Where has all the focus gone?

If you’re driven insane while driving in Nebraska, you’re asking for a $200 first offence. You remember distracted driving: texting, playing music, cooking a Big Mac and fries, intense conversation with a passenger that includes a lot of eye contact.

All forms of distraction account for several thousand deaths each year on national highways, according to the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration. If you keep score at home, distracted driving is nothing new. Thirty-five years ago, when I drove to Los Angeles on the Hollywood Highway, I saw drivers doing everything from shaving to faxing. (Yes, faxes. Look it up.)

Cell phones have obviously exacerbated the dilemma of distraction…almost as much as another, more important reason our attention is constantly under attack: we’re more distracted than ever.

And not just when driving, shaving or working, but in every imaginable thing we do. We gradually lose the ability to focus for long periods of time and suffer the consequences of this, from decreased productivity to increased fatigue and living under the yoke of “surveillance capitalism”.

In The Stolen Focus, author Johann Hari warns that we are losing our ability to focus in this brave new world of algorithms, massive information dumps, and rapid development.

Hari’s research has taken him around the world, talking to over 250 focus and distraction experts. He also found compelling numbers. “We are now living in a major attention crisis — similar to the obesity crisis or the climate crisis. The average college student now spends only 65 seconds on each task. The average office worker spends only three minutes. Even the average Fortune 500 CEO gets no more than 28 minutes of continuous work per day.”

Distraction also comes at a cost: the “switching cost effect”—those distracting calls on the phone or a work colleague—cost us 20% of our attention. We make mistakes (failure effect), diminish our artistry (creativity leak), and corrupt our memory (impaired memory effect). And once our attention is broken, it takes 23 minutes to get back to the level we were working at.

Loss of concentration also means less reading. By 2017, Americans were spending 17 minutes a day reading a book and 5.4 hours on their phones.

Beyond the obvious, Hari has linked the distracting universe to poor sleep habits, reticence about healthy dreams, and our ability to confuse environmental and genetic influences when diagnosing distracted children.

Of course, what’s a discussion of distraction without walking through the minefield where tech giants use algorithms to tether us to our devices. Hari spared no criticism of the usual Silicon Valley suspects, warning that their surveillance capitalism — the practice of mining and using our personal data to link us to our smartphones and enrich ourselves — has irrevocably changed us and the world.

However, he hoped… or answered. On a macro level, he called for a global “revolt of attention,” a change in the way we do business and live. Individually, Hari urged to stop switching tasks, sleep more and appreciate more things without a screen.

Specifically, he suggested that we disable our notifications. What to expect? How could I survive if I didn’t know that the Nebraska Legislature took the abortion ban and anti-LGBT proposal out of the committee right after it did? Would life go on if I missed the moment when a member of the U.S. House of Representatives made the idiotic and possibly rebellious proposal to divorce the red states from the blue ones?

Answers: “It’s okay” and “Yes.” But turning off all my notifications will also turn off Amber Alerts and tornado warnings, so I’m not sure I agree with Hari’s proposal, which would eclipse all thresholds for accessing the world’s real-time information.

I didn’t agree with everything about The Stolen Focus. However, the book was fascinating, if not downright terrifying, in the way it described my relationship with information and the devices through which it enters my brain. Maybe I’m more distracted than before. Maybe my world is moving faster than I can handle. Maybe I’m more exhausted and overwhelmed with stress. Maybe big technologies and their algorithms control my life.

Here’s what I know: The book is 623 pages for an iPad, not a quick read by any means. But what should have been a couple of weeks’ reading stretched out better than a month. By then the irony had begun.

I couldn’t stay focused.

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