss a comment you disagree with or, as seems to be becoming more common, you are never exposed to the opposing viewpoint either because the coding of the site isn't rewarded by providing balance or that peoplewho hold opposing views don't voice them openly for fear of the hassle of a barrage of negative comments (and at worst abuse). It is easier to type a negative reaction to a comment online than to look person inthe eye and have the same confrontation or discussion. As Hari goes on to discuss, on p125 it is important to be aware that the algorithm is going to select posts for your feed that feed your outrage as "on average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something calm". This feeding of hate and lack of empathy does appear to be seeping into everyday culture. It certainly made me wonder if this is the sort of world I want to live in?
The question inevitably becomes whether we can change things before they go too far but history is littered with examples of things that were considered normal but we would not now. I was strangely reassured that a 1980s quote from a Californian Assembly member during a debate about rape in marriage is truly shocking to me in 2021: "But if you can't rape your wife, who can you rape?" I do like to believe that anything can be changed if there is enough collective will and much of that will can be garnered from open discussions with a wide variety of people and remaining open minded.
Hari moves on to discussions of stress, particularly stress in children and the rise of the diagnoses of ADHD. This is something that I have seen increase dramatically over the course of my own lifetime and particularly the increased use of medicating children so I found this section of interest. It wasn't entirely surprising to see the results of studies that showed that if there were stressors in the home environment, the chances of and ADHD diagnosis increased. The fact that this book has been written and that adults are struggling to concentrate if they have other stresses in their lives, it is hardly surprising that children will experience the same.
The main study that I found the author to propose as a potential solution is one I have followed and watched documentaries on. It is an experiment where Finland provided 2000 citizens with a form of universal basic income. Now this topic has been raised often in recent years as a potential future and Hari seems to be very biased on the side of its introduction (though that may be my interpretation). He presents the fact that people's stress is reduced when they know they have an income which seems a very reasonable argument. However the documentary I watched a while ago (so forgive me for forgetting the name) presented a much more nuanced set of results. In that documentary, some participants had used the money to completely change their lives for the better, for others the outcomes weren't so favourable. I can almost hear the shouts of "you're missing the point. It wouldn't be time limited etc." But my following question that no one ever seems to touch on is this: what would be the impact on wider economics? 1. Where would a universal income come from for every person on the planet? Printing money essentially? If so, would that not cause inflation or even hyperinflation? At which point the basic income to live on becomes worthless and destroys the exercise. All the experiments I have seen have been in small groups of people so they have disposable income compared to their neighbours etc. I have yet to see a study about the ramifications of rolling this out nationally or globally and am happy to be pointed to any paper that has. As a case in point, the current global situation did cause the UK government to furlough a large proportion of the population and it will certainly be interesting to see what the ramifications of this are in the coming years.
The other contentious issue mentioned was that of the 4 day working week (whilst paying people for 5 days). It is interesting to read that Hari mentions that in the 18th century (p185) people were expected to work 6 days a week. There were strikes and by banding together over the decades both the 5 day week and the 8 hour working day were introduced. Hari argues that the gig economy and disbanding of the unions has made it harder for workers to fight for their rights and whilst this is certainly true (with some troubling issues yet to be resolved) however I couldn't help wondering how far it is possible to take this argument? How many days and/or hours should be the maximum worked? Our generation forget that we have far better pay and conditions than many of our ancestors and there seemed to be a lack of balance on where the line could reasonably be drawn. In a consumer economy, people are more than happy to spend money and often aim to maximise their buying power but someone tends to lose out somewhere. The recent Black Friday that feels like Black November or the rise of fast fashion does make you question how can there be no cognitive dissonance with wanting to work fewer hours for the same money whilst using that same currency to purchase ever greater amounts?
I don't want to sound negative to such an extent as the author did also look at other influences including chemicals that have entered our diets and atmosphere to which we still don't know the full ramifications. This is such a multifaceted topic that it cannot help but make the reader stop and think about what they are doing and their behaviour in a wide variety of aspects of their lives. The author is right that some of these things will require a concerted effort from the collective will to change but sometimes taking the time to stop, consider and make small changes for yourself can give you a sense of advocacy that is satisfying in itself.
This is a book that gives the reader a lot of food for thought and I feel encourages the reader to think about these issues for yourself. In reality, what more can you want from a book like this?
Stolen Focus is not only an interesting read, but an important one.
I've read a lot of the usual 'how to focus and get more done' genre of books and assumed, on beginning to read, that this would be another of the same ilk. Perhaps I'd pick up some new tips or even just better motivation to try out the ones I already knew, but I wasn't expecting much beyond that.
What I got instead, was a cultural treatise on the crisis of attention in our society and why, in so many ways, those tips and tricks aren't enough to fix it. Finding our focus isn't something we can do alone, at least, not entirely.
From childhood to climate change to covid, from social media to our food to the working week, this is a book that will make you think, reflect, and reframe the question of focus to consider what really matters to us most - as individuals, and as a society.