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Lost focus? It’s probably not your fault.

It's time to write that strategy. Head down, ideas flowing, let's crack it. The ping of the phone, the knock on the door, the emails, the calls, the news, the views, the all-important decision about what to have for dinner...


Distractions. Distractions. Distractions. EVERYWHERE.

As leaders we need to think deeply. To act strategically. To manage thoughtfully. But does it seem harder and harder to get the space and time to do that?

You’re not alone. Our attention is being sapped at every turn and as a species we’re collectively struggling to focus.

In ‘Stolen Focus‘ Johann Hari says we’re now living in ‘an attentional pathogenic culture’. Where sustained and deep focus is extremely hard for all of us, and we must swim upstream to achieve it.


Set up to fail

So it’s time to give ourselves a break, to stop despairing when we can’t seem to knuckle down. As Hari puts it:

“It’s not your fault you can’t focus. It’s by design. 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.”

Over the course of three years Hari tried to get to the bottom of why he was struggling with focus. And while our spiralling attention spans pre-date the internet he does hold tech responsible in a big way for the alarming rate of decline.

The first reason for this is that the internet has made trend cycles shorter. Between 2013 and 2016, the average duration for topics trend on Twitter reduced by over 30%, from over 17 to just over 11 hours. But our brains haven’t evolved enough to cope with this level of information, so it causes fog and overwhelm.

The second reason is that apps and online platforms are addictive by design, not by accident.

As Hari puts it:

“Because there is only so much attention, companies have to race to get more and more of it. I call it the race to the bottom of the brain stem. It starts with techniques like pull to refresh. Pulling to refresh your feed acts like a slot machine, having the same kind of addictive qualities that keep gamblers hooked in Vegas.”

“The race to get attention has to become more and more aggressive. We have to predict how to keep you hooked. So we crawl deeper down the brain stem into your social validation, which triggered the introduction of likes and followers. Instead of getting your attention, it was much cheaper to get you addicted to getting attention from other people.”

The third reason is that algorithms are using outrage over community to keep us hooked. The more time you spend on a digital platform the more money they make – algorithms are designed to keep you looking at your screen.

So why don’t we get shown happy updates and the posts of people we know best? As technology ethicist Tristan Harris says:

“On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm.”

The tech companies are tapping into our ‘negativity bias’. And it’s a conscious thing as a Wall Street Journal story showed that Facebook knew their algorithms were exploiting the human attraction to divisiveness.

Getting control

So we know our attention is waning – and that we seemingly have little control over the digital environment that’s a big cause of it. But is there a way we can take back control and start to regain our focus? Hari thinks so.

This is how he managed to improve his attention.

  • Use pre-commitment to stop switching tasks so much. e.g. buying a kSafe a time-lock container that locks your devices away and helps you form good habits.
  • Silence negative self-talk – telling yourself you’re lazy or not good enough isn’t going to help.
  • Commit to taking extended times away from social media. Hari ditches it for 6 months of the year.
  • Embrace the wandering mind. Don’t see it losing attention as it’s actually a crucial form of attention in its own right.
  • Reject multi-tasking – jumping from email to spreadsheet to Slack isn’t true productivity. Aim to stick to one task and give it attention.
  • Don’t view sleep as a luxury – it’s essential for focus.
  • Like with mind wandering, lean into play and unstructured free time. It can be the greatest form of focus.

As Hari points out, when the structures around us are designed to work against us it’s important to admit the challenges that poses. But while alone we can’t stop the tide of distraction we can on an individual level keep the effects it has on our focus at bay.

So the next time you’re struggling to concentrate on the task in hand. Stop. Show yourself kindness and see if there are any lessons from Hari that might help.