Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, I’m sure you’ve sensed yourself losing the ability to pay attention. Our focus at work, with family and friends, in our workouts, has all diminished. In fact, we can’t even focus on the things that are distracting us. I can’t watch one movie without looking at my phone a few times in between.

This is essentially what Stolen Focus is about. Johann Hari breaks down the reasons why we have lost the ability to pay attention, why it’s important for us to get our focus back and ways by which to do that. 

Here are some notes that I’ve extracted from the book.

  • When you are unable to pay sustained attention, you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve
  • If you are focusing on something and you get interrupted, it will take you on average 23 minutes to get back to the same state of focus
  • When attention breaks down, problem-solving breaks down
  • Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced
  • Pre-commitment is successful. Resolving clearly to do something and making a pledge to stick to it helps you focus
  • Consuming news as it happens through social media inducing panic; consuming news as a summary through newspapers induces perspective
  • Depth takes time and reflection. if you keep getting distracted, there is no time to reach depth
  • Cellphones offer us the easy thing to do, rather than the important thing to do
  • If you go too fast, you overload your abilities and they degrade
  • Slowness nurtures attention and speed shatters it
  • Multitasking is for computers, not for humans. Our brains can hold only 1 or 2 thoughts at a time
  • If you are struggling to focus, try monotasking for 10 minutes and then allow yourself to get distracted for 1 minute. Doing this will allow your brain to pick up the habit of focusing
  • Replace distractions with activities that flow
  • To get flow, choose a clearly defined goal, choose something that is meaningful to you, do something that is at the edge of your abilities (not very challenging or very easy)
  • To have a good life, removing what is wrong is not enough, you also need a positive goal
  • The less you sleep, the more your world blurs in every way – ability to focus, ability to think deeply, ability to make connections
  • During sleep, your brain cleans itself of waste that has accumulated during the day
  • Every night when you go to sleep, your brain is rinsed with a watery fluid. This cerebrospinal fluid washes through your brain, flushes out toxic proteins by carrying them down to your liver to get rid of them
  • During sleep your energy levels are restored and replenished
  • Dreaming allows you to revisit stressful moments without releasing stress hormones, which makes it easier to handle stress
  • You need to radically limit your exposure to light before you go to sleep and avoid blue light of screens for at least 2 hours before you go to bed
  • Your room should be cold, almost cold, when you go to sleep because your body needs to cool its core to send you to sleep
  • Reading books trains us to read in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading on screens trains us to scan and skim
  • Fiction boosts your ability to empathize with other people; the more novels you read the better you are at reading other people’s emotions
  • The more you let your mind wander, the better you are at having organised personal goals, being creative and making long-term decisions
  • When your mind wanders it starts making new connections between things, which often produces a solution to problems
  • Creativity is not a new thing that emerges from your brain; It’s a new association between two things that are already there
  • It’s not your fault that you can’t focus. Social media apps are designed that way; your distraction is their fuel
  • Humans make different decisions when we pause and consider
  • People become more unempathetic, angry and hostile as their social media usage goes up
  • On average, we will look at something negative and outrageous a lot more than something peaceful and calm
  • On YouTube, the words in titles that get picked up by the algorithm are words like hates, obliterates, slams, destroys
  • Every word of moral outrage increases chances of retweets on twitter and words that increased retweet rates are attack, bad, blame
  • Social media sites are designed to train your minds to crave frequent rewards. They make us hungry for likes and hearts
  • Social media sites get to know what makes you tick. They learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you
  • In addition to making you angry, social media sites make you feel that you are surrounded by other people’s angers
  • Fake news travels six times faster on twitter than real news
  • Adopt the 10 minute rule. If you feel the urge to check your phone, wait for 10 minutes
  • Political pessimism keeps people trapped in the search for purely personal and individual solutions
  • Always focus on education and learning. Once you have it, no one can take it away from you
  • To focus to pay attention in normal ways, you need to feel safe
  • To focus, we have to create an environment of safety. For ourselves and our children, we have to limit the amount of scary or stressful things that we experience and witness
  • As work hours swell, people get more distracted and less productive
  • Humans are designed to have downtime, which will then make them more productive
  • When people work less, their focus significantly improves and so does the quality of their work
  • To improve focus, do one thing at a time, sleep more, read more and let your mind wander
  • It’s easier to focus on and stick to something if your motives are intrinsic – if you’re doing something because it’s meaningful to you – than if your motives are extrinsic – you’re doing it because you’re forced to or you are doing it to get something out of it later
  • We all need to have a sense of mastery – that we are good at something. when you feel you are good at something, you will find it much easier to focus on it
  • To improve focus, we need to start with three big goals. One: ban surveillance capitalism, because those who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can’t focus. Two: introduce a four-day work week, because people who are chronically exhausted can’t pay attention. Three: rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely, because children who are imprisoned in their homes or in routines won’t be able to develop a healthy ability to pay attention

The last excerpt from the book is the book in a nutshell. 

Hari has also dedicated a lot of chapters to how children in the Western world are losing focus because they are not allowed to play freely. I didn’t have a lot to highlight or learn from those sections because children in India, at least the ones around me, play freely and play a lot. That’s one thing that we’re doing right.

On the whole, Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is an essential read by all means.