Why is it so hard to pay attention?

STOLEN FOCUS: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again by Johann Hari (2022)

I find it much harder to concentrate on a task than I used to.  

Once I could dash off a book review like this in a couple of hours.  Now what took me a couple of hours takes me a couple of afternoons.  

It’s partly that the task itself takes me longer.  But it is also that I can’t resist the temptation break off the work and check my e-mail or browse my favorite blogs.

I’ve attributed this to a combination of old age and weakness of character.  

But although my age and laziness are real, a science writer named Johann Hari has convinced me that there’s more to it.  He says our whole civilization and lifestyle are conspiring to distract me from focusing on what I need to do.

Hari is the author of Chasing the Scream, a best-seller about addiction, which I haven’t read, and Lost Connections, a best-seller about depression, which I have read and liked a lot.  In both books, he showed how a dysfunctional society makes personal problems worse, and the same is true of Stolen Focus.

In his new book, Stolen Focus, tells of his search for knowledge from neurologists, psychologists and his personal back-and-forth struggle to regain his own fading sense of focus.

He shows that distraction and the inability to concentrate are on the increase, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

A study of office workers in the U.S. showed that most of them never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day.  Another study shows that if you get interrupted, it will take, on average, 23 minutes to regain your focus.  Studies of top topics on Google and Twitter shows that the life of a hot topic on these media is growing shorter and shorter.

Increasingly, studies show, Americans and Britons are more stressed, more tired and more distracted.  We don’t get the sleep we need.  We read less and are less able to concentrate on what we read.  More and more of us juggle multiple jobs, or are on call 24/7 in the jobs we have. 

 It’s no wonder we find it hard to concentrate on things at hand. 

But if we can’t focus of this, we can’t deal with with the big challenges ahead we face individually and as a society.

Lots of things contribute to this—the faster pace of society, lack of sleep, our artificial manner of life and, of course, social media.

Hari offers tips on how to cope:

  • If you can, find a pursuit or sport that gets you into a state of “Flow”—a state where you are totally engrossed in something worthwhile that challenges you.
  • Get a good night’s sleep in a completely darkened, completely silent room.
  • Take long walks in the fresh air and sunshine without a phone.
  • Read long novels or watch long TV mini-series.  Fiction is more immersive than non-fiction and also makes you more empathetic.
  • Avoid or cut down on stimulants and sedatives.
  • Use all the Aps on your devices that enable you to set limits on notifications and interruptions.


But trying to change individual behavior isn’t enough, he wrote.  The problem is deeper.


Social media companies such as Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter make a profit by diverting your attention from what you’re doing to what they’re offering.  This is old news. 

The social media companies employ top behavioral scientists to figure out ways to make their services more addictive and, as Hari pointed out, they use that word among themselves to describe their goals.  Part of the business model is to collect data about you that their machine intelligences correlate to make their products even more addictive.

An ordinary individual trying to resist their algorithms is engaged in an unequal context.  But the Internet and social media are essential to modern life.  Unless you’re willing to live like the Amish, there’s not cutting yourself off from them.

As Hari points out, social media technology doesn’t have to be so distracting.  There are simple ways to change it for the better. 

There could be an Ap you could use to discover whether any friend of yours (who uses social media) is nearby.  But if you sought out your friend, that would be time not spent on social media.

Your e-mail notifications could be set to once a day, or specific times of the day, like regular mail.  The infinite scrolling feature could be eliminated, so that you receive one page of links or notifications at a time, and have to decide whether to go on to the next page.  These and many similar little changes could make a big difference.

But nothing significant is going to change so long as the social media companies’ profits depend on “engagement” and data harvesting.

The only way this could change would be to make the companies non-profit, regulated utilities, like the British Broadcasting Corp., or the old Bell telephone system before deregulation.


But regulating social media companies wouldn’t be enough.  The problem is deeper.


An estimated 13 percent of American teenagers suffer  from something called ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder).  It means they can’t focus on any one thing for more than a short period.  Specifically, it means they can’t sit still in class and learn the lesson.  Adults also suffer from the same thing.  So do animals.

Hari interviewed a veterinarian who prescribed Ritalin for ADHD dogs, naloxone for ADHD horses and Prozac for a restless polar bear in a zoo, all of which suffered from a version of ADHD.  

The vet said all these animals suffered from what he called “frustrated biological objectives.”

A horses’s innate nature is to want to roam and run and graze.  When it is locked up in a stall, it can’t do that.  Some horses go crazy, and engage in a behavior called “cribbing,” which is to bite into something solid, like a fence, and then arch its neck and pull.  

A psychiatric drug doesn’t solve the problem, but it stops the problem behavior—for a time.

The same may be true for many, maybe most, of the children diagnosed with ADHD.  They’re unable to live the normal life of children.   Children need to be able to go out and freely play with other children.  They learn how to amuse themselves, how to play games with rules, how live in the world.  

Instead they’re told to and wait for adults to tell them what to do.  Smartphones and social media offer them their only opportunities to act spontaneously and without adult supervision.  Ironically, these environments can be more dangerous and toxic that the physical world that adults want to shield them from.

Adults also suffer from “frustrated biological imperatives,”  Hari writes.  It isn’t natural to sit at a desk or work station all day, responding to multiple demands and not being able to control the pace of the work.  Our amusements are passive.  We live in a polluted environment, and eat junk food that doesn’t adequately nourish us.  No wonder we can’t pay attention.

Hari said the ultimate solution is no less than a total rebellion against all the things in our society that are physically, mentally or spiritually toxic.   A tall order!

In the back of the book, he provides contact information for organizations that are fighting for (1) improving how the Internet works, (2) a four-day week, (3) children being allowed to play, (4) protecting young children from getting hooked on tech, (5) improving our food supply, (6) resisting pollutants that can damage attention and (7) a universal basic income.

Is he exaggerating the problem?  Maybe.

I once thought climate change cassandras might be exaggerating that problem.  But I also thought the. reforms they were pushing—environmental conservation, clean and renewable energy—would be good things to do, whether or not global warming was real.  

Stolen Focus is a rich source of information about an important topic.  I thank my friend Steve from Texas for urging me to read it. 


Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus web site.

Johann Hari: Stolen Focus – Why You Can’t Pay Attention, an interview for Mad in America.

Other Books I Recommend

THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford (2015).  Important.

THE SHALLOWS: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (2010)


THE NEW AGE OF SURVEILLANCE CAPITALISM: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff (2019)


Johann Hari’s 12 causes of lost focus.

  1.  The increase in speed, switching and filtering.
  2.  The crippling of our flow states.
  3.  The rise of physical and mental exhaustion.
  4.  The collapse of sustained reading.
  5.  The disruption of mind-wandering.
  6.  The rise of technology that can track and manipulate you.
  7.  The rise of cruel optimism.
  8.  The surge in stress and how it is crippling vigilance.
  9.  Our deteriorating diets.
  10.  And rising pollution.
  11.  The rise of ADHD and how we are responding to it.
  12.  The confinement of our children, both physically and psychologically.

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One Response to “Why is it so hard to pay attention?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    LOL! I do remember being kicked out of the house and told not to come back until sunset.

    I do a fair amount of things online but I don’t have any problem heading out for a walk or a drive. I think that kids today simply aren’t given things to do other than social media. If you drop the social media, you need something to fill the void.

    With the constant little pings and memes and reaction emojis, short form social media are vaguely addicting. It feels affirming and good. Or if you don’t get the likes you need to feel valued, it can be soul crushing. Either way, fear of missing out drives you back to the phone. But if all your friends are online instead of engaging in real life, leaving the phone behind is the same as being alone. Kids don’t do alone well and these days they don’t do it at all.

    One can only wonder how society will evolve from here.


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