Ben Heels

Everything I do, all in one place.

Johann Hari – Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again (2022)

If you’ve ever felt a bit of panic when you don’t have your phone, if you feel guilty for spending so much time on social media, or if you feel like you aren’t spending your time how you want to, then set aside an afternoon to read what Johann Hari has to say.

Stolen Focus feels like it arrived at just the right time and in just the right way, not as a video, podcast, or Twitter thread, but as a good old-fashioned book that you have to sit down and spend time with. For me, the timing couldn’t have been better; I was tired of looking at my phone during my lunch breaks and was actively looking for ways to make reading a daily habit. This book is about a lot more than just tech, but the issues it raises about the apps we use every day, the devices we use, and the hours lost doing seemingly nothing, are ones that have been simmering on the back burner of my mind for quite some time.

When I was in elementary school, I used to read for hours at a time, never tiring, just poring over the pages until it was time for dinner. By the time I reached high school, the desire to read had almost completely vanished. Many people—myself included—blamed the rigorous academic structure; reading lost all of its magic and enjoyment when it was assigned and graded on a massive scale (to a degree, I still think this played a big factor in why I didn’t read for leisure back then.) But when I started reading during and after university, I felt that books couldn’t hold my attention the way that they used to. I figured it was because a) I was simply not interested in books (not true) b) it was my own fault that I couldn’t focus (also not true) and/or c) something had systematically stolen the attention and focus of not just myself but millions of people around the world (ding ding ding!)

Stolen Focus isn’t all doom and gloom, rather it’s an incredibly eye-opening read that’d be beneficial even for those keenly aware of the problems Hari addresses. The sections about big and scary tech, pollution, sleep, and nutrition are all written alongside helpful tips for mindful living.

One of the coolest parts of the book describes a sensation most people have experienced but cannot always put into words: “when you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away…” (p. 55). This state of mind is something that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi—who Hari interviewed extensively in this book—calls “flow state,” the deeply focused state of mind that people achieve when they are at the brink of their abilities and are actively immersed in doing something they love. “Long-distance swimmers, or rock climbers, or chess players…they were doing things that were physically uncomfortable, exhausting, and even dangerous, for no obvious reward—yet they loved it.” Hari and Mihaly discuss the benefits of achieving “flow” and clearly define the steps that one can take to achieve it for themselves.

Another bit that I found helpful was the section on mind wandering. In school, children are heavily discouraged from daydreaming; it’s thought of as a personal failure, that the child can’t or won’t focus on their studies. Hari explains:

“I thought mind-wandering…was the opposite of attention, and that’s why I felt guilty about doing it…It is actually a different form of attention—and a necessary one.”

Johann Hari, “Stolen Focus,” page 97

“First, you are slowly making sense of the world. Jonathan [Smallwood] gave me an example. When you read a book—as you are doing now—you obviously focus on the individual words and sentences, but there’s always a little bit of your mind that is wandering. You are thinking about how these words relate to your own life. You are thinking about how these sentences relate to what I said in previous chapters. You are thinking about what I might say next. You are wondering if what I am saying is full of contradictions, or whether it will all come together in the end. Suddenly you picture a memory from your childhood, or from what you saw on TV last week. “You draw together the different parts of the book in order to make sense of the key theme.” (p. 95)

Hari changed my perspective on mind wandering completely. In the same way that our minds heal, rest, and make new connections in our shut-eye sleep, mind wandering & daydreaming restore our brains and are essential for mental health and focus.

The single greatest thing about this book is how overwhelmingly happy it made me feel, that other people feel uncomfortable and wary about a world that never seems to slow down and that they actively want to improve not only their lives but the lives of others. It’s incredibly comforting and validating to have someone else put these thoughts into words, to express so vividly what I—and so many others—have been thinking for so long.

Stolen Focus isn’t meant to scare you or force you to make drastic changes to your lifestyle. It lays out a series of well-crafted arguments and studies and presents the reader with the necessary tools to change their habits and see the world from another perspective. If you want a glimpse at a world with less noise and busyness, fewer distractions, and more time for the things you actually care about, read this book and heed Johann Hari’s wisdom.

My Goodreads: ★★★★★ 5/5 stars, favorite

In short: This is the single most important book I’ve read in the past decade.

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