With so many forces constantly striving for our attention and hindering our productivity, the ability to focus has nearly become a lost art. The good news? This isn’t our fault, and we have more power to fix it than we might think.
Oprah and bestselling author and journalist Johann Hari hash out various solutions in the second half of their riveting discussion about his New York Times bestselling book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again. After catching up on part one of their exchange, tune into the video above to watch the second half, listen to it on the Super Soul podcast on Spotify, or read on for some highlights.
Fixing our lack of focus requires all of us
Hari revisits the profound months he spent offline in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which he discussed in the first part of his talk with Oprah. He describes how his inspiration to continue his healthier habits turned into disappointment once he returned to Boston and started using his phone and laptop again: “Within a month, I was 80 percent back to where I’d been. And I was so angry of myself.”
But the author and journalist’s flawed approach eventually made sense to him after interviewing James Williams, PhD, a writer and research fellow at the University of Oxford. Williams said to him: “The mistake you’ve made, Johann, is it’s fine to make personal changes. It’s good. It’s important.… What you’ve done in Provincetown is, it’s like thinking the solution to air pollution is for you personally to wear a gas mask,” Hari paraphrases.
Williams encouraged him to “deal with this problem at the root,” meaning to work on “the factors” that lie at the center of the problem.
The solution involves “two levels” of work
Hari shares that “defense” and “offense” will help us deal with the 12 attention-stealing elements he writes about in Stolen Focus.
When sharing an example of “defense,” Hari references an app he uses to shut off the internet on his laptop, and shows Oprah a box he locks his phone in. Then, he shares the science behind this: “It’s a form of pre-commitment. I know, I can say now, ‘You know what, I’m going to put my phone away for three hours. I don’t want to look at it.’ But I know in 40 minutes, I’m going to be going, ‘Ah, there was that one email. I’ll just do that really quickly.’ And then I open my email, and suddenly I’m back and I’m like, ‘Oh no, another person’s messaging me, and another person.’ So I go through dozens of things.” Turning off his internet and locking his phone away are what Hari calls “forms of defense.”
Still, Hari urges that we can’t fully fix this attention problem independently, then further describes how together, we need to “go on offense against the forces that are doing this to us.” That’s the second layer of work all of us should engage in.
Online platforms profit from our lack of focus
Hari gets into the nitty-gritty of how these sites and social media platforms profit from users. Hari explains that people who design apps in Silicon Valley, many of whom he interviewed, say their products are made to keep users glued to them for maximum amounts of time.
“But what was really fascinating to me, spending lots of time with people in Silicon Valley who’d been at the heart of the machine, was, they said to me, ‘Social media doesn’t have to work this way.’ We can have all the social media we currently have, but have it designed not to hack our attention but to heal our attention. And they told me how we can do that,” he says.
After discussing in detail how companies could make positive changes, Hari says: “At the moment, because of the current business model, all the incentives are to hack and invade your attention.”
Conversely, he explains that if companies adopt alternative methods, “all the incentives are different. Suddenly they’re not thinking, ‘How do we train Oprah to pick up her phone as often as possible and scroll as long as possible?’ Suddenly they’re saying, ‘What does Oprah want? Oh, turns out Oprah wants to be able to meet up with her friends. Why don’t we design Facebook to tell her which of her friends are nearby and would like to meet up? Oh, it turns out Oprah wants to be able to pay attention. Let’s design Facebook to heal her attention, not hack her attention.’” Hari continues: “This is a hundred percent technologically possible, right? The people I met in Silicon Valley could design that in a week. The problem is that the incentives are not there at the moment, but we can get those incentives there. Social media companies will never do this on their own.”
He encourages us to collectively “fight” to change specific aspects that are hurting everyone’s focus because we’re currently in “a race,” which he splits into two categories. The first is that the 12 factors he writes about in Stolen Focus that are harming our concentration will worsen in the “coming years.” The second involves pushing back collectively and demanding change.
But Hari believes we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves
Oprah says this dialogue is critical because people need to understand that their focus has been taken from them, but instead, “everybody’s blaming themselves,” as Hari shares in the book.
So Hari suggests adopting new mindset: “I think we need to give people back that sense of power and say to them, ‘You know, we are not medieval peasants living at the court of King Zuckerberg, begging for a few little crumbs of attention from his table. We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds. And we can take them back if we want to, but we’ve got to understand these 12 forces, from the food we eat, to the air we breathe, to the technology we’re currently exposed to.” He continues on that note: “We’ve got to understand these 12 forces, and we’ve got to deal with them one by one, as individuals, and collectively. If we do that, there’s an incredible prize to win.”
Once we understand these forces and work on this as a society, we can focus again. As Hari explains: “When you can focus, you become competent again. You can achieve your goals. You begin to feel that you’re present in your life again. That prize is incalculable. It is really worth fighting for, but we won’t get what we don’t fight for. If we just sit back, these forces will invade us more and more, and we will look back nostalgically on the day when the average office worker focused for a whole three minutes on any one task.”
How to apply these lessons to your own life
Hari explores what he’s personally done to improve his focus, which you can also apply to your own life. His methods include reframing his inner dialogue when he gets off track and reflecting on his new insights, then doing things that will help him “get into flow.” But that’s not all: He also takes a six-month social media hiatus annually (and has a friend change his passwords), and leaves his phone at home for an hour minimum every day so his mind can simply “wander,” among other practices.
Tune in to learn more about why Hari is ultimately “optimistic” about getting our focus back. Catch up on part one of this conversation here.
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