Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to think deeply again

On an average an adult working in an office stays on one task for three minutes. A student would switch tasks once every sixty-five seconds!

What causes difficulty in focusing? Why is it that kids are unable to concentrate these days? Can one multitask? Can our brain focus on two different things at the same time? Is it our external environment or our internal system to be blamed for? The answer to all this is in this book ‘Stolen Focus’ by Johann Hari, internationally bestselling author of the books ‘Chasing The Scream’ and ‘Lost Connections’. 

Through this narrative, the author shares his personal experience of not being able to focus and the steps that he took to resolve the issue. He shares his conversations with leading attention experts who have been striving to get the right recipe for focus and attention, taking into account the crucial need of fixing this issue for a greater good during his journey of realisation.

What does the book cover?

The book covers the journey and evolution of attention and focus. We all agree it is getting worse, but the concern largely has been discussed early on. It discusses different factors from various sources which can affect attention, including sleep, pollution, technology, and our ancestral lives, playtime for kids as well as ADHD. The initial chapter describes the authors struggles and how he spent three months in Provincetown without his phone or the internet in the pursuit of gaining his attention back. However, he returns with a rejuvenated conviction of changing his life and living a more controlled and conscious life. 

Three takeaways 

  • Johann has described six big changes in his life which helped him improve his attention. I am jotting down three for quick reference 
    • Pre-commitment to stop switching and change your behaviour. It’s important to take that step now that will lock in that desire and make it harder to break down in the future. One key step for him was to buy a kSafe to lock his phone and get long stretches of focus. 
    • Stop responding to yourself negatively by saying “I am lazy” or “not good enough”. Rather use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of having a different kind of conversation with yourself. Ask “what can I do now to get into a flow state?”. “What would be something meaningful to me that could do now?”. This approach is far more effective then shaming oneself.
    • Take breaks from social media, inform people about your decision. Social media is the worst distraction for you (Read the book to understand it more. I did it.)
  • Johann’s conversation with James Williams, former Google strategist was quoted in the book many times. He states that attention takes three different forms which are now all stolen. (Read more about this concept in the book)
    • The first layer, Spotlight: you focus on immediate actions e.g., walk into the kitchen and make a coffee
    • The second layer, Starlight: the focus is applied on the longer-term goals – projects overtime e.g., you want to write a book or set up a business. Getting distracted here is when you lose sight of the longer-term goal and you forget where you are headed
    • The third layer, Daylight: the form of focus that keeps a check on your longer-term goals. Like a reminder on how and why you should write a book or set up a business. It helps to reflect and think clearly. Losing your Daylight is the deepest form of distraction. 
  • To resolve climate crisis and work towards a clean and green living, we need to focus and have a clear conversation with each other. The author claims that in order to solve the climate crisis, we need to solve our attention crisis first (which is being hacked by the large corporations for their benefit)

What’s in it for me?

The fact that Johann wrote this book during the worst time of the pandemic is greatly appreciated. Changing apps and thinking about other tasks while on one, was how I led my life before I started reading this book. In a way, it has transformed the way I look at life now; not by blaming myself but by also addressing the external environment. 

My recommendation

Everyone should read it. Having difficulty in focusing is a universal issue, and this book is for those who are aware of this problem and are looking for solutions. Topics covered are generic and easy to understand. You may want to consider disconnecting yourself from all technological interference after reading this article, imagining a much more productive life . I am happy without Instagram and Facebook. You too will be.


The views and opinions published here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the publisher.

Sarika Chavan
Sarika Chavan is a public relations professional with over 15 years of work experience . She is currently working with Weber Shandwick as Vice President - Client Experience.

Previously she was employed at Adfactors PR, Text100 (now Archetype) and Perfect Relations. With keen observation and analytical skills, Sarika has successfully led PR campaigns for key brands across multiple sectors by leveraging her strength and expertise in the communications arena.

She is a post graduate in communications from Xavier Institute of Communications. She is based in Mumbai and in her free time loves to spend time with her daughters, play with her dogs, read and travel.

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