Tag Archives: Focus

Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari

We can’t pay attention anymore. An appalling percentage of adults no longer read any books at all. A soaring number of children have been diagnosed with ADHD. We’re getting less and less sleep. You’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah. Social media.” But your parents’ attention span was also shorter than their parents’ attention span. It’s been going on for as long as we’ve been keeping records.

Johann Hari set out to find out why he couldn’t focus for long periods of time. He loved to read, and his to-be-read pile probably resembled mine, but he could only fondly remember getting lost in a book for hours. He observed his nephew’s inability to look away from his phone, so Johann took him where he had always longed to go: Graceland. Standing in Elvis’s famous mansion, he saw that his nephew and all of the tourists of every age were staring at pictures of Graceland on their phones, rather than looking up at the actual rooms. When he started yelling at another man in exasperation, he realized that he needed to take a break.

Hari booked a three-month stay in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He left his laptop and phone with a friend far away and gave only six people the number to a dumb phone that he had bought for emergency use. It was grueling, but by the end, his mind felt calm, and not only did he get through all of the books he had brought, he also found a lovely bookstore in town where he bought even more great books. He went to the local pubs and talked to real, live people, and he started to write again.

Unhappily, it didn’t last, and he was determined to find out why. Johann started traveling around the world, to almost every continent, not only speaking to experts in the expected fields of high tech and social media, but also to brain scientists, sleep experts, ADHD physicians, scientists in pollution and food research, and many others. The interviews were fascinating, and Hari spends a chapter discussing each topic, combining scientific studies with personal anecdotes. So many of the stories resonated with changes I had seen in my own life or in the people around me, but others were shocking and desperate.

Johann believes that, although we can all make individual changes to help ourselves, there are massive problems that can only be solved if we all work together to force power structures to change. He likens this grassroots effort to the feminist and gay rights movements. While he is hopeful for the future, he also reveals that, at this moment, the problem is much deeper and more far-reaching than we understand.

I listened to an audiobook of this title, which the author reads himself. Johann is from London and has a warm and charming voice, and since he is so personally invested in his subject, there isn’t a dry moment in the book, even in the nerdiest bits of scientific study. This book is so important. Even those of us who are older and use very little social media have noticed a change, and the inability to concentrate is a serious issue for our world today, when there are critical problems that require deep thought and united action. There’s something going on that’s beyond our control, and Hari does an excellent job of putting the puzzle pieces together. His conclusion may surprise you; it’s not just social media. Let’s start a movement.

Disclaimer: I listened to an advance audiobook from Volumes. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep WorkIt’s hard to argue with the fact that we’re all more distracted than we’ve ever been in history. At the same time, manufacturing and other manual labor jobs are going away, and today’s worker is increasingly employed in some sort of “knowledge work.” One would assume that knowledge workers need quiet focus in order to fulfill their career missions, but the very companies that lead the field are those that promote wide open workspaces, supposedly to foster collaboration. Even in more traditional companies, an open room filled with cubicles is the norm, and employees are expected to stay connected to electronic forms of communication at all times, sometimes even at home. How can we perform deep work in this sort of environment?

Cal Newport has employed strategies in his own life that enable “deep work” in order to become one of the most productive professors at Georgetown University, publishing far more than most of his colleagues in spite of his young age. Beginning with his personal experimentation and expanding to his research on top producers in several fields, Newport has distilled his findings in this book, subtitled Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He realistically offers a range of suggestions that can be implemented by people in various vocations and levels of authority. A CEO may be able to roll out a new initiative for his entire company, whereas a single employee who undertakes that same strategy on his own may find himself unemployed very quickly, so Newport is sensible about each plan’s feasibility.

One of his main points, approached from several angles, is to reduce the number of interruptions that occur in one’s day, particularly from electronic sources. On one end of the spectrum, he tells of the award-winning author, Neal Stephenson, who does not even have an email account. This is even more amazing when one considers that Stephenson is a science fiction writer. He refuses to create an obligation for himself to respond to people he does not know. This level of disconnectedness is impossible for most people, though. Rather, Newport suggests ways to limit our Pavlovian response to the “new email” signal, still responding, but remaining in control of our concentration on more important tasks. He presents questions to ask yourself about whether you should be using Twitter, routines to follow to start and end your work day, and architectural ideas for owners to build better work spaces for higher levels of production from their employees. All of his strategies can be tailored to suit a variety of vocations that would benefit from more focused time, from artists and writers to entrepreneurs and computer developers.

I first heard about this book while listening to a young pastor discuss his church growth strategy on a radio talk show. When I researched it, I discovered that it was on many lists of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2017.

Newport believes that the future belongs to the most focused workers, and that they are rapidly becoming the privileged few. Deep Work will empower and encourage you to incorporate new practices in your life that will ensure that you are part of that small group.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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