Sustainable Pace

August 13th, 2022

Stolen Focus (Johann Hari, 2022)

Since I have taken on a new position recently, I have had to deal with a more fragmented work schedule. I used to work closely with a small team of software developers, doing remote mob programming, which is awesome for focused work.

I'm now working as an architect with two teams and their stakeholders, communicating at different levels of abstraction and having a lot more, albeit smaller tasks to deal with. I also have to find time for defining and working on strategically important, long-term goals.

To be honest, it's a challenge if you're trying to make a difference, and I regularly struggle. In search of focus I found this book on social media, of all places. Oh, the irony.

Stolen Focus

The book starts out with the author's self-observation of his own decline in attention and focus. He simply couldn't get his writing done. It was so bad, he went on a three-month digital detox away on a remote island. While he learned a lot about his habits and managed to become productive again, his routine again slowly declined afterwards. So while there are a lot of things we as individuals can do, it's hard and never enough.

Sustainable Pace

Johann Hari continues by describing the business models of social media companies, and compares keeping focus with a battle of the individual against thousands of the smartest engineers in the silicon valley - it can't be won. For instance, he describes technologies like infinite scrolling in contrast to the conditioning experiments conducted by behaviorist B.F. Skinner. In the end, the sole purpose of social media is to keep you glued to the screen as long as possible, to show you as many ads as possible. It's about screen time, not life-time.

But this book is not about bashing social media companies. Hari shows that the trend of declining attention can be traced back to the 19th century, and the rise of capitalism and the philosophy of economic growth. He argues, that attention is just another resource that is being recklessly exploited - without considering the consequences, like people being susceptible to manipulation and unable to deal with real crises, like global warming.

Cruel optimism

Unfortunately, these problems are mostly addressed in a superficial manner. Hari mentions the phenomenon of cruel optimism, a common, cynical way of offering overly optimistic and simplistic solutions to complex societal problems to individuals. Take for example the rise of yoga and meditation classes in the enterprise context, where a stress-inducing system burdens the individual with solving the problem themselves.


I really like how the book opens up in the second half and shows how sleep quality, diet and nutrition, or the way we raise our children factor in this equation. I especially liked his mentioning of hypervigilance, a trait often found in traumatized people. Hypervigilant people are having a hard time to focus because their nervous system is much more sensitive to minor impulses from the outside, which are perceived as threats. They are also more susceptible to addiction.

Attention Rebellion

However, this is not a self-help book. There are no 10-point-plans or easy life hacks. It's a great collection of studies and expert interviews, that helps you see the bigger picture. Keeping your ability to focus and concentrate is an uphill battle. Johann Hari hopes for political movements, some kind of Attention Rebellion, to fight for regulation and de-growth in general.

Johann Hari manages to take an unembellished look at the situation and draw a clear, compelling picture. This clarity has helped me at least to be more self-compassionate, be clearer about my goals, work on establishing routines, and first and foremost, not worry too much. And that's fine - no cruel optimism here!