Book review: Stolen Focus

ACE's chief executive, Helen Davidson reviews Johann Hari's best-selling book Stolen Focus. 

Last week I went for a run and when I got home, I was asked what big thoughts I’d had while I was out pounding the pavement. It’s amazing how fresh air and a run can help unlock solutions to some of my most vexing challenges. But this time, I couldn’t answer. My mind was completely blank. I realised I’d had 40 minutes of completely uninterrupted old-fashioned mind-wandering. And it was great.

Mind-wandering is, according to Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus and an upcoming speaker at our Futurespace conference, a tool to aid our overall ability to focus. If you’re anything like me, some Mondays you look at your diary and you wonder how you are going to get everything done that week. It’s something I’ve been talking a fair amount about with my leadership mentor recently – how can I nudge myself to ensure the best use of my time and attention, that I’m working as smartly as I can on the things that matter the most? That I am wisely allocating my daily and finite units of attention. Especially in an environment where the average worker is being interrupted once every three minutes.

This is why I have found Johann’s book so interesting. We are facing some of the most complex challenges in recent history, and we need our best brains on the job. But research is showing that our collective attention span and ability to focus is shrinking, which has significant impacts on our productivity and capacity to develop innovative solutions to address these challenges.

And it’s not just because we can’t resist the urge to overcome our deep obsession with smartphones. It’s deeper than that. Johann’s book delves into the systemic influences that are contributing to our focus crisis, where they stem from, and how they affect our performance. Sleep, for example. The amount of sleep, we’re getting has dropped by 20 per cent in just 100 years. When people are kept awake, one of the first things they lose is their ability to focus. When you’re chronically tired, it can take 10 times longer for your brain to respond to something. Johann tells us that 40 per cent of Americans are chronically sleep deprived, getting less than seven hours of sleep a night. Constant interruption is another one. Johann cites research that found the IQ of staff dropped by 10 points when they were constantly interrupted by technology – that’s twice the knock to your IQ than if you smoke cannabis.

And yes, technology has a role to play in the firehouse of information that overwhelms us every day, the interruptions, the speed we’re expected to operate in, and the noise pollution that affects our ability to filter information and pay attention to the right things. But in addition to sleep, there are causes sitting in the stress we carry – particularly financial stress – diet and pollution. With these forces at play, we’re in a perpetual state of exhaustion. We’re mentally and physically drained and living in an environment that is actively stealing our ability to focus. The effect is a reduction in our overall cognitive performance – we make more mistakes, our memory and creativity suffer, and we’re less able to grapple with complex or challenging material.

Focus and the ability to pay attention is so important – not just so we can for once feel on top of our schedules and commitments, but also so we can unlock our creativity and achieve amazing outcomes for our communities. We can’t change all the external forces at play, but we can understand and acknowledge the world we inhabit and find ways to enhance and live within our attention capacity.

Johann Hari challenges us to reinvent our relationship with distraction through attention rehabilitation, starting with reintegrating flow and focus into our daily lives. Take time away from our devices, go for a walk or run without your phone or sit quietly on a bench and experience mind-wandering, and read a book. The average American in 2017 spent 17 minutes reading in one day and 5.4 hours on their phone. Reading is one of the deepest senses of focus we can experience, Johann argues, and we’re losing this art form on mass. It’s not just the collapse of sustained reading that is concerning, but also the way we read as we manically scan and skim our screens. Reading more induces flow and builds focus.

We can reclaim our focus and productivity and we have to. Johann’s book is a must-read for leaders wanting to understand and intentionally address the challenges of focus, productivity, clear thinking, and capacity for innovation in themselves, their teams, and their organisations. It’s definitely helped me be intentional about the choices I make about what gets my attention, which unlocks a more balanced and productive life overall!

And if this sparks your interest and you want to know more, come hear Johann speak at Futurespace, 20-21 September in Wellington, kindly brought to you by Harrison Grierson.