Recently, I’ve been feeling a lack of focus, so I read Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari. And judging by the wait list at the library, I’m not the only one either.
It’s a great book, and I recommend you read it. At least check my summary below.
But as it turns out, there’s more to a lack of focus than meets the eye.
In fact, Hari posits twelve (!) causes that affect our abiliy to focus for prolonged periods of time.
Interestingly for me, some of them are biological – breathing, eating, moving and sleeping.
Technically, it’s all biological as your brain is biology, but bear with me.
It’s well established elsewhere that lack of sleep affects your decision making, with a cumulative effect equivalent to drinking alcohol. That being the case, sleep also affects focus.
It’s also well established that people who sleep well, make better nutitional decisions, and generally exercise more. Which relieves stress, and promotes better sleep.
You need sleep to enable your brain to clean itself and consolidate the day’s events. That brain fog? It’s probably that your brain hasn’t adequately decluttered.
Most commercial food is generally highly processed and contains flavours, dyes and preservatives. Fresh produce is sprayed with fertilisers and pesticides.
If that’s not enough, pollution affects the brain as well; absorbed by the lungs as you breath, and through the stomach as you eat. People who live in outer suburbs with more trees (that absorb some pollutants) are less distracted than those in the inner city where pollution is more of a problem.
Stress and Trauma
Stress is also bad for focus. People who’re stressed tend to leap to conclusions and overreact – the old fight, flight reaction. If it continues for long enough, it can lead to structural changes in the brain. And there’s a lot to stress about at the moment; Covid, job security, rising interest rates, inflation, and so on.
The more stress and trauma, the less ability to concentrate. Stress is triggered by feelings of insecurity and disccomfort, so “all” you need to do to treat it, is reduce those feelings. Perhpas by visiting a counsellor.
A particularly modern consideration is the amount of information you have access to – even leaving aside the quality of the information. Not only is it there, but through internet connected phones, and their notifications, it’s in your face, always interrupting you. And if you come across a quiet moment, you’ll interrupt yourself because you’re used to it.
Not to mention that with electric lights, you can access more information at night when theoretically, you’re at home relaxing. Or better still, sleeping.
Another fascinating fact (for me), is that you tend not to read screens as thoroughly as you read paper books. Hari suggests the medium is the message; that a print book signals a need to sit somewhere quiet to read and understand, whereas a screen is for skimming (we don’t comprehend as much on a screen as when we read paper).
Further Technological Effects
Possibly the most insidious effect, is technology that can track and manipulate you, i.e., social media algorithms. Technology that targets your weakness, blindspots and biases, taking you towards the limits of your mind through infinite scroll. Exploiting us through negativity bias, our desire for frequent rewards and the need to check social media rather than meeting in the real world.
Or suggesting that the fault lies with the individual, not the system. That the person is just shiftless or lazy, rather than that the odds are stacked against them.
They do this, because they make more money the longer you’re on there, building profiles that can almost suggest a purchase before you’ve fully formed the thought.
So what to do?
After that terrifying summation, I can’t leave you without some ways to combat the effects. The good news, is that there is quite a bit that you can do as an individual.
Starting with choosing to limit your exposure to the flow of information you’re assaulted with every day.
Slow down. Make time to prepare meals from scratch with real food, to exercise and to meet friends in the real world. Learn to get to sleep earlier, without chemical intervention. Take a meditation, yoga or tai chi class.
Take time away from social media, and use it to think, read books, or just let your mind wander.
Think about distractions as a kind of denial of service attack. Train yourself to keep getting back to the matter at hand, and you will teach yourself to focus for longer. Think about what you’re doing right now, make plans for the longer term, reflect on your life and think longer than the longer term.
You’re here for a reason. Make it a good life, not a fast one. Leave a dessicated, wrinkly corpse. 🙂