Like many of us, you may have noticed your ability to pay attention is diminishing. Perhaps your mind wanders off, you re-read something you’ve already read, or you overload with caffeine on a busy work day just to stay on task. Your lack of concentration may not be that noticeable to others — work still gets done — but when was the last time you focused on just one task uninterrupted for an hour?
Our ability to stay focused is under attack. Our lives are jam packed with distractions – from apps on our phones to emails, Zoom meetings, and TV – all technology specifically engineered to literally grab our attention. Research shows that an office worker now focuses on any one task for only three minutes and a small study found the average American college student now focuses on any one task for only 65 seconds. Is our ability to concentrate vanishing? Are we being robbed of our attention spans, and what, if anything, can we do individually and collectively to reclaim our minds?
Journalist and author Johann Hari believes we have a serious attention crisis – one with huge implications for how we live. Hari, whose works include “Chasing the Scream, the Search for the Truth about Addiction” and “Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope” explores modern society’s attention deficit in his latest book “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again.”
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Jonathan Bastian talks with Hari about his research and the 12 factors Hari cites that are proven to reduce people’s ability to pay attention, from poor sleeping habits and diet to pollution and changes in our lifestyle. Hari explains that fighting the forces that steal our attention is not just about building a greater awareness and personal agency, but that we need to change habits and the way we live and work collectively as a society.
“While I am passionately in favor of individual changes, and they are really important,” he says, “On their own, they're not going to solve the problem.”
Proven examples of what might, Hari says, include more unsupervised outdoor play for children to develop healthy attention, reducing the work week to four days to increase productivity, and providing city spaces that are bikeable and walkable to lessen pollution and encourage exercise, which is healthier for our brains.