If you feel as though it’s hard to focus, you’re right. Research by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average office worker focuses on a single task for just three minutes, which is hardly enough time to get anything done.
But if you’re beating yourself up, blaming your lack of attention on personal weakness, that’s where you’re wrong. Humans are losing their ability to focus because it’s being stolen from them, says Johann Hari, author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again.
“I noticed that, with each year that passed, it felt like things that require deep focus, like reading a book, were getting more and more like running up a down escalator,” he says. “I could still do them, but they were getting harder. And I noticed lots of other people felt this way, particularly the young people I knew and loved.”
Initially, Hari shrugged it off to a lack of willpower and the invention of the smartphone. “But what I learned is, these are way too simplistic ways of understanding what’s happening to us,” he says. “I concluded from what I learned that our attention didn’t collapse–our attention has been stolen from us by some very big and powerful forces.”
Through his research, Hari found scientific evidence of several factors that are hurting your attention span, many of which you might not realize are having a significant impact.
Today, about a third of working Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, getting less than the necessary minimum of seven hours a night.
“Only 15% of us wake up from our sleep feeling refreshed, and this is new,” says Hari. “Since 1942, the average amount of time a person sleeps has been slashed by an hour a night. There’s a scientific debate about the precise scale of our sleep loss, but the National Sleep Foundation has calculated that the amount of sleep we get has dropped by 20% in just 100 years.”
While it seems passive, sleep is important because it’s an active process. When you’re sleeping, your brain clearing out the metabolic waste that builds up during the day. If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain does not repair properly, and you are much less functional.
One of the reasons we’re not getting enough sleep is that we expose ourselves to enormous amounts of artificial life. When we turn off the lights to go to sleep, we get what’s called a second surge of energy, which was beneficial to our ancestors who needed a burst of energy to get back to safety at the end of the day.
“Now we control the light and we’re facing a glowing defect: 90% of Americans look at a glowing device within two hours of going to sleep,” says Hari. “When you turn it off, you suddenly get a surge of energy, because it’s starting to get dark. You’re lying in your bed, you’re restless, and it’s hard to sleep.”
Stress is also impairing our ability to sleep, especially as traditional work hours go away and employees feel a need to be constantly connected and reachable. “When I was a kid, the only people who were on call were doctors and the president,” says Hari.
To fix the problem, Hari says you need to radically limit your exposure to light before you go to sleep, removing sources of artificial light in your bedroom and avoiding the blue light of screens for at least two hours before you go to bed. In addition, the temperature in your room needs to be cool, almost cold.
“Your body needs to cool its core to send you to sleep, and the harder that is, the longer it takes,” says Hari. “These are helpful, and relatively well-known tips—but, as every expert I spoke to acknowledged, they are not enough for most people. We live in a culture that is constantly amping us up with stress and stimulation.”
The way we eat also affects our ability to focus and pay attention in three ways. First, the standard American or British breakfast usually includes white bread or sugary cereal that releases a huge amount of energy quickly into the brain. It feels great at first, then an hour or two later, you experience a severe energy slump and get what’s called brain fog.
“Brain fog is where you can’t think very clearly,” says Hari. “You basically are in a state of brain fog until you have your next sugary carb treat. But what happens is we live on a roller-coaster, energy spikes and energy crashes. So we have periodic bouts of brain fog throughout the day.”
If you eat a more balanced diet, and ensure you’re getting proper nutrients, “you get a much better ability to focus and pay attention,” he says. British nutritionist Dale Pinnock told Hari that if you want to understand why so many of us are struggling to focus, you might want to think about it this way: “If you put shampoo into a car engine, you’re not going to scratch your head when the thing conks out. Yet every day, all over the Western world, we are putting into our bodies substances [that] are so far removed from what was intended for human fuel.”
We’re addicted to technology
While it’s not surprising, technology is also deeply impacting our ability to focus. But it’s not the tools alone that are to blame. As part of his research for the book, Hari spent three months in Provincetown, Cape Cod without the Internet, a laptop, or a smartphone. “I was amazed by how much my attention came back,” he says. “I was nearly 40, and my attention went back to what it been when I was 17. I could sit and read a book for eight hours a day; I was amazed.”
When he returned, his attention was better, but he couldn’t sustain the level he had achieved while he was away. For his book, Hari interviewed Dr. James Williams, a former senior Google strategist who researches the ethics of technology and the “attention economy.”
“He said to me, the mistake you’ve made in Provincetown is like thinking the solution to air pollution is for you personally to wear a gas mask,” says Hari. “What we need to pursue are the biggest social solutions.”
Apps are designed to constantly interrupt you for a very simple reason: Every time you pick up your phone and start scrolling, those companies make more money, says Hari. “Sean Parker, one of the earliest investors in Facebook, told a public audience that the creators of the site had asked themselves, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ The techniques they used were ‘exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. . . . [We] understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.'”
While Hari says the individual solution is abstinence, he also says there needs to be societal change, and likening it to removing lead from paint. “By the ’70s, it was extremely well known that exposure to lead is particularly bad for children’s brains, and what happened is there was then a big movement, mostly of mothers, saying ‘we had to stop this, we have to, we can’t allow our children’s brains to be damaged in this way,'” he says. “They didn’t say ‘ban paint.’ They said, ‘ban the lead in the paint.'”
Hari suggests looking at social media in the same way. “Social media has many good aspects to it,” he says. “But there are specific aspects of social media that we can deal with through regulation that that will hugely restore our ability to focus. We don’t need to ban social media. We need to ban the business model that’s harmful.”
Taking back our focus
Hari says the world needs an attention movement to reclaim our minds and take on these forces. “It’s like someone is pouring itching powder on us all day, and then leaning over and going, ‘Hey, buddy, you might want to learn how to meditate, then you wouldn’t scratch so much,'” he says. “It requires a real shift in consciousness.”
First, we need to stop blaming ourselves for our lack of focus, and thinking we’re weak. Instead, we need to look closer at how our lifestyles and the tools we use are disrupting our habits, he says.
“We are the free citizens of democracies, and we own our own minds. We can take them back if we want to. And we can defend our children from these big forces that are invading our attention,” says Hari. “But we have to resolve to do it at the moment. Those factors invading our attention are only going to become stronger if we don’t act.”