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Our attention spans are suffering. Maybe there’s a way to get them back.

Johann Hari’s ‘Stolen Focus’ examines how technology robs us of concentration

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Johann Hari had just traveled 4,000 miles to visit Graceland — Elvis Presley’s Memphis estate — and almost everyone around him was taking in the scene through a screen.

He was surrounded by blank-faced people staring at iPads distributed for self-guided tours, looking at photographs of each room instead of the room itself. When a man excitedly showed his wife that if you swiped left or right on your device, the view changed, Hari snapped. “But, sir,” he said, “there’s an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do. It’s called turning your head.”

That pithy takedown underscores Hari’s genuine alarm about the “urgent” attention crisis sweeping the globe. We are collectively losing our capacity for sustained concentration, he argues in his new book, “Stolen Focus,” and the problem is getting worse every day. We’re not present in our daily lives; not much gains traction in our minds. And we’re not simply losing our focus: It’s actively being stolen.

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So Hari, tired of telling himself “just one more tweet,” embarked on a journey around the world to figure out what was going on and how to fix it. Here are four takeaways from the book:

We’re switching tasks at unprecedented speed.

I was immediately — and immensely — interested in “Stolen Focus,” but it took me more than an hour to finish Chapter 1. I paused to Google the author’s previous books and then check if he had a Twitter account. An Instagram? Every few pages, I refreshed my email.

If I were in a more generous mood, I might call it multitasking, but Hari argues that, in fact, this constant switching between tasks is at the root of the attention crisis. There’s been such an enormous increase in the volume of new information available every second that we’ve become transfixed by things that are “very fast and very temporary, like a Twitter feed.” The more information we inhale, he says, the less we’re able to focus on any one piece of it. Our brains aren’t designed to absorb so much at a time: In one study, 136 students took a test; some had their phones turned off, while others received occasional text messages. Those who received messages scored about 20 percent lower than those who didn’t.

I was adept at multitasking, at home and work. That might not be a good thing.

As an expert Hari interviewed put it, we should aim to separate ourselves from potential sources of distraction. It’s not enough to “try to monotask by force of will — because it’s too hard to resist that informational tap on the shoulder.”

One of the best ways out of distraction is finding your way into flow.

If you’ve ever experienced a flow state, you know what it is, though it can be difficult to put into words. Imagine an artist engrossed in the act of creation or a rock climber scaling an unfamiliar mountain. As Hari describes it: “This is when you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away, and you are flowing into the experience itself. It is the deepest form of focus and attention that we know of.”

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And we don’t get there by relaxing. Flow requires a clearly defined goal that’s both meaningful to you and at the edge of your abilities, but not impossible. The more we achieve flow, the happier and healthier we’ll be. After Hari spent the morning writing, and entered a flow state, he felt more relaxed and open the rest of the day. To recover from the attention crisis, he argues, we need to replace our distractions with sources of flow.

Technology is deliberately designed to distract.

Big-name websites and apps strive to distract because that’s the key to profitability. When we’re looking at our screens, these companies make money; when we’re not, they don’t. So they manipulate us to keep us there, scrolling and clicking. “Whenever you are tempted to put your phone down, the site keeps drip-feeding you the kind of material that it has learned, from your past behavior, keeps you scrolling,” Hari writes.

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That’s not a particularly surprising revelation, but it is alarming. And Hari makes, perhaps, a more compelling point: It doesn’t have to be like this. There’s an entirely different way our tech could work, he argues, and a world in which our healthy attention spans could exist in tandem with our phones and social media accounts. One easy example: Facebook could hold all notifications and deliver them to you once a day, rather than pinging you in real time and interrupting your focus. Or such sites could remove their infinite scroll, so when you reached the bottom of the screen, you had to think about whether you wanted to see more or not. These changes could be implemented overnight, but without financial incentives, they’re unlikely to come to fruition.

There’s not an easy solution.

There are interventions we’re all capable of doing that can help reclaim some of our attention. One of Hari’s sources suggested a handful: Implement a “10-minute rule,” and whenever you feel the urge to check your phone, wait 10 minutes first. Change the notification settings on your phone so your apps aren’t bugging you every few minutes. Or maybe delete them altogether.

Hari bought a kSafe, a plastic safe with a time lock. He can put his phone in it and then set the amount of time he’d like it to stay locked. (Fifteen minutes, an hour, an entire day?) He also uses a computer program called Freedom, which blocks access to the Internet for designated periods. Instead of chastising himself for becoming distracted, he asks himself what he could do to enter a flow state. And he’s started to take six months of the year off social media (even asking a friend to change his passwords).

Still, Hari stresses that the solution to this systemic problem can’t be solved by us as individuals. “The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns,” he writes. “Systemic problems require systemic solutions.”

It’s a call to arms, to be sure, and I’m tempted to tell my Twitter followers about it — but I’ve deleted the app from my phone.

Angela Haupt is a freelancer writer and health editor.

Stolen Focus

Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again

By Johann Hari

Crown. 348 pp. $28

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