Stolen Focus Book Summary - Stolen Focus Book explained in key points
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Stolen Focus summary

Johann Hari

Why You Can't Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again

4.5 (1646 ratings)
25 mins
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    Stolen Focus
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    It’s not just you – everyone is struggling to focus.

    Unless you’re living off the grid, you’ve probably noticed that it’s getting increasingly difficult to focus. You’re busy all the time, yet you struggle to actually get anything done. 

    In 2016, Sune Lehmann was having these exact problems. His capacity for deep focus was dwindling, and he was more susceptible to distractions than ever before. Lehmann is a professor at Denmark’s Technical University – so he didn’t simply dismiss the nagging feeling that his concentration was waning. Instead, he spearheaded a study to find out if there was actually evidence to back up his suspicion. 

    By analyzing various metrics across online platforms, he and his team discovered something interesting: In 2013, conversation topics trended on Twitter for an average of 17.5 hours before people lost interest and moved on to a new topic. By 2016, that number had dwindled to 11.6 hours. That’s a six-hour decrease in only three years. The study records similar results across platforms like Google and Reddit as well. In short, the more time we’ve spent in online spaces, the shorter our attention spans have become.

    So, is it really just the internet that’s eroding our focus?

    Well, yes. But also no. It’s not quite as simple as ones and zeros. 

    See, Lehmann also analyzed every book that’s been uploaded to Google Books between the 1880s and today. And he found that this phenomenon actually predates the internet. With every passing decade, trending topics appear and fade with increasing speed.

    Lehmann’s study is indicative rather than comprehensive, of course. And measuring these metrics isn’t a definitive way to map our evolving attention spans. But, if we accept the premise that our concentration is suffering, the next question is: Why?

    It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely, but a good jumping-off point is what think-tank director Robert Colvile calls “The Great Acceleration.” Essentially, the way we receive information is speeding up. In the nineteenth century, for example, news could take days to travel from place to place. Then, technologies like the telegraph, radio, and television sped up the spread of information. On top of this, our information inputs – the different modes through which we receive information – have multiplied. In 1986, the average Westerner ingested the equivalent of 40 newspapers a day through the various available information inputs. By 2004, that figure had risen to an astonishing 174 newspapers worth of information. Today, that figure is almost certainly much higher. 

    The internet has undeniably supercharged this acceleration. Now, information is not only available to us all the time; it actually intrudes on our lives through the ceaseless pings and notifications coming from our laptops and smartphones.

    And our brains just haven’t caught up with this acceleration. Research suggests they never will. Our capacity for focus is an emergent field of study. But research in the area of speed-reading suggests that there’s a finite limit to how quickly we can process information. And, as neuroscientists point out, the cognitive capacity of the human brain has not significantly changed in the last 40,000 years. The amount of information we put into our brains has, however, stratospherically increased.

    It’s really no wonder we sometimes find it difficult to focus.

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    What is Stolen Focus about?

    Stolen Focus (2022) begins with author Johann Hari experiencing a common problem: his attention span is diminishing. He can’t seem to focus on much outside of Twitter and online news. Over three years, Hari tries to identify the root causes of this problem. He uncovers a collective attention crisis that’s affecting the entire globe. From social media to the culture of productivity, Hari identifies the culprits behind our stolen focus – and wonders if, and how, we can claim it back.

    Who should read Stolen Focus?

    • Anyone who feels like they just can’t concentrate the way they used to
    • Multitaskers with brimming to-do lists who still feel like they don’t get much done
    • Anyone scrolling through social media while they’re reading this!

    About the Author

    Johann Hari is a journalist and writer. His books, on topics ranging from the war on drugs to mental illness, have topped the New York Times best-seller list and been translated into 38 languages.

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