by Johann Hari
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What You Will Learn from Stolen Focus
Stolen Focus is a guide that can help us reclaim our focus – whether as individuals or as a society.
If you’re getting interrupted while focusing on something, on average, it takes 23 minutes for you to get back into a state of focus. But there never seems to be enough stillness or cool and clear space for you to stop and think. When you are unable to pay sustained attention you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve. You want to read a book, but you are pulled away by the pings and paranoias of social media. You want to spend a few uninterrupted hours with your child, but you keep checking your email to see if your boss is messaging you. You want to set up a business, but your life dissolves into a blur of Facebook posts that only make you feel more anxious.
Johann Hari found twelve deep causes of this crisis. In Stolen Focus, Hari breaks down these issues based on his research findings and arguments and teaches us how to improve our ability to pay attention and restore our productivity.
The Negative Impacts of Multitasking
Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts in your conscious mind at once. We’re extremely single-minded, and we have very limited cognitive capacity. This is the fundamental structure of the brain and it’s not going to change. But rather than acknowledging this, we convinced ourselves that we could think about three, five, or ten things at the same time.
Scientists used to believe it was possible to do several tasks at once, so they conducted an experiment where people were tasked to do multiple things simultaneously. However, the scientists discovered that when people were doing several things at once, they were actually juggling. These people didn’t notice the switching because their brains tried to provide a seamless experience of consciousness. What they were actually doing was switching and reconfiguring their brain from moment to moment and task to task, which came at a cost. This constant switching degrades your ability to focus in three ways:
1. The switch cost effect
Imagine doing your tax return and getting a text. You may only glance at the text for five seconds and go back to your tax return. Although it only takes five seconds, in that moment, your brain has to reconfigure itself from switching tasks. You have to remember what you were doing before and the thought process behind it, and that takes a little bit of time.
When this happens, evidence shows that your performance drops. As a result of the switching, you’re becoming slower, and the effect can be more impactful. Technological distractions like getting emails and phone calls cause a 10-point drop in IQ (which is twice the knock to your IQ when smoking cannabis).
2. The screw up effect
When you switch from one task to another, your brain has to backtrack a little bit to pick up and figure out where it left off. Errors that wouldn’t have happened start to creep in because your brain is prone to making mistakes. Instead of spending critical time doing productive, deep thinking, your thinking is more superficial because you’re spending more time correcting errors.
3. The diminished memory effect
A team at UCLA had people doing two tasks at once and tracked them to see the effects. It turned out that afterwards, these people couldn’t remember what they had done as well as those who only did one thing at a time. It takes a lot of mental space and energy to convert your experiences into memories. If you’re spending your energy on switching very fast, you’ll remember and learn less of what you do.
The Crippling of Our Flow States
If you have spent long enough being interrupted in your daily life, you will start to interrupt yourself even when you are set free from all these external interruptions. If you want to achieve what Mihaly Czicksentmihaly calls a flow, it boils down to three core components:
1. Choose clearly defined goal
I want to paint this canvas, I want to run up this hill, I want to teach my children how to swim. To pursue these goals, you have to set aside your other goals. Flow can only come when you are monotasking – when you choose to focus on one thing at a time. Mihaly found that distraction and multitasking kill the flow; flow requires all of your brainpower deployed towards one mission.
2. Do something that is meaningful to you
This is part of a basic truth about attention. We pay attention to things that are meaningful to us. A frog would rather look at a fly than a stone. To a frog, a fly is meaningful because it is their food, which illustrates the design of the brain. Our brains are wired to pay attention to the things that matter to us. After all, if the frog chooses to look at the stone, it will only starve.
3. Do something at the edge of your abilities and not beyond them
If the goal you choose is too easy, you’ll go on autopilot. But if it’s too hard, you’ll start to feel anxious, and you won’t flow either So to find flow you need to choose a goal, make it meaningful, and push yourself to the edge of your abilities. Once you’ve hit these conditions, you hit flow; and you can recognise it because it’s a distinctive mental state. You feel you are purely present at the moment and you experience a loss of self-consciousness. In this state, your ego vanishes and you start merging with the task at your hand.
Conclusion of Stolen Focus
There are many ways to stay focused on a particular task and achieve an ultimate goal, but you can use the three layers of attention as a reliable guiding light.
1. Your spotlight
When you try to focus on immediate actions like walking to the kitchen to make a coffee, you may get distracted by other actions that ensue, like finding the right glass or seeing what’s in the fridge. The spotlight involves narrowing down your focus to one important thing. A distracted or disrupted spotlight prevents you from carrying out any near-term actions.
2. Your starlight
You can apply the starlight to any long-term goals or projects over time. For example, writing a book, setting up a business, or being a good parent. It’s called starlight because when you feel lost, you look up at the stars and remember the direction you are travelling in. If you stray away from your starlight, you’ll forget where you are headed.
3. Your daylight
This is the form of focus that makes it possible for you to know what your longer-term goals are in the first place. How do you know you want to write a book? Or set up a business? Or what it means to be a good parent? Without reflecting and thinking clearly, you won’t be able to figure these things out. If you get so distracted that you lose your sense of the daylight, you may not even be able to figure out who you are, what you want to do, or where you want to go. Losing your daylight is the deepest form of distraction. You can only find your starlight and daylight if you have sustained periods of reflection, mind wandering, and deep thoughts.
Discover More Books About Productivity
If you’re currently interested in books about productivity, you should also read excerpts from bestsellers such as The 4-Hour Chef by Tim Ferriss, Sprint by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz, or The Now Habit by Neil Fiore.