Book Review: Stolen Focus: by Johann Hari

I hit a wall last year. People-pleasing and general anxiety were no longer enough to propel me forward. I couldn’t concentrate on anything.

Information of any kind – from school fundraisers to requests from parties in cases – was burdensome. Each email or phone call was just one more thing to consider, remember, and address. I felt trapped.   

As a life-long resident of the Ohio River Valley, I attempted to self-diagnosis by asking, “Is it depression, allergies, or exhaustion?”, whenever this familiar dark sensation appears. It all feels so tragically similar that this fun trio seemed to be the obvious suspect.  

Upon further analysis, this usual explanation didn’t seem quite right. It felt larger than “merely” being overwhelmed by life. There was stress, but not an unusual amount. So, at first, I attempted to tackle my symptoms one by one. I had some aging-related issues to address. I finally started seeing an allergist who greatly improved the quality of my life. I leant into naps and self-care.  

And yet it remained – the feeling that someone was constantly changing channels inside my head. The simplest of tasks required more and more of me to accomplish. It was unsustainable.  

At last, I discovered the culprit hiding in plain sight. The last and ultimately guilty suspect was the glowing rectangle in my hand. Fortunately for me, this item was no smooth criminal because it’s very use help me discover its culpability in my predicament.  

A Youtube show called “Offline”, introduced me to the author, Johann Hari, who took this topic on after a disappointing and eye-opening trip with his godson to Graceland.  After watching people choose to swipe on an iPad to “see” the Jungle Room they were physically standing in he recognized a sickness creeping over all of us.  

Out of this came Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. Hari begins with himself, describing a self-imposed internet detox. He was financially able to put himself up for three months in Rhode Island with an old laptop, no internet service, and no access to a smart phone. Much like any addiction, he started with some bumpy experiences, followed by a “pink cloud” of euphoria as his ability to digest long and complex books returned. When the end of his retreat grew near a wave of panic washed over him as he wondered how he could keep what he worked to regain.  

Hari understands that, in our modern society, it is hard to completely detach yourself from social media platforms and internet access. He explores in the remainder of the book how one can balance this need while retaining the ability to stay focused. Hari interviews several researchers and fellow authors who have explored the algorithms of media giants, looked at macro trends across the world, and managed addictions.   

Hari approached his sources with an open mind, which I appreciate in this current ultra-binary climate. He gives a thorough explanation of each person’s position and their reasoning (citing to their work in the Appendix), whether he ultimately agrees or disagrees with them. I found this rudimentary, but foundational, journalist step strangely and depressingly refreshing.   

Many non-fiction books I’ve recently come across are a soft to rock hard sell of the author’s point of view. As a reader, I felt more at ease reaching an “ala carte” set of conclusions about modern technology and where it is going. Hari leans pessimistic, believing modern smart phones hasten and exacerbate the impulsive thinking and action of world leaders at a time fraught with multiple emergencies. (I, on the other hand, agree with the school of thought Hari describes – smart phones are a new technology that we can and will healthily adapt to… eventually.)  

While the background to dopamine-fueling algorithms was enlightening, I was much more interested in the practical suggestions Hari provides throughout the book and summarizes toward the end. One such suggestion is an app that I now have downloaded on my phone called, Freedom.  

Freedom is a VPN that blocks anything from one website to the entire internet. Much like learning to keep cookies and soda out of one’s house (ok, my house) to avoid eating or drinking these sugar-laden snacks, this app is designed to keep you from temptation. Do you have a trigger-finger for one-click Amazon purchases? A little too curious too often about what your exes are up to these days? This app helps you help yourself.  

When I finished reading Hari’s book, I felt so relieved that I wasn’t alone in this struggle. Perhaps ironically, I posted to Facebook to share a summary of what I learned with friends. Within seconds people responded with similar concerns/relief that it wasn’t necessarily aging or undiagnosed ADHD.   

Much like Hari, as I continue to tinker with the right amount of phone use, I have improved my own attention span.  If I can, you can. I recommend Stolen Focus as a great first step in striking a better balance and improving your relationship with your smart phone. 

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, for a simple guide to creating a meditation practice of your own in 30 days. And to share mindfulness with your little one, check out my new children’s book, Mommy Needs a Minute.

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