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Stolen attention

Have we – as Google engineer Tristan Harris says – “downgraded humanity, stripping us of our attention at the very time when we face big collective crisis that require it more than ever”?

Is modern life deskilling us of the ability to concentrate? In his latest book, Stolen focus: Why you can’t pay attention, author Johann Hari explores this possibility and asks what we should do about it.

According to an article published in The Guardian, Johann was inspired by his own experiences on a trip to Graceland on which his nephew was “whirring at the speed of Snapchat… a blur of YouTube, WhatsApp and porn”, which led him to a three-year investigation into the impact of our connected lives.

Our lost capacity for concentration

Hari says, “I had just turned 40 and, whenever my generation gathered, we would lament our lost capacity for concentration. I still read a lot of books but, with each year that passed, it felt more like running up a down escalator.”

The research took Hari to Professor Joel Nigg in Portland, Oregon, who suggested we might be developing an “attentional pathogenic culture” in which sustained and deep focus is harder for all of us.

But this isn’t the fault of us as individuals, Hari argues. Instead, he says there are 12 factors that have been proven to reduce people’s ability to pay attention and many of these factors have been on the rise over the past few decades – with some of them rising dramatically.

The switch-cost effect

One of these factors is our recently connected lives at the end of a smartphone – and the way it fools us into thinking we are capable of concentrating on multiple different things at once.

Professor Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says that humans are actually very single minded. When people believe they are “multi-tasking” they are actually switching back and forth between tasks. Although you might not consciously register the switching your brain is doing, this switching does come at a cost.

An experiment conducted by Carnegie Melon University’s human interaction lab found that the cost of this switching is around 20 percent of our brain power. In a sample of 136 students who sat a test, half of the sample group were allowed to have their phones switched on and half were not. The half with phones on with them received intermittent text messages throughout the test. Their performance was, on average, 20 percent worse than those who had their phones switched off.

Reaching the flow state

While stripping out distractions like your mobile phone is a good way to aid your ability to concentrate, Hari advocates going one step further: entering a flow state.

He describes this as “when you are doing something meaningful to you and you really get into it and time falls away and your ego seems to vanish and you find yourself focusing deeply and effortlessly.” According to Hari, “flow is the deepest form of attention human beings can offer”.

It’s an idea that is increasingly gaining currency in the business world, where numerous successful leaders advocate time blocking – or making space in your day when you will be undisturbed to concentrate on a single, important task.

There are three things needed to reach a flow state. First, you must give the task single-minded focus. Second, the task must be something you care about. Third, it helps if the task is challenging and at the edge of your abilities.

A call to action: how should we respond to our attention-draining culture?

While Hari advocates creating periods of time when we reduce outside distractions and work to enter a flow state, he also emphasises that the problem goes way beyond the responsibility of the individual.

Instead, he quotes former Google engineer James Williams who said that individual abstinence is “not the solution for the same reason that wearing a gas mask for two days a week outside isn’t the answer to pollution. It might, for a short period of time, keep certain effects at bay but it’s not sustainable and it doesn’t address the systemic issues.”

Instead, we need to call for systemic change – such as the “right to disconnect” law in France to protect society more widely.

“We need to act urgently,” Hari concludes, “because this may be like the climate crisis or the obesity crisis and the longer we wait, the harder it will get.”

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