Summary - Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again - Johann Hari

Summary - Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again - Johann Hari


  • The author promised to take his godson Adam to Graceland when Adam was nine and obsessed with Elvis Presley.

  • 10 years later, Adam, now 19, spends most of his time staring at screens and struggles to focus or have long conversations. The author worries about Adam's inability to focus and disconnect from technology.

  • The author fulfills his promise and takes Adam to Graceland and New Orleans. He tells Adam he will pay for the trip only if Adam leaves his phone off for most of the trip so they can reconnect with reality. Adam agrees.

  • Visitors are given iPads to guide themselves through the mansion at Graceland. The author notices most visitors stare at their iPads and phones the whole time instead of looking around at the actual rooms and artifacts.

  • In the Jungle Room, the author tries to convince a couple to look around the room instead of just swiping through images of the room on their iPads. They seem disturbed by his insistence and hurry out of the room.

  • The author worries people have lost the ability to focus and be present at the moment without technology and screens mediating their experiences. He hopes the trip will help Adam improve his attention span and reconnect with the real world.

The key themes and takeaways are:

  1. Technology and screens are damaging our ability to focus and be fully present in experiences.

  2. Many people have become so reliant on technology that they struggle to disconnect from it even when experiencing something firsthand.

  3. The author is concerned about younger generations' decreasing attention spans and ability to focus due to technology, as exemplified by his godson Adam's difficulties.

  4. The author believes that disconnecting from technology and reengaging with reality can help improve focus and attention. His trip to Graceland is an attempt to help Adam in this way.

  • The author took her friend Adam on a trip to Graceland to escape their inability to focus, but found that the problem was everywhere. Even in places designed to be calming and tranquil, like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and in front of the Mona Lisa, people were distracted and unable to be present.

  • The author interviewed Roy Baumeister, a leading expert on willpower and self-discipline, who said that even his ability to focus and control his attention is not as strong as it used to be. This suggested to the author that if even the experts are struggling, most ordinary people must have a hard time.

  • Although people have complained about declining attention spans for generations, there is evidence that several factors proven to reduce attention have been increasing in recent decades. Only one trend is improving attention. This led the author to believe there was a real crisis in attention and focus.

  • Studies found that on average, college students switch tasks every 65 seconds and focus on any one thing for only 19 seconds. For office workers, it is 3 minutes.

  • The author went on a long journey to research how to restore focus and attention. She interviewed over 250 experts and found examples of disastrous failures of attention and promising restorations of focus.

  • The author realized the problem is not a personal failure or single inventions like phones, but something more profound. She compares rising attention problems to rising obesity - 50 years ago there was little of either, now both are common.

  • The summary notes that the key points are: attention problems seem real and widespread; multiple societal and technological factors are reducing attention; but a more profound problem underlies personal struggles and single inventions; and solutions may be possible, as some are restoring focus. The comparison to obesity suggests a range of factors have combined to create a pervasive problem that was rare in the past.

  • The author argues that our decreasing ability to pay attention is not due to personal failures but systemic societal forces. He calls this an "attention crisis" requiring individual and collective solutions.

  • There are three main reasons to address this crisis:

  1. Diminished individual lives. Constant distractions make it hard to focus, achieve goals, spend quality time with loved ones, and find purpose and meaning. Studies show it can take over 20 minutes to regain focus after an interruption.

  2. Societal problems. Lack of attention undermines problem-solving and democracy. We need help to identify and solve major issues like climate change. Democracy requires an informed public to hold leaders accountable, which attention fragmentation threatens.

  3. The crisis can be solved. Although not everything can be changed, the author argues humans can address these human-caused crisisumans. Understanding the problem is the first step to solving it.

  • The author interviewed many scientists and studied research on attention and focus. He aims to present the most substantial evidence, noting areas of controversy and uncertainty. His background in social sciences helps assess this research.

  • Solutions require both individual responsibility and collective action. While individuals can improve their focus, systemic problems demand systemic solutions. The crisis requires a paradigm shift in how we think about this issue.

The summary outlines the author's argument that societal factors are primarily responsible for declining attention spans, why this crisis matters, the strength and uncertainties in the evidence, and the need for individual and collective solutions. The key reasons, evidence, and solutions are laid out while noting the complexities of studying human attention.

The author went on a 3-month digital detox by traveling to Provincetown and disconnecting from the Internet and smartphones. The author felt distracted and unable to focus and believed that disconnecting from technology would help them regain the ability to think deeply.

The author had trouble finding an essential phone without internet capability and had to order an older adult's phone called the Jitterbug. Reactions to the plan fell into three categories: confusion, low-level panic about emergencies, and envy of free time.

To prepare, the author bought replacements for the various functions of a smartphone, like a watch, alarm clock, iPod, and books. The author felt panic but went through with the plan, likening it to Odysseus tying himself to the mast to resist the sirens. The author notes that "pre-commitment" - limiting your choices in advance - effectively breaks terrible habits.

The author cites a psychology experiment showing that pre-commitment works. In the experiment, groups of men were told they could see a sexy photo now or wait and get $10. Those who pre-committed to waiting by locking away the photos were better able to resist temptation.

The key arguments are that technology and smartphones have distracted us and reduced our ability to focus. Disconnecting can help regain focus, but is challenging. Using techniques like pre-commitment to limit temptation and distraction can be effective.

  • The writer took an extreme pre-commitment by traveling to Provincetown, Massachusetts, an isolated beach town, to disconnect from technology and constant work.

  • On the ferry ride over, the writer reflected on how much technology like cell phones and email had come to dominate life in just 20 years. The writer chose Provincetown because it seemed charming but straightforward enough, hoping it would not trigger the writer's curiosity and desire for constant information.

  • The writer rented a small beach house and asked the real estate agent to disconnect the Internet and cable. The writer wanted to decompress in this "pretty purgatory."

  • Standing on the beach, the writer suddenly knew this was the right decision. The writer could still stare at the permanent ocean, rather than the temporary and fast-moving Twitter feed and other digital distractions. The ocean provided a "soft, wet, welcoming indifference."

  • On a walk, the writer saw a man who appeared to be walking on water far out in the ocean. The uneven ocean floor and sandbars made it look that way. The writer saw the man often standing still for hours facing the ocean, the "opposite of Facebook."

  • At dinner with a friend, the friend said to enjoy the sense of bliss because it would not last. Disconnecting from distractions allows you to see what you were distracting yourself from.

  • The writer walked down the main commercial street, reflecting on the experience. The writer felt joy at disconnecting from technology and work.

That covers the key details and events in the writer's trip to Provincetown to disconnect from technology. Please let me know if you want me to clarify or expand my summary.

  • The author stayed in Provincetown, Massachusetts for three months without technology access. During this time, the author experienced a slowing down of life and a greater sense of calm and connection. Strange things began bubbling up in the author's consciousness, like songs from childhood. The author realized that everyday technology use induces panic, whereas this experience induced perspective.

  • Sune Lehmann, a Denmark professor, noticed he had trouble controlling his technology use and staying focused. He wondered if collective attention spans were shrinking, or if this was just part of aging. To find out, he and other scientists conducted a study analyzing data from sources like Twitter, Google, movie ticket sales, Reddit, and Google Books.

  • Their analysis of Twitter found that in 2013, topics remained trending for 17.5 hours, but in 2016 this dropped to 11.9 hours, suggesting decreasing focus. Analysis of other data sources found similar acceleration patterns and faster interest drop-offs over time.

  • Analysis of Google Books found that this pattern has happened for over 130 years, not just since the Internet. Topics have come and gone faster and faster with each decade. This was the first proof that collective attention spans have been shrinking over a long period, not recently.

  • In summary, while in Provincetown without technology the author felt more focused and connected. A study conducted by Sune Lehmann and other scientists found definitive proof that collective attention spans have decreased for over a century, with the trend accelerating in recent decades. Though the Internet has sped up this trend, it started well before the digital age.

• A team of scientists built a mathematical model to understand what is driving the accelerating pace of life and declining attention spans. Their model showed that flooding a system with more and more information leads to reduced attention spans.

• In the past, information traveled slowly, but today information moves instantly, as seen in the live-streamed New Zealand mosque massacre. This fire hose of information overwhelms us. Studies show that the amount of information we consume has increased dramatically. This acceleration creates the feeling of life speeding up.

• While technology can feel exciting, it comes at the cost of depth, reflection, and genuine relationships. Our attention resources are becoming exhausted. If the current acceleration continues indefinitely, it will reach a breaking point. However, there are currently no signs of slowing down.

• One scientist, Sune, changed his life to resist these trends. He stopped using social media and technology and began reading print newspapers and books. He says we have to make a conscious effort to choose depth over ease.

• Studies on speed-reading and focus show our brains have limits to how much information we can absorb and comprehend. When we go too fast, we prefer simplistic information and understand less. The "Great Acceleration" of life may be causing a kind of mental jet lag.

• While acceleration is often celebrated, studies on slow practices like meditation show that slowing down improves attention. When we go too fast, we overload our cognitive abilities, but at compatible speeds, we can shrink the world to fit our bandwidth. Slowing down leads to a more focused and meaningful life.

• In summary, an accelerated pace of life, fueled by technology and information overload, poses severe threats to human attention and depth. However, we can cultivate focus and meaning by consciously slowing down and limiting distractions. Overall, we must balance speed and depth, ease and reflection. The path ahead depends on making choices that are best for wellbeing.

  • Our brains are fundamentally limited in how many thoughts we can consciously hold. Most humans can only actively focus on one or two things at a time. The concept of "multitasking" was initially applied to computers, not humans, and we wrongly adopted the term.

  • When we switch between tasks, there are several harmful effects:

  1. The "switch cost effect": It takes time for our brains to reconfigure when switching between tasks. This slows us down and reduces our performance. Even brief distractions like checking texts can significantly reduce our focus.

  2. The "screw-up effect": When we switch tasks, we make more errors and have to spend time correcting those errors and refocusing. This reduces the quality and depth of our thinking.

  3. The "creativity drain": New ideas emerge from our brains making new connections between things we have learned and experienced. Constant task-switching deprives our brains of the uninterrupted time needed to make these new connections, reducing creativity.

  4. The "diminished memory effect" takes mental effort to convert experiences into memories. Constant task-switching deprives our brains of the mental space and energy needed for this conversion process, leading to worse memory.

  • Studies show the average worker is distracted once every 3 minutes and spends 40% of their time wrongly believing they are multitasking. Uninterrupted time is becoming rare.

  • The proposed solution is to slow down, focus on one thing at a time, and avoid constant task-switching. Slowness, focus, and single-tasking nurture attention in a way that speed, distraction, and multitasking cannot. Constantly dividing our attention comes with significant costs to our cognition, creativity, productivity, and wellbeing.

  • Most office workers get very few uninterrupted periods during their day. CEOs average only 28 minutes. Constant interruptions impair our ability to focus and be productive.

  • These frequent distractions are often called "multitasking" but checking phones and texts is not multitasking. It impairs our focus and performance. Studies show people do 20-30% worse on tests when getting text notifications.

  • Distracted driving due to technology use is now a leading cause of death. Impairment from distractions is comparable to driving drunk.

  • Our brains are not built to process vast volumes of information and constant switching between tasks. They evolved over thousands of years to focus on one thing at a time. Strengthening neural connections through practice can help rebuild our ability to focus for more extended periods. Reducing distractions is critical.

  • There is a constant barrage of stimuli our brains must filter out to allow us to focus, like background noise. However, today, the "bouncer" in our brain that filters these distractions is overwhelmed, letting more distractions through and impairing our focus.

  • The author felt relief from constant switching and distraction in Provincetown for two weeks. However, then felt intense anxiety and restlessness without the stimulation and dopamine hits from technology and social media. Constant craving for outside validation and instant rewards has left us unable to be content in stillness and solitude.

  • There is a desire to fill every second with stimulation and input. However, our highest functioning and most creative thinking emerge from periods of solitude, boredom, and daydreaming. We must rediscover the ability to disconnect and be alone with our thoughts. Meditation and limiting screen time/social media can help rebuild our capacity for solitude and deep thinking.

  • The author went to Provincetown for a week without her phone or computer. At first, she felt anxious and panicked without social media's constant connectivity and validation. She realized she had become addicted to constantly checking her number of followers and likes for a sense of meaning and self-worth.

  • The author struggled to focus and relax. Even though she was in a peaceful place, she kept interrupting herself with thoughts of how she could describe things in tweets or what people might comment. She realized she had become accustomed to the constant signals of texts, messages and likes from the Internet, and without them, she felt meaningless and unimportant.

  • The author learned about the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied focus and flow states. She researched his background and life story. As a boy during World War II, Csikszentmihalyi grew up amid violence and instability. He learned to create inner worlds of imagination and play to cope.

  • Csikszentmihalyi's research showed how people could achieve intense focus and concentration flow by channeling attention and skill. The author started practicing some of his recommended techniques like mindfulness, sensory immersion and structured activity. She found relief from her anxious craving for social media validation by developing her ability to concentrate.

  • The key message is that social media addiction and constant connectivity can disrupt our ability to focus and be present. However, by developing flow and the skill of concentration, we can overcome unhealthy cravings for external validation. Concentration and inner focus lead to a more meaningful life.

•As a child, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was disillusioned with the adult world after witnessing the destruction of World War II. He found meaning through challenging outdoor activities with a scout troop.

•Csikszentmihalyi moved from Hungary to the U.S. to study psychology, but was disappointed to find the field dominated by B.F. Skinner's behaviorism portrayed humans as mechanically responding to rewards and punishments.

•Csikszentmihalyi studied artists and found they could enter a state of intense focus and lose the sense of time called "flow." He found that people in various fields could enter this flow state. They described it as highly rewarding, though the rewards were intrinsic to the activity.

•Csikszentmihalyi called this mental state "flow" and studied how to achieve it. He found that simply relaxing does not lead to flow. Instead, flow requires focused attention, clear goals, immediate feedback, a balance between challenge and skill, and a loss of self-consciousness.

•Flow states are some of the most meaningful experiences in people's lives. People can tap into an inner well of attention and motivation by achieving flow.

Here are the three core components summarized:

  1. Choose a clearly defined goal. Pick a single activity or task to focus on, such as painting a canvas, running up a hill, or teaching a child to swim. Set aside all other goals and distractions to achieve "monotasking."

  2. The activity must be meaningful to you. Paying attention to things that you care about comes more naturally. Choose a goal that motivates and interests you. If the task is meaningless, your attention will drift.

  3. The activity should push you outside your comfort zone, but not overwhelm you. If the task is easy enough, you will get bored. If it is simple enough, you will get anxious and frustrated. Find the "sweet spot" at the edge of your abilities that challenges and allows you to grow.

By structuring your time and priorities around these three principles, you can achieve a state of "flow"—a highly focused mental state where you are fully immersed in an activity. In flow, you feel a loss of self-consciousness and your sense of time becomes distorted. Creating the right conditions for flow leads to greater happiness, creativity, and personal growth. However, flow states are fragile and easily disrupted without conscious effort and practice. Making flow a habit requires removing distractions and choosing meaningful challenges.

The author describes how before going to Provincetown, she struggled with sleep and waking up, relying on alarms, caffeine, and melatonin to force herself into an wakeful state. In Provincetown, without the distractions of technology and busy schedules, she falls into a natural rhythm of sleeping for 9 hours and waking up refreshed, without needing coffee or alarms.

She explores research showing how lack of sleep severely impairs our ability to focus and pay attention. Studies by Charles Czeisler found that staying awake for 19 hours straight impairs cognitive ability as much as being drunk. Keeping people awake through the night and the next day revealed how quickly their ability to focus, remember, and respond deteriorated.

The author argues that in today's fast-paced world, we chronically undersleep and deny our bodies the rest they need. Our "always-on" culture pushes us to override our natural circadian rhythms. However, incredibly long and uninterrupted sleep is essential for rejuvenating our mental capacities. Without it, we lose the ability to concentrate, think deeply, and be creative.

The fundamental causes of our loss of attention are:

  1. Constant distraction and interruption from technology

  2. Manipulation by tech companies using psychological tricks to keep us engaged

  3. Physical and mental exhaustion from lack of sleep, rest, and recovery

To regain our ability to focus, we need to restore natural rhythms of rest by reducing distractions and making time for flow activities, sleep, and downtime. Our brains and bodies crave these respites to function at their best. However, culturally, we have seen rest as unproductive laziness rather than a necessity for health, happiness, and progress. The author argues that we must revalue rest and make it a priority again.

  • Charles, a leading sleep expert, found that when people are tired, they experience "attentional blinks" where they briefly lose focus. As people get more tired, these attentional blinks happen more often. Even when awake, parts of tired people's brains can be "locally asleep."

  • Charles found that sleep deprivation impacts children the most. While adults get drowsy when tired, children often become hyperactive. Lack of sleep in children leads to inability to pay attention and focus.

  • Other research has found that less sleep leads to slower reaction times, impaired memory, and reduced creativity. Losing a couple hours of sleep per night for a couple weeks can impair you as much as staying up all night. 40% of Americans are chronically sleep deprived.

  • Sleep deprivation puts your body into a state of emergency. It raises blood pressure, increases cravings for high-energy foods, and raises heart rate. Your body does not know why you are not sleeping and reacts as if there is a crisis. This cuts off access to longer-term focus and memory functions.

  • Caffeine and stimulants do not make up for lack of sleep. They block the signals in your brain that tell you you are tired. When the caffeine wears off, you end up even more exhausted.

  • In summary, lack of sleep impairs focus, attention, memory, and health. According to Charles and other experts, it is an urgent societal problem that worsens over time.

Here is a summary of what is happening:

• Lack of sleep is damaging our ability to focus and think clearly. Sleep deprivation leads to a buildup of toxins in the brain that inhibit cognitive function.

• Sleep is an active process in which the brain repairs itself, restores energy, and dreams. These functions are necessary for focus, mood, and health. Without enough sleep, we lose many of these benefits.

• Society is becoming increasingly sleep-deprived due to constant stimulation and artificial light. We have disrupted our natural circadian rhythms and sleep-wake cycles.

• Many people rely on sleep aids to induce sleep, but chemically-induced sleep is not as restorative as natural sleep. Sleeping pills often reduce REM sleep and dreams, leaving people groggy. They should only be used short term.

• Doctors, who should warn us about the risks of sleep deprivation, are often sleep-deprived due to their medical training and long work hours. This endangers their patients.

• Our use of artificial light has disrupted our natural energy cycles corresponding to sunrise and sunset. Exposure to light before bedtime triggers the release of energy, making it harder to fall asleep.

• Several factors contribute to society's decreasing focus on sleep, despite its importance. Some will be explored later.

That covers the key points about what is happening with the decreasing societal focus on sleep, the consequences of sleep deprivation, and some factors contributing to the problem. Please let me know if you would like me to explain anything in the summary in more detail.

  • People are reading fewer books and for less time. Surveys show steep declines in reading for pleasure, especially among younger Americans. Complex, literary fiction is particularly suffering.

  • One reason is that many people need more time to focus or concentrate on reading books. They start books but quickly lose the ability to sustain attention and stop reading. Even avid readers and those surrounded by books report this problem.

  • This is a significant loss because reading books provides a deep, immersive form of focus and flow that is becoming rare. It allows us to dedicate extended periods of concentrated attention to exploring new ideas. Most major advances in human thought have been spread through books.

  • While on vacation, the author noticed he was reading more books and could focus on them longer. He felt he gained more from reading during this time than in the previous several years of scattered attention.

  • Research shows that reading books and reading on screens train our brains in different ways. Reading books teaches sustained, linear attention, while screens encourage distraction and switching. This may make it harder to read books.

  • In summary, a key reason why attention is declining is that people are losing the ability to read books with sustained focus. This has significant consequences for learning, thinking, and advancing ideas. Rebuilding the habit of deep reading is essential for solving the attention crisis.

  • The rise of digital media and screens is changing how we read. We now tend to scan and skim more when reading on screens. This lighter way of reading is bleeding over into how we read physical books, making it harder to focus our attention and read deeply.

  • This shift in reading habits is weakening our ability to read long, complex texts and diminishing our cognitive patience and stamina. Some experts worry that we need to learn to think deeply and focus.

  • New communications media, like social media, profoundly shape how we see and understand the world. Marshall McLuhan called this idea "the medium is the message." Each medium has a set of implicit messages and codes that guide how we think.

  • Social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram promote shallow ways of thinking and interacting. Their messages encourage us to seek quick validation, focus on appearances, and form superficial connections.

  • In contrast, the medium of the printed book promotes deeper thinking and more complex understanding. The message in the book is that life is complicated, focused attention matters, other people have rich inner lives, and deep thinking is rewarding.

  • The author finds social media drains her and feeds her worse qualities, while reading books nourishes and encourages her best qualities. She agrees with and values the messages and way of thinking that books promote.

So in summary, the rise of screens and social media is weakening society's ability for deep, complex thinking by changing how we read and interact. However, traditional mediums like printed books can still cultivate profound understanding and connection. The messages we absorb from our mediums shape our thinking positively and negatively.

  • The author finds that spending much time on social media leaves them feeling drained and unhappy, whereas reading books has the opposite effect.

  • To better understand this, the author interviews psychologist Raymond Mar, an expert on how reading affects our consciousness. Mar and his colleagues conducted studies showing that reading fiction improves people's ability to empathize with others and understand their emotions. This is because when reading fiction, we simulate the experience of being in another person's head.

  • While the effect could be due to reading boosting empathy or empathetic people being drawn to reading, Mar believes both are likely true. Evidence shows that reading fiction as a child improves empathy, suggesting that reading has a causal effect.

  • Mar says reading fiction creates a "unique form of consciousness" where our attention directs outward to the words and inward to what they represent. This allows us to simulate being another person and practice understanding others. Each book allows us to see inside more people's experiences, expanding our empathy.

  • If reading fiction significantly increases empathy, social media and other modern technologies may have the opposite effect by exposing us to fragmented and crude information—the technologies we use to shape our consciousness over time.

  • Mar studies the effects of reading fiction on empathy because empathy is crucial to solving humanity's biggest problems. Expanding empathy through stories could foster progress on social justice and environmental protection issues.

  • The spotlight metaphor is used to represent how our attention works. Our focus narrows to a single point of interest when reading or at an event. Social media and modern life may disrupt this "spotlight" by constantly fracturing our focus.

Reading fiction expands empathy and creates a more complex inner world. In contrast, social media may negatively impact consciousness by disrupting focused attention and exposing us to less complex information. Mar believes cultivating empathy through stories could help address major issues facing the world today.

  • William James, the pioneer of modern psychology, popularized that attention works like a spotlight. This dominated thinking about attention for decades. However, other forms of attention are just as necessary.

  • The author used to feel panicked if she was not constantly stimulating her mind. However, during a trip to Cape Cod, she discovered the benefits of letting her mind wander for hours. She had more creative ideas and insights than usual.

  • In the 1950s, a high school teacher scolded his student Marcus Raichle for daydreaming too much. However, Raichle went on to become a leading neuroscientist who studied mind-wandering. Using new brain scanning technology, he found that the brain remains highly active even when people's minds are wandering. This contradicted the prevailing view that the brain goes dormant when not focused. Raichle named the network of brain regions active during mind-wandering the "default mode network."

  • Raichle's discovery sparked much research into mind-wandering and the default mode network. Two leading experts, Nathan Spreng, and Jonathan Smallwood, found three key benefits of mind-wandering:

  1. It helps us make sense of the world. Our minds wander while reading or listening, allowing us to connect ideas and understand themes. Mind-wandering is essential for comprehension and organizing our lives.

  2. It makes new connections in our brains that can lead to solutions to problems. Our mind wanders to address unresolved issues, and this can produce insights.

  3. It enables us to simulate future events and understand our place in the world. Mind-wandering transports us to possible future scenarios and gives us a sense of meaning and identity.

  • In sum, mind-wandering serves vital cognitive functions. It should be seen as something other than a lack of focus or a waste of time. Our mental lives depend on the ability to let our minds wander.

• The author went to Provincetown for the summer to focus and be productive. However, she realized that mind-wandering, not just focused attention, is necessary for creativity and insight.

• Mind-wandering allows for unexpected connections and trains of thought. It helped Henri Poincaré solve a math problem. Many scientific breakthroughs happen during mind-wandering, not focused attention.

• Mind-wandering engages in "mental time travel," imagining the past and future. This helps prepare us for what is to come.

• We usually see mind-wandering as the opposite of attention, but it is a different kind of attention. Our brains have the same "bandwidth" but it is allocated differently. Focusing attention is essential but so is mind-wandering.

• Our culture prizes spotlighted focus and sees mind-wandering as unproductive. However, the people staring out of train windows may think more meaningfully. We spend little time mind-wandering or focusing, instead constantly skimming and distracting ourselves.

• Mind-wandering and focused attention are like instruments in an orchestra, creating a symphony of thinking. However, right now, our thinking is being invaded and disrupted.

• Mind-wandering often makes people unhappy, unlike most activities. Mind-wandering can lead to rumination and stressful thoughts, especially in high-stress situations. In low-stress, safe environments, mind-wandering is more positive.

• The author felt open and connected to others while watching the sunset in Provincetown. The light reflecting off the ocean seemed like two sunsets at once.

• The summary ends by mentioning the author sitting with her friend Andrew's dog, Buddy.

Here is a summary of the passage:

  • The author went to Provincetown for the summer and cut herself off from technology and social media. She found it nourishing and centering.

  • However, after she left Provincetown and reengaged with technology, she became addicted and distracted again. She felt like a failure for slipping back into old habits.

  • The author realized the solution is not just individual action like digital detoxes. The root causes lie in how technology is designed and the environment it creates.

  • The author interviewed Tristan Harris, a former Google executive, to understand how technology alters our attention.

  • As a child, Harris learned magic and discovered that magic relies on manipulating people's attention. He realized that controlling someone's focus allows you to influence them.

  • Harris worked at Google and saw how technology and social media companies employ similar techniques to capture and control people's attention. This shapes how billions of people spend their time and mental energy.

  • Harris left Google to advocate for reforming technology to align with human wellbeing. He argues that the current model promotes addiction and distraction by hijacking psychological vulnerabilities.

  • The author lists six ways technology harms attention. The underlying force driving these issues is our finite attention and time competition. Technology companies design features to keep people engaged as much as possible.

  • Harris says we need to make changes at a systemic level to address how technology affects attention and focus. Individual actions are not enough. Environmental changes and business model reforms are needed.

  • Susceptibility to magic tricks is not related to intelligence. It is about the limits and biases of the human mind that magicians exploit. Magic reveals how fallible and manipulable the human mind is.

  • Magicians can manipulate people's attention and choices to a surprising degree without people realizing it. They make people think they are acting of their own free will when guided. This shows how little we may understand our weaknesses and limits.

  • As an undergraduate at Stanford, Tristan Harris learned about the psychology of persuasion and behavior change in a course called "Persuasive Technology." The professor, B.J. Fogg, taught students how technology could be designed to change people's behavior without their awareness. The course introduced Tristan to many psychological insights and tricks for influencing and manipulating people.

  • For a class project, Tristan and a partner designed an app called "Send the Sunshine" to help with the seasonal affective disorder by prompting people to send photos of the sun to friends who needed it. The class inspired two other students to create Instagram.

  • Tristan began to realize how some technology may be "hacking" human psychology and manipulating people without their consent. He noticed how obsessively he was checking email and how it was damaging his attention span. He wondered if tech companies were using persuasive techniques unethically.

  • In their final class, students discussed how psychological profiles of users could be used to ideally target persuasive messages to individuals based on their personalities and weaknesses. This idea anticipates how companies like Cambridge Analytica would later exploit user data to manipulate people.

  • Tristan became concerned about how the powers of persuasion and behavior change he had learned about were being used in technology to influence people without their awareness or consent. This led him to advocate for "humane technology" that respects human agency and psychology.

  • Tristan Harris worked at Google from 2011 to 2016. While there, he became increasingly concerned about how tech companies were designing their products in ways that degraded people's attention and ability to focus.

  • Tristan had studied persuasive design and saw how Google was using subtle tricks to keep people engaged with their products for as long as possible so they could show more ads. His colleagues were focused on increasing "engagement" and did not seem concerned about the ethics of how they were influencing people's minds and attention.

  • Tristan proposed some changes to make Google's products less distracting and attention-sucking, but these ideas gained little traction. He eventually became so disillusioned that he left Google.

  • As a last attempt, Tristan created a slide presentation for his colleagues explaining why he was leaving and his concerns about how tech distracted the world. He suggested some ways Google could change to be more ethical and respectful of human vulnerabilities and psychology. For example, sending email notifications only once daily instead of constantly, and warning people how long certain activities might distract them.

  • Tristan argued that as the company controlling more than 50% of the world's phone notifications, Google had an enormous responsibility to shape technology in a way that did not exploit human weaknesses. However, instead, the focus was on creating an "arms race" for people's attention and time.

  • Tristan was taking a bold stand in directly challenging the approach of the largest tech companies. However, as a reasonably junior employee, his warnings and suggestions went largely unheeded. He eventually left, convinced the companies were "destroying our ability to focus" without understanding "what we are doing to people."

In summary, Tristan Harris became a whistleblower trying to push back against Big Tech's extreme focus on maximizing "engagement" with no regard for the ethics of how they were influencing human psychology or the societal effects. However, as a lone voice, he could not change the direction of the enormous companies benefiting from people's distraction and addiction.

  • Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, presented to his colleagues the addictive and attention-grabbing designs of tech products. Though controversial, his message resonated with many employees. Google created a new position for him as their first "design ethicist."

  • In this role, Harris researched how products like Snapchat hook users, especially teenagers. However, executives shot down his ideas when he proposed changes to make Google's products less distracting. He realized that Google's business model depends on dominating people's attention, even if that different from the company's goal.

  • Harris struggled in this role and felt hopeless about changing such an extensive system. After two years, he quit Google.

  • Aza Raskin, another tech figure, grew up learning that technology should enhance human capabilities. As a young coder, he designed the "infinite scroll" feature, which loads more content automatically as you scroll down a page. This feature spread widely and changed how people interact with the Internet.

  • But Raskin realized that infinite scroll was causing people to spend 50% more time mindlessly scrolling through information, amounting to 200,000 lifetimes worth of time wasted each day. He felt horrified by this unintended consequence of his design.

  • Both Harris and Raskin became disillusioned with the tech industry and how its designs were engineered to capture attention, often in ways that diminish human wellbeing and productivity. However, they were initially powerless to change such a profitable system.

Here are the key points summarized:

  • Tech designers like Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin became increasingly uncomfortable with the technologies they created, like infinite scroll, optimized to capture attention and keep people endlessly engaged.

  • They felt these technologies were negatively impacting society and human wellbeing. People have become more angry, unempathetic and addicted to their phones and social media.

  • However, the tech industry's business model depends on keeping people engaged as much as possible to show them ads and collect data to build advertising profiles. Companies make money from the time people spend staring at screens and the data they provide.

  • The more time people spend on sites and the more data they provide, the more accurately companies can create "voodoo dolls" - extremely detailed advertising profiles of individual users. They use these to determine how to keep people engaged and target them with ads.

  • Many tech insiders have started speaking out against these business models and calling for change. However, there is a lot of denial and defensiveness in the tech industry. Creating highly engaging and addictive technologies has become standard practice.

  • Tristan Harris argues that simple changes, like enabling social networks to connect people in person, are easy to implement but go against companies' business models of keeping people endlessly engaged online. The market needs to provide these types of solutions naturally.

  • There is a growing group of "tech dissidents" in Silicon Valley concerned with the effects of technology on human wellbeing. However, technology is advancing so quickly that the world is likely to become even more addictive and attention-grabbing in the coming decades.

  • Tech companies have created highly sophisticated "voodoo dolls" of users by collecting massive amounts of data about them. These voodoo dolls are used to target ads and keep people engaged.

  • Many tech services are free because companies make money by collecting data and using it to keep people distracted and engaged as long as possible. This is known as "surveillance capitalism."

  • An ex-Facebook engineer explained that Facebook and other companies are designed to be as distracting and attention-grabbing as possible. They do this to maximize the time people spend on the platforms so they can make more money.

  • The content people see on social media and other platforms is curated by algorithms designed to keep people looking at their screens. These algorithms tend to favor engaging and outrage-inducing content because it is effective at maintaining people's attention.

  • Although tech and social media are often blamed for decreasing attention spans and distraction, the real problem is how these platforms and services are designed, not the technology itself. They could be designed differently to respect people's attention and wellbeing.

  • The debate over technology's impact is too often framed as pro-tech versus anti-tech. However, the real issue is what kinds of technology are designed for purposes and in whose interests. Technology itself is neutral; it depends on how it is applied and deployed.

  • People often wrongly assume that the content they see on social media platforms is random or chronological. However, in reality, algorithms carefully curate what people see to maximize engagement and time spent on the platforms.

In summary, technology companies have designed their platforms and services to maximize user attention and time spent on wellbeing. However, neutral technology could be designed to respect users and support their wellbeing. The issue is how technology is developed and deployed, not technology itself.

• Humans tend to focus more on negative and outrageous information than positive or calming information. This is known as "negativity bias."

• This natural human quirk amplifies the effects of internet algorithms and platforms that prioritize keeping people's attention. Outrage and anger generate more attention and engagement, so algorithms promote that content.

• Excessive exposure to anger and outrage negatively affects culture and society. It makes people less able to understand different perspectives and less compassionate toward others.

• Most people do not understand how internet algorithms work or even know that the information they see online is filtered. When researchers explain how algorithms work to people, they are often shocked.

• There are six main ways these algorithms and platforms negatively impact attention:

  1. They train our minds to crave external rewards like likes and hearts constantly. This makes it hard to focus on the physical world.

  2. They encourage frequent task-switching, reducing attention and thinking quality.

  3. They learn to keep people's attention by identifying and targeting their triggers.

  4. They frequently provoke anger, inhibiting attention and thinking depth.

  5. They give the impression that the world is full of anger and hostility, making people more vigilant and less able to focus.

  6. They undermine society's collective attention and ability to identify and solve problems. False information spreads faster, making it hard to know the truth and address real issues.

• In summary, internet platforms and algorithms pose risks to both individual and collective attention. They make people less able to think deeply or understand different perspectives. Moreover, they make it more difficult for society to come together to solve serious problems.

  • Social media algorithms promote outrage and extreme content because that keeps people engaged the longest. This fuels the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

  • On YouTube, the recommendation algorithm often leads viewers down a "rabbit hole" of increasingly extreme and untrue content. For example, viewing a factual video about the Holocaust can lead to recommendations for Holocaust denial videos.

  • This constant exposure to extreme and false content has real-world consequences. Studies show YouTube radicalized many white nationalists and far-right individuals. In Brazil, YouTube and Facebook algorithms helped spread misinformation and propel the authoritarian candidate Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency.

  • Bolsonaro pledged to increase violence against poor, black Brazilians. After he won, his supporters credited social media algorithms for helping him get elected.

  • The author's friend Raull Santiago grew up in a dangerous Brazilian favela. He started a group to document police brutality. However, after Bolsonaro won, a helicopter fired on people in Raull's favela. Raull fears further violence under Bolsonaro.

  • The author argues that this is where algorithms and misinformation could lead society. Algorithms create a feedback loop by damaging attention and focus, filling people's minds with lies, and making the world seem scarier. People become more vigilant and reactive, but less able to see real threats or solve problems.

  • The author warns that collectively, we must address these issues, or societies could descend into "radicalization and rage." Things will become more dangerous as "real danger rises." However, people will need to be more focused and able to respond effectively.

The key argument is that algorithmically-driven misinformation poses a significant threat, and if left unaddressed, could undermine societies, attention spans, and democracy itself. Algorithms already make the world feel scarier by amplifying outrage and extreme content. However, they could end up making the world objectively more dangerous too.

  • Social media and other technologies are negatively impacting our lives in significant ways. They are damaging our attention spans, critical thinking skills, and ability to solve complex problems. This is happening at a time when we need these capabilities the most to solve issues like climate change.

  • Two former tech insiders, Tristan and Aza, believe that technology companies have created algorithms and recommendation systems that systematically "downgrade" humans to maximize engagement and profits. They warn that we have unleashed systems we do not fully understand and cannot control.

  • However, another former tech insider, Nir Eyal, believes the root cause of the problem lies within us, not the tech companies. He argues that we must develop individual skills to overcome distraction and device addiction. We must examine the psychological triggers that cause us to check our phones and social media compulsively. Techniques like identifying triggers, delaying gratification, and being more mindful can help build these skills.

  • While individual changes are essential, more is needed. We also need broader solutions to alter the tech systems and business models exacerbating these issues. The rise of "cruel optimism" in tech—the idea that the latest technology will make our lives vastly better when it often does the opposite—propels the crisis. More systemic, regulatory, and business model changes are required in addition to individuals strengthening their self-control.

  • According to some experts, technology overuse and misuse significantly damage society. Resolving this crisis will require a combination of individual skill-building as well as more extensive solutions to reign in tech business models and systems. Relying on one approach alone will not be sufficient. We need a multi-pronged strategy to overcome what some see as the "human downgrading" and "reverse engineering" of society that certain technologies are enabling.

  • Nir Eyal believes that individuals are responsible for controlling their own distractions and tech addiction. He says it is not the tech companies' fault and that we can change our habits.

  • He taught techniques like the "ten-minute rule" (wait ten minutes before checking your phone), time-boxing (planning and scheduling your time in detail), changing notification settings, deleting apps, unsubscribing from emails, and limiting email checking to specific times. He says these techniques are simple but effective, though many must utilize them.

  • I felt conflicted about Nir's approach. On the one hand, his techniques are helpful. However, on the other hand, his approach aligns with how tech companies want us to think—that tech addiction is an individual problem to be solved through willpower, not by changing the companies' actions. The companies even offer tools to help build willpower.

  • In his earlier book Hooked, Nir described building habit-forming tech products by creating "internal triggers" and "craving" in users. His approach was to "drive them crazy" and get them "fiendishly hooked." This troubled me, given that he now blames individuals for their distraction.

  • I discussed this mismatch with Nir. He said "everything I talked about in Hooked, you can turn off with the tap of one thumb." However, others I spoke to saw the mismatch as an example of "cruel optimism"—offering an overly simplistic solution to a complex problem that is unlikely to truly solve the more profound issues.

  • For example, a bestselling book on stress says that "stress is not something imposed on us. It is something we impose on ourselves." It says stress comes from your thoughts, so you must meditate and be mindful. However, in reality, there are many external factors causing stress, and an individual solution is limited. Optimism is cruel because it will not solve the deeper problem of monsters.

  • Similarly, Nir's focus on individual solutions to distraction is a form of cruel optimism. Tech companies created the problems, but now blame individuals and offer limited solutions. Stronger willpower alone will not overcome the companies' engineered addiction for most. We need solutions that also address the root causes.

• The top causes of stress for most Americans are lack of health insurance, job insecurity, lack of control at work, long working hours, unfair treatment, and unrealistic demands. For these people, stress is imposed by external factors, not their mindset.

• Telling people to meditate or think positively in the face of these societal stresses is "cruel optimism" and "victim-blaming." It deflects attention from the real issues and causes people to blame themselves when the advice does not work.

• The tech industry exemplifies this cruel optimism. People like Nir Eyal market technologies designed to "hook" users and profit from their fear and anxiety. However, because they are in positions of wealth and privilege, they can use techniques like meditation to regain control over their technology use. They then wrongly assume that solution will work for everyone else.

• It is much easier for privileged people to change their mindset or behaviors. That advice is unrealistic and unhelpful for most others with severe life stresses. People should not have to resort to individual solutions for problems caused by society and the environment.

• The rise in weight and obesity over the past 50 years was caused primarily by massive social and environmental changes, not individual choices or character flaws. However, we were wrongly taught by the diet industry to blame ourselves. Dieting does not address the root causes or provide a long-term solution. We need political and social changes, not just individual tweaks.

• Similarly, today's attention crisis was primarily created by technology companies engineering social media and smartphones to be maximally distracting and addictive. However, most solutions focus on individual fixes like digital detoxing. We need solutions that address the systemic issues, not just tell people to have more self-control while leaving the environment unchanged.

• In summary, cruel optimism and victim-blaming are not helpful. We need to identify and fix societal causes of problems, not just tell individuals to change their mindset or behaviors while ignoring the forces acting upon them. The tech industry in particular pushes an overly optimistic message of individual solutions that deflects responsibility from itself. However, long-term solutions require social and political change, not just digital diets.

  • The author had two questions after learning about how technology negatively impacts our attention: 1) What changes could be made to fix this? 2) How do we compel tech companies to make these changes?

  • Two experts, Tristan and Aza, said banning "surveillance capitalism" is necessary. This means banning the business model where companies track you to figure out your weaknesses and sell that data to influence your behavior. There are precedents for banning harmful practices that were once widespread, like lead paint and CFCs.

  • If surveillance capitalism were banned, companies like Facebook would have to adopt new business models, like subscriptions or public ownership. Subscriptions would make them work for users instead of advertisers. Public ownership would remove them from the for-profit model but keep them independent from government control.

  • Once the incentives change, it is possible to redesign social media to help attention and society instead of harming them. Minor changes include reducing notifications, eliminating infinite scroll, and turning off recommendation algorithms that polarize people.

  • More substantial redesigns could help people limit their time on the platforms and connect with people nearby to meet in person. The platforms could ask users how much time they want to spend and help them achieve their goals.

  • Ultimately, more than individuals making minor changes is optional. We need collective action to compel companies to overhaul their systems and business models to support human wellbeing. Authentic optimism means building solutions that truly solve the root problems.

  • The author felt this was a breakthrough in understanding the issues, but was left with the question of how to make these changes happen.

  • Social media companies like Facebook are designed to maximize attention and profits, not serve users' wellbeing. This misalignment of incentives leads to adverse outcomes like decreased attention span, increased extremism, and social polarization.

  • Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin argue that regulation is needed to change the business model of these companies and realign incentives. They envision an alternative model where users pay a subscription fee in exchange for a social media experience focused on serving their deeper interests and intentions.

  • Critics like Nir Eyal counter that concerns over the negative impacts of social media are overblown "moral panics." The evidence around issues like radicalization on YouTube is mixed, with some studies suggesting limited or no effect. There are reasonable arguments on both sides, and the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

  • A thought experiment suggests that overregulating risks is lower than continuing the status quo. If regulation advocates are wrong, the costs are limited. However, if the critics are wrong and nothing is done, the societal costs could be high.

  • Leaked internal Facebook documents revealed that the company's scientists confirmed many criticisms. They found that the algorithmic ranking and recommendation systems amplified "divisive" content and led many users to extremist groups. The scientists concluded that Facebook would have to abandon its current business model to address these issues.

  • In summary, while the evidence is imperfect, there are reasonable arguments for regulation and changing the business model of companies like Facebook to serve societal wellbeing better. The risks of maintaining the status quo appear substantial, even based on experts' analysis within the companies themselves. Policymakers and the public should consider interventions to drive these companies to prioritize user wellbeing over short-term profits and growth.

  • The article describes how Facebook was presented with evidence by its researchers that its algorithms and platform promoted extremism, fascism, and Nazism. However, Facebook executives mocked the research and dismissed the recommendations to fix these issues.

  • The author argues that large tech companies like Facebook will never willingly restrain themselves or protect users. They have to be stopped through collective action. Many people feel pessimistic that tech companies can be reined in. However, the author points to historical examples of powerful forces that were defeated, like the feminist movement and the gay rights movement. Ordinary people formed movements and demanded change until they got it.

  • The author highlights how much life has changed for women in just a few generations, using the example of his grandmothers who had limited rights and opportunities compared to his teenage niece today. This change only happened because of the feminist movement fighting for it. Likewise, the author has more rights as a gay man today due to the LGBTQ movement. These examples show that power and ideas are manageable to be challenged.

  • The alternative to fighting back against big tech is that their power and invasiveness will only grow. The author describes an example of how "companies like Google could use style transfer" technology to mimic people's email styles and send hyper-personalized persuasive emails without consent. Few laws prevent this kind of knowledge asymmetry and power over users.

  • The key message is that while Facebook and other tech companies seem hugely influential, history shows that concentrated power can be defeated by people coming together to demand change. Pessimism about being able to influence these companies is misplaced. Collective action and movements can drive real change, even against unstoppable forces. The only alternative is to allow these companies' power over people and society to grow unchecked.

  • Technologies of surveillance capitalism by tech companies are crude compared to their developed sophisticated technologies. For example, in 2015 Facebook filed a patent for technology to detect users' emotions through laptop and phone cameras. Without regulation, invasive tech will exploit our vulnerabilities.

  • Advocates like Jaron Lanier have warned about dystopian technologies for years, but tech companies have responded by wanting to develop them. However, technologies like the Internet are relatively new, only about 10,000 days old, so there is still time to make changes.

  • A poll found that the top reasons people report worsening attention are stress, life changes, and lack of sleep, not technology alone. The root causes that make us vulnerable to technology go deeper.

  • As a child, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris coped with her mother's schizophrenia by excelling in school. As a pediatrician, she wanted to help at-risk children. Working in a poor, violent neighborhood in San Francisco, she saw many children misdiagnosed with ADHD and overmedicated.

  • Harris realized these children were constantly afraid and stressed, like being in a war zone with random violence. This caused hypervigilance, where the brain narrows focus to scan for danger, impairing attention, learning, and self-regulation. Chronic stress and trauma change brain structure and function, leading to problems diagnosed as ADHD.

  • Harris pioneered treatments focusing on the root causes of health issues, including screening children for trauma and adversity. Her work shows how the societal problems of inequality, violence, lack of healthcare and childcare are medical issues. Reducing chronic stress can help rebuild children's cognitive abilities and capacity for attention.

  • Like during COVID-19, when society faces significant stressors, we become more susceptible to tools that promise quick relief but worsen distraction. We need societal changes to reduce chronic stress and technology to support our wellbeing. Individual strategies for managing stress and technology use also matter.

  • Nadine, a Bayview, San Francisco psychiatrist, noticed that many of her young patients could not focus or pay attention. They were often diagnosed with ADHD and medicated.

  • Nadine began to suspect that for many of these children, their inability to focus resulted from the trauma and adversity they had experienced, not an inherent biological defect. She called this "hypervigilance" - constantly scanning the environment for danger.

  • Nadine studied over 1,000 of her patients and found a strong correlation between childhood trauma and attention/behavior problems. Other research has found links between family stress/adversity and an increased risk of an ADHD diagnosis.

  • Nadine believes that to focus, you need to feel safe. For traumatized children, drugs like Ritalin do not treat the underlying issue. Medicating children in dangerous situations can be dangerous.

  • Nadine worked to provide trauma-informed treatment for these children and their families. This included therapy, legal help, yoga, improving sleep and nutrition, and reducing exposure to stressful situations. She has seen many children improve dramatically with this approach.

  • Nadine believes all people can heal and change. With the correct diagnosis and support, the lives of children and families can be transformed. She hopes to change how society and medicine respond to trauma and adversity.

  • Nadine shares the story of Robert, a boy who was abused and misdiagnosed with ADHD. With Nadine's trauma-informed treatment, he is healing and his life is improving, as is his mother's. They are "recognizing how the story can unfold differently."

  • Nadine recognizes that for many children, the chronic stress and adversity of life in Bayview also make it hard to focus and pay attention. The effects of trauma are not limited to severe abuse. Constant worry and instability corrode attention.

Here are the key points:

  1. Mild to moderate short-term stress can temporarily improve attention, but prolonged stress significantly impairs attention. Stress causes changes in the brain that have long-lasting negative impacts.

  2. Insomnia and financial stress are two major causes of impaired attention. Insomnia is an adaptive response to perceived threats, and alleviating the sources of anxiety and stress can help treat it. Financial stress occupies cognitive resources and reduces capacity for concentration. Providing financial security through a basic income can dramatically improve focus.

  3. While violence has declined over time, potentially improving attention, other damaging factors like excessive stimulation, lack of sleep, technology overuse, and longer work hours have increased, likely outweighing any benefits from reduced violence.

  4. Longer work hours lead to more distractions, lower productivity, and are unsustainable. Two places that reduced work stress saw significant benefits:

  • A New Zealand company that switched to a 4-day work week saw higher productivity, better work-life balance, and improved concentration and creativity.

  • A California school district that delayed school start times for teens to improve sleep saw better attendance, less tardiness, improved focus, and less depression and substance abuse.

  1. The argument that attention is declining is complicated by countervailing factors like reduced violence that could improve focus. However, today's scale and several attention-damaging influences likely outweigh these benefits. Reversing the damaging effects will require systemic changes to reduce excessive stimulation, improve sleep, limit technology overuse, provide financial security, and make work more sustainable.

The key takeaway is that prolonged stress, lack of sleep, financial insecurity, and an unsustainable pace of life severely damage our ability to pay attention. Systemic societal changes will be needed to reverse these effects and restore focus. Reducing work hours and delaying school start times are two examples that show promising results.

  • Andrew worked in London's financial sector in the late 1980s, where the culture emphasized long working hours and work-life imbalance. He ended up sacrificing relationships and work-life balance for his career.

  • Years later, Andrew read a study showing that British workers are only productive for about 3 hours daily. He wondered if this applied to his company, Perpetual Guardian, which has over 240 employees in New Zealand.

  • Andrew decided to experiment by having all employees work four days a week but get paid the same. He gave them a month to prepare and improve productivity. Researchers studied the outcomes.

  • Employees were initially skeptical but adapted. They spent their extra day off relaxing, spending time with family, and recharging. When at work, they were less distracted and more focused.

  • Researchers found distraction at work decreased 35% and engagement, teamwork, and stimulation increased 30-40%. Stress decreased 15%. The company achieved as much in 4 days as previously in 5 days. The changes were made permanent.

  • Employees reported loving the 4-day week. It gave them time to nurture relationships and have alone time. Productivity experiments with shorter work weeks at other companies had similar positive results, with decreased accidents and increased productivity.

  • The key benefits were less distraction, more recharging, and improved work-life balance. With additional rest, employees could focus better when working.

  • Workers at a New Zealand company experienced significant benefits when their workweek was cut from 5 to 4 days, including more sleep, less stress, and fewer sick days. Productivity increased and profits rose.

  • Reducing work hours leads to improved focus and performance. We need to challenge the assumption that more work is always better. Having adequate rest and downtime helps people make better decisions and improves the quality of work.

  • However, telling people to work less and improve their work-life balance is unrealistic for most. Our society and work culture demand more extended hours and constant availability. Significant societal and policy changes are needed to enable people to slow down.

  • The introduction of weekends and limits on daily work hours were hard-fought victories that required collective action and pressure on employers. Further, work-hour reductions will require similar coordinated efforts and likely policy changes.

  • Not only employers but also our work habits and identities hinder working less. Many professionals equate exhaustion and long work hours with success and status. A cultural shift is needed.

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, many work hours increased, despite expectations that remote work would provide more flexibility and rest. However, the pandemic also showed that radical changes to work practices are possible quickly when needed. Businesses could shift to remote work, demonstrating that a 4-day workweek is feasible.

  • In France, the "right to disconnect" policy was introduced to combat the expectation of constant availability and provide clear limits on work hours and a right to unplug from work contacts outside work. Such policies may be part of the solution to establishing healthier and more sustainable work habits.

In summary, achieving a widespread reduction in work hours and establishing a healthier, more balanced approach will require collective action to change societal expectations and policy and a cultural shift in how we define work, success, and productivity. Both top-down policy changes and grassroots efforts will likely be needed.

  • The author spent summers as a child with his grandparents in the Swiss Alps. They grew and raised most of their food. When he first stayed with them at age 9, he did not recognize the food they ate as edible. He had grown up on a diet of processed and fast food.

  • Nutrition experts say our modern diets are harming our ability to pay attention in three main ways:

  1. They cause energy spikes and crashes from overeating sugar and refined carbs. This leads to periods of high energy and focus followed by crashes where it is hard to concentrate. Many people start the day this way with sugary cereals and simple carbs.

  2. They deprive us of nutrients for brain development and function. For most of human history, people have eaten fresh whole foods. However, in the mid-20th century, there was a shift to processed, pre-made foods high in preservatives. These could be more nutritious. Food companies added more sugar, fat, and salt to target our pleasure centers directly. Most of what we now eat is "ultra-processed."

  3. They contain pollutants and toxins that may harm the brain. Pesticides, plastics like BPA, and other chemicals we are exposed to could play a role in rising rates of ADHD, autism, and other disorders that make it hard to focus.

  • If we improve our diets by avoiding processed food and sugar spikes, reducing toxins, and eating more whole foods, we will likely see benefits in kids' and adults' ability to focus and pay attention. However, parents must fight against big food companies and a system pushing unhealthy food.

  • The changes needed are societal, but we can all work to improve our diets and support better policies and business practices. Eating well and avoiding toxins will help support our ability to focus in a distracting world.

  • Since the 1970s, several studies have found that eliminating processed foods, additives, and dyes from children's diets can significantly improve their attention and focus. One study found a 50% improvement. Another found that over 70% of children improved.

  • Our modern diets lack nutrients that our brains need, like omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain chemicals like food dyes that may negatively impact attention, especially among children. Countries that ban these dyes tend to have lower ADHD rates.

  • Traditional diets worldwide that are high in whole foods and limit processed foods are associated with better physical and mental health, including focus and lower dementia/ADHD rates. The key is limiting refined carbs, processed foods, and vegetable oils.

  • The author felt uncomfortable realizing how much processed food he had been raised on and how it likely impacted his focus. When he ate primarily whole foods for three months, his focus improved. However, overcoming unhealthy diets is challenging due to the lack of access to whole foods and targeted marketing of processed foods.

  • Pollution, especially early in life, may significantly damage attention and brain development. Air pollution, chemical pollutants, and other environmental toxins are widespread and may make it impossible to have a "normal brain." Studies show impacts on focus, memory, impulsivity, and ADHD. Regulation could help but personal efforts also matter.

  • The impacts of unhealthy diets and pollution on attention are alarming and reinforce the idea that many factors in modern life conspire to damage our ability to focus. However, there are also things individuals can do, like improving their diet and limiting exposure to chemicals, that help strengthen attention. The problems are enormous but the solutions start small.

In summary, unhealthy modern diets and widespread pollution appear significant but underappreciated factors contributing to poor attention and focus. Individuals can strengthen their attention by shifting to whole foods and limiting exposure to chemicals, though broader changes are also urgently needed. Focus is under threat but also within our control.

  • Exposure to air pollution and environmental contaminants can cause inflammation in the brain that leads to damage over time. This can contribute to conditions like dementia and impact mental functioning and cognition.

  • Evidence shows this is especially harmful to developing brains in children and can lead to shrinking brain volume, lesions, and impaired attention. Studies have found a link between exposure to pollution and worse performance on attention tests in children.

  • Lead poisoning and exposure provide a crucial example. For decades, lead was used in products like paint, pipes, and gasoline despite knowledge of its toxicity. This led to widespread lead exposure and poisoning, especially in children. Research found that this significantly increased the risk of conditions like ADHD.

  • However, much of the response blamed individuals and families rather than recognizing it as an environmental problem. Families were told to improve housekeeping and hygiene rather than regulating or banning the use of lead, even as entire cities and generations of children were being poisoned. Some scientists even blamed the victims by attributing the effects to psychological disorders in children.

  • The lead industry worked to create doubt about the evidence, funded misleading research, and insisted on continuing the use of lead despite the risks. They pushed the idea that any risks were theoretical rather than proven.

  • Grassroots campaigns and activism were ultimately needed to force governments to take action by regulating and banning lead in products like paint and gasoline. This collective action was required to counter the industry's influence and address what was indeed an environmental and public health issue rather than an individual problem.

  • This example is a metaphor for the more significant "attention crisis" and the tendency to blame individuals rather than recognize and address systemic societal problems. Collective action is needed to counter powerful external forces in these situations. Individual solutions are not sufficient and in some cases are even counterproductive displacement activities.

  • There has been a massive increase in diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among children, especially in the last 15-20 years. In the U.S., diagnoses rose 43% between 2003 and 2011. In the U.K., for every child diagnosed with ADHD in 1986, there are now 100 kids with the diagnosis.

  • This rise coincided with teachers reporting that more kids seemed unable to focus or sit still in class. In response, many researchers and doctors argued that these children had a biological disorder - ADHD - and prescribed stimulant drugs as treatment.

  • The author investigated this topic in depth by interviewing over 30 experts. However, the experts disagree on fundamental questions, like whether ADHD is a biological illness. So the author explores the topic carefully.

  • Reasons for the rise in ADHD include:

  1. Widening the definition of ADHD and loosening diagnostic criteria, so more normal childhood behaviors are pathologized. Many kids previously seen as usual are now diagnosed with ADHD.

  2. Influence of pharmaceutical companies that make ADHD drugs. They fund research and marketing to promote the idea that ADHD is a biological disorder treatable with medication.

  3. Pressures on doctors, teachers and parents to identify and treat the disorder. They feel they are helping children by diagnosing and medicating them.

  4. Lack of awareness about how children's environments and lives have changed, reducing their ability to focus. Factors like lack of play, physical activity, sleep, and time outdoors are overlooked.

  5. A desire for a simple, medical explanation and solution to complex problems. It is easier to prescribe a pill than address societal issues.

  • There are arguments for other approaches beyond medication, like behavioral interventions, environmental changes, and accepting children as they are. However, these are more complex and challenging solutions, so drugs remain popular.

  • In summary, there are many reasons to be skeptical that ADHD is purely a biological disorder best treated with medication. A more comprehensive view of children's wellbeing and development is needed. However, there are also cases where ADHD drugs have helped children function, so the issue remains complex with no simple answers. An open and nuanced discussion about these issues is essential.

  • There is an ongoing debate about the causes of ADHD and the appropriate treatments.

  • One view is that ADHD is primarily biological and genetic, caused by differences in the brain. Proponents argue that stimulants are necessary to treat it. This view is dominant in the U.S.

  • An alternative view is that attention problems are real but should not be seen as primarily biological. Proponents argue for different treatments like behavioral interventions. This view is more common in some other countries.

  • The biological view argues that genetics account for 75-80% of ADHD. Parents find this view reassuring and believe stimulants help their children. However, some children dislike how the drugs make them feel and the long-term effects are unclear.

  • The concept of ADHD has spread to animals. One veterinarian, Nicholas Dodman, pioneered giving psychiatric drugs to animals with behavior problems. He first tried giving a stimulant to a beagle with anxiety and hyperactivity, and it seemed to help. He now regularly prescribes stimulants and other psychiatric drugs to animals.

  • Nearly half of U.S. zoos give psychiatric drugs to animals. Dodman argues that these drugs can "change behavior dramatically by changing brain chemistry." However, the summary suggests that the long-term effects of these practices are unknown and potentially concerning.

  • The summary suggests the spread of the ADHD diagnosis and stimulant treatment to more children, adults, and even animals is happening quickly despite many open questions. There are calls for more caution and consideration of alternative interventions.

In summary, the critical point is that we should be cautious about medicalizing normal human behaviors or animal behaviors as "disorders" to be treated primarily with drugs. Non-drug interventions and more holistic management strategies deserve more consideration. The long term effects of the expanding use of psychiatric drugs are largely unknown.

  • The expert told the author that animals in captivity often develop psychological problems and behavioral issues because their instincts and needs are frustrated in those environments. For example, horses naturally want to roam, run and graze, so when kept in stalls, they develop issues like cribbing and the obsessive biting of objects. Similarly, polar bears are used to roaming the Arctic for miles but in zoos are confined to small enclosures, so they pace neurotically.

  • The expert admitted that drugging animals, or "zoochosis," is a limited solution to these problems. The real solution is providing environments compatible with animals' instincts. For example, a dog's tail-chasing and focus problems disappeared once it was allowed to live on a farm. However, without ideal solutions, the expert asked whether some drug treatment is better than nothing for severely distressed animals.

  • The author worried that drugging animals masks their distress signals about inappropriate environments and allows humans to ignore animals' natural needs. The choices presented are false; either do nothing or drug the animals. Better solutions that address the root causes of problems should be sought.

  • The author wondered whether children with ADHD might sometimes be like these animals, signaling distress about problematic environments. The rise in ADHD has coincided with children spending more time indoors, changed diets, and high-stress schooling focused on testing. Environmental factors could be contributing to attention problems, not just biological ones.

  • Dr. Sami Timimi, a leading critic of mainstream ADHD diagnoses, looked for environmental causes and solutions for children's attention and behavior problems. For example, he found that one boy's problems arose after his father left, and improved once his father returned and he stopped stimulant drugs. Another boy was wrongly labeled ADHD by an incompetent teacher who caused chaos in the classroom. Timimi helped address root causes instead of relying on drugs.

  • In summary, the author and experts argue that behavioral and attention issues in animals and children often result from environmental problems, not just biological ones. Simply medicating these individuals masks the real issues and allows dysfunctional systems and environments to persist unchanged. Seeking solutions that address root causes leads to better outcomes.

  • Sami, a doctor, rarely prescribes stimulants to children with attention problems. Instead, he listens to the children and families and addresses underlying environmental issues that may contribute to the problems.

  • Studies show that a chaotic, stressful environment can increase a child's likelihood of developing attention problems. Providing social support to families can help reduce attention problems in children.

  • Stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin can improve a child's attention and focus in the short term. However, most doctors are cautious about prescribing them to children due to concerns about long-term effects.

  • A doctor in Australia, Nadine Ezard, has used stimulants to treat adults addicted to methamphetamine. She found that the stimulants reduced their meth use and cravings for some. However, others developed an addiction to the prescribed stimulants. This shows how stimulants, even when prescribed, can be addictive and lead to abuse.

  • The research shows that attention problems in children are often a result of environmental and social factors, not inborn biological problems. Providing social support and reducing stress and chaos in a child's environment can be effective strategies for improving attention, with fewer risks than prescription stimulants.

The key points are:

  1. Attention problems in children are often caused by environment and social factors, not biology.

  2. Reducing stress and chaos in a child's environment and providing social support can help improve attention without the risks of prescription stimulants.

  3. While stimulants may provide short-term benefits for attention, they also pose risks of addiction, abuse, and long-term effects, especially in children.

  4. There are concerns about the overprescription of stimulants, especially for children, in the U.S. Most countries prescribe them much less frequently.

  5. An Australian study using stimulants to treat adults with meth addiction showed how stimulants can still be addictive and lead to abuse, even when prescribed for medical purposes.

  • A scientist named Nadine told the author that she has found stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin reduce cravings in people addicted to methamphetamine. These stimulants act in similar ways to meth and stimulate the same neurotransmitters. However, the doses and administration of these drugs differ. This finding made the author want to research the effects of stimulants on children.

  • For years, many believed stimulants calmed down children with ADHD but made normal children hyperactive. However, studies show that stimulants improve focus and attention in all children, not just those with ADHD. World War II radar operators were even given Stimulants to help them focus. Stimulants also often lead to long, focused monologues in people who use them.

  • There are risks to giving stimulants to children, including decreased growth, heart problems, and unknown long-term effects on the brain. Animal studies show that stimulants may shrink parts of the brain involved in experiencing rewards. The benefits of stimulants are limited and short-lived due to tolerance. They only marginally improve test scores and behavior.

  • Some scientists argue that the risks of stimulants outweigh the benefits and that they are overprescribed like opioids. Stimulants disrupt sleep, which is essential for development. Most U.S. experts believe stimulants are safe and effective, but scientists worldwide are more divided.

  • Many believe ADHD is primarily genetic because studies show identical twins are highly likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. However, the author found these conclusions from twin studies, not genetic analysis. Twin studies assume that differences between identical and fraternal twins are due to genetics, but they do not examine genes. Environmental influences are also shared between twins.

  • In summary, stimulants are chemically similar to and act like methamphetamine in the brain. While they provide some benefits, their long term effects are unknown, and they disrupt sleep. Twin studies exaggerate the role of genetics in ADHD. The causes of ADHD are complex, involving both biological and environmental influences.

  • Identical twins are often used to determine how much a trait or disorder is genetically determined. The assumption is that identical twins share very similar genes, so if they share a trait, it must be largely genetic.

  • However, identical twins also often share more similar environments. Others treat them more similarly, spend more time together, and influence each other's behavior. So, studies comparing identical and non-identical twins may overestimate the role of genes.

  • When twin studies are excluded, the evidence suggests genes likely account for 20-30% of the risk of ADHD, not 75-80% as is often claimed. Genes play a role, but environment and experiences are more significant factors.

  • Genes do not operate independently from environment. Our experiences and environment can influence how our genes are expressed. Genes create vulnerability, but environment provides the triggers.

  • The environment children face today contains many potential triggers for inattention, like stress, poor nutrition, and pollution. It is unethical to medicate children without addressing these environmental factors.

  • We need to investigate the sources of problems like ADHD, not just treat the symptoms. We must go "upriver" to determine why these problems are becoming more common.

  • The example of children playing freely in a Colombian village illustrates how physically and psychologically constrained and confined children's lives have become. This likely contributes to problems like ADHD.

  • In the 1960s, Lenore Skenazy grew up freely roaming her neighborhood in Chicago from age 5. This was normal for children at the time. Now, few children experience this freedom and independence.

  • Lenore let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone in NYC as an experiment. She wrote about it but received severe criticism, called "America's worst mom." She was shocked by the reaction.

  • Lenore points out that today's world is very safe for children, who are unlikely to be kidnapped or harmed. The fear that dominates how we raise children today is disproportionate and new. For most of human history, children played freely without constant adult supervision.

  • To understand the effects of this societal shift, the author breaks it down into five components and examines the evidence for each:

  1. Exercise and physical activity boost children's attention, focus, and self-regulation. Studies show that aerobic exercise expands brain connections and growth.

  2. Play boosts self-regulation and executive functioning. Studies show the benefits of free, imaginative, unstructured play on children's development.

  3. Exposure to risks in play helps children learn to handle uncertainty and navigate challenges. Depriving children of risk in play hinders their development.

  4. Social interaction and collaboration with other children during play help to build emotional intelligence and conflict-resolution skills.

  5. Independence and autonomy gained through unstructured play help build children's confidence and resilience. Supervised, structured activities have different benefits.

  • In summary, the radical societal changes in how children spend their time over the past few decades may profoundly affect their development in many areas. The scientific evidence suggests that free, imaginative, active, and unstructured play with other children is crucial for healthy child development. Strict supervision, overscheduling, and risk-averse "helicopter parenting" may be counterproductive.

  • Children today get much less opportunity for free, unstructured play than previous generations. This play deprivation is harmful to children in several ways:

  1. It impedes the development of essential life skills like creativity, social bonding, and experiencing the joy typically learned through play.

  2. It contributes to increased anxiety and decreased ability to cope with challenges in children. Play teaches children how to navigate unexpected situations and cope with distress in a low-stakes way.

  3. It makes it more difficult for children to develop intrinsic motivation and focus. Children typically develop focus and interest in activities that they find meaningful or exciting. However, highly structured, adult-directed activities limit children's ability to discover and pursue their interests.

  4. It may harm brain development. Play stimulates brain growth in creativity, problem-solving, and executive function. Lack of play may stunt the development of these brain regions.

  • In summary, play deprivation prevents children from learning crucial life skills, contributes to psychological difficulties, and may even alter brain development. Providing children with more opportunities for unstructured play can help address these issues and support healthy child development.

Lenore Skenazy argues that children today lack the freedom to explore and play that previous generations enjoyed. She says that if you ask parents about their childhoods, their eyes will light up as they describe building forts, playing freely outside, riding bikes, and other unsupervised activities that today's children rarely get to do. However, despite acknowledging the benefits of free play, only some parents do notonlyeir children many ideas, little fence, or unstructured play time due to fears about safety and risk.

Skenazy realized that rather than trying to change parents' minds, a better approach might be to change their actual behavior by encouraging more independence and unstructured play in groups. She helped develop a program called Let Grow that encourages schools to allow students one day a week or a month of unsupervised free play and independent activities. Students then report back on what they did.

Roanoke Avenue Elementary, a school in a poor neighborhood, implemented the Let Grow program. At first, many students did not need to learn how to engage in unstructured play and stood around. However, over time, students began undertaking independent activities like setting up lemonade stands, cleaning up local parks, cooking meals, and building projects. One student named L.B. discovered a passion for building boats and wagons. Although previously unengaged in school, he started reading independently to learn building techniques and gained confidence and status among his peers as a builder. His reading and focus improved dramatically.

The example of L.B. shows how unstructured play and the opportunity to develop mastery and competence at an activity a child cares about can significantly boost a child's attention, motivation, and learning in a way that traditional classroom activities may not. The narrow focus of schools today and lack of opportunities to gain a sense of mastery may hamper the development of attention and learning in many children.

In summary, the key ideas are:

  1. Children today need more freedom and unstructured play than previous generations enjoyed.

  2. Changing parents' behavior through group programs may be more effective than trying to change their minds alone.

  3. Unstructured play and independent mastery of skills a child cares about can boost attention, motivation, and learning.

  4. Schools today may be hindering attention and learning by not providing enough opportunities for mastery and competence.

  5. The example of L.B. shows how transformative opportunities for unstructured play and mastery can be.

The author visits a middle school on Long Island where a Let Grow program helps anxious students gain independence in small steps. One student went from being too afraid to walk into town alone to building a fort in the woods with friends. Seeing their children's growth and joy helps convince initially skeptical parents of the program's value.

The author reflects on their own frustrating experience with a rigid school system as a child and wonders if today's focus on testing and efficiency hinders children's ability to focus. The author visits Sudbury Valley School, an alternative school with no classes, curriculum, or tests. Students of all ages play elaborate games they create and learn what they want. One former student says she was anxious and miserable in her previous high school but found Sudbury Valley "shocking" in a good way. The school gives children freedom and helps them develop problem-solving skills.

The key ideas are:

  1. Gradually increasing independence and responsibility helps build children's confidence and ability to focus.

  2. Strict school systems prioritizing testing and cramming information can be counterproductive for students' well-being and focus.

  3. Alternative school models like Sudbury Valley that give students more freedom and opportunities for play and mastery can help them flourish.

  4. Seeing their children thrive more independently and in alternative environments helps convince parents that a less restrictive approach can benefit children.

The summary touches on the key concepts and examples that illustrate these ideas, focusing on the contrast between the anxiety-inducing middle school environment and the free-flowing alternative model of Sudbury Valley School.

Here's a summary:

  • The students at Sudbury Valley School are given enormous freedom and autonomy in their learning. There are no formal lessons or assessments. Students explore topics that interest them and learn at their own pace.

  • Studies of Sudbury Valley School alumni and "unschooled" children more generally find that they tend to do well, with many going on to higher education and successful careers. This suggests that children can thrive when given more freedom and allowed to follow their interests.

  • Research on animals and humans suggests that play, freedom, and meaningful learning are closely connected. Rats and children deprived of play tend to become more anxious, less curious, and less adept at problem-solving. In contrast, an education infused with play and meaning, like at Sudbury Valley School, promotes motivation, learning, and the ability to apply knowledge to new areas.

  • While Sudbury Valley School is an extreme example, some schools incorporate more progressive elements like student choice, interdisciplinary projects, less testing, and more play. The author points to schools in Berlin and Finland as examples that mix student freedom and guidance.

  • The author doubts the Sudbury model but is intrigued by research showing the benefits of more progressive education and playful, student-centered learning, especially in light of the success of the Finnish school system.

  • Ultimately, the author suggests that much of standard schooling may be "pointless" compared to alternative models that give students more freedom, infuse learning with meaning, and prioritize play. However, some level of guidance also seems useful.

  • The key takeaway is that student autonomy, play, and meaningful learning should be higher priorities in education, though the right balance of freedom and guidance is still open for debate.

  • The author recalls flying to Moscow in February 2020 to interview James Williams, a former Google strategist who has studied attention and its loss.

  • Williams identifies three types of attention: spotlight (focus on immediate actions), starlight (focus on long-term goals), and daylight (ability to reflect and think clearly). Losing daylight attention is the "deepest form of distraction" and can lead to "decohering" - losing your sense of self and purpose.

  • Williams compares the attention crisis to a "denial-of-service attack" on our minds, overwhelming our capacity to focus and respond. We lose the ability to realize how distracted we are or push back against distractions.

  • The author proposes a fourth type of attention: stadium lights - the ability to see and work with others toward collective goals. The lack of climate change activism suggests we are losing this form of attention.

  • Returning from Moscow, the author fell ill for three weeks with a raging fever, during which time the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated worldwide, with global travel shutting down. The author's attention, which had seemed on the verge of improvement, collapsed. Solving the attention crisis will require collective action, but we cannot focus on shared threats and goals.

  • In conclusion, the author admits that the problem of attention loss is complex and has yet to be entirely solved in themself. Simple self-help solutions are insufficient; we must work together to rebuild an environment that meets human needs and allows us to recover our capacity for sustained attention and connection. However, this is difficult when we are under "denial-of-service attack" from an attention economy that colonizes our minds. Collective action is needed to push back against these forces.

The author had been making steady progress in improving their focus and attention through six significant life changes:

  1. Using pre-commitment devices like locking away their phone to avoid task switching.

  2. Responding to distractions with curiosity about achieving flow rather than shame.

  3. Taking six months off social media each year.

  4. Prioritizing time for mind-wandering and making unexpected connections.

  5. Strictly maintaining eight hours of sleep each night.

  6. Giving children in their life more unstructured free play.

Though the author struggled with some recommended practices like improving diet and exercising, these six changes led to a 15-20% improvement in their focus. However, the COVID-19 crisis and recovery then shattered their attention, mirroring the start of their journey to escaping technology and distraction. The pandemic environment overwhelmed individual efforts by increasing stress, screen time, financial insecurity, and reliance on algorithms.

Their friend Naomi Klein calls this vision of the high-tech future under increased duress the "Screen New Deal." However, spending so much unwelcome time immersed in this potential future also allows us to realize "that we hate it. It is not good for our well-being." There may be hope that we can avoid sliding gradually into that future if we stay in touch with how much we dislike what we have already experienced.

Here's a summary:

  • The writer believes we have a societal attention crisis due to lack of sleep, constant task-switching, social media addiction, stress, and chemical exposure. This crisis can be addressed by organizing and fighting back against these forces.

  • The ability to focus is like a plant - it needs certain things to thrive (like play, flow states, reading, daydreaming). It needs protection from other things (like excessive stimulation, technology overuse, stress, and processed foods). A movement is needed to reclaim our attention.

  • The writer spoke to a friend, Ben, who helped organize the movement against coal in the UK. Ben said the first step is raising awareness of the crisis. An excellent way to do this is a "site battle" - targeting a symbolic location to raise awareness, like Greenpeace did by protesting a coal power plant. Ben suggested potential site battles could be protesting outside Facebook or Twitter H.Q.

  • Site battles alone do not win but help establish the crisis and draw more to the movement. The movement then takes many forms - political organizing, lobbying, and direct action. A movement like "Attention Rebellion" could frame this as fighting for "personal liberation" and "liberating ourselves from people who are controlling our minds without our consent."

  • Building a movement is challenging but possible, like past movements that changed society. An attention movement would require seeing ourselves not as begging for crumbs of attention from companies but as free citizens reclaiming our attention.

The key ideas are that we have an attention crisis that requires a movement to solve; this movement can use tactics like site battles and framing the issue as a fight for personal liberation. Though complex, movements have created change in the past. The writer sees potential in a movement called "Attention Rebellion."

The author argues that we need an "Attention Rebellion" to fight for the ability to focus in a world dominated by constant distraction and speed. They trace the loss of attention back to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the idea of economic growth—the belief that economies and companies must constantly get bigger. Economic growth requires continually persuading people to do more in the same amount of time, accelerating life and degrading attention.

The author says the need for endless economic growth drives many factors damaging our attention, like increasing stress, longer work hours, invasive technologies, lack of sleep, and poor diets. A steady-state economy with different goals, like spending time with loved ones and in nature, could help rescue our attention. The author argues that addressing economic growth may be necessary to solve the attention crisis.

The author says the attention crisis is especially urgent now because humans have never needed to focus more. They point to the existential threat of climate change, using the examples of unprecedented wildfires in Australia, California, and elsewhere. The author argues that these fires have shown how the destruction of our attention could prevent us from addressing global issues like global warming. Overall, the author makes a case that we must fight to reclaim our ability to focus on dealing with the world's increasingly dire problems.

  • The Swiss writer Giussani told the author that our warning systems meant to protect us are failing because our ability to focus and act on scientists' warnings about existential crises like climate change is not working.

  • The climate crisis can be solved if we transition to clean energy, but only if we can focus, have reasonable discussions, and think clearly. We must solve the attention crisis to solve the climate crisis.

  • The author believes liberating and redirecting our attention may be today's most crucial struggle. Our attention is a kind of light that clarifies the world, and the author wants to live in that light, not in the "menacing orange light" of crisis and catastrophe.

  • The author argues that we must focus together or face crises like fires and environmental destruction alone.

  • The author thanks many people who helped write the book, including researchers, editors, agents, friends, and people worldwide who provided insight.

  • The author provides a list of groups already working to improve attention, fight for a shorter workweek, give children more time to play, limit tech use in children, improve food and reduce pollution, and establish a universal basic income.

  • The author invites readers to start their groups and provide updates to add to future editions of the book.

The key ideas are:

  1. Our attention needs to be improved, threatening our ability to address significant crises like climate change. We must solve the attention crisis to solve other existential problems.

  2. Liberating and refocusing our attention is one of today's most essential struggles. Our attention illuminates the world, and we must live in that light.

  3. We must come together with focused attention or face crises alone. However, the fight to heal attention has already begun, as evidenced by existing groups working to limit tech use, reduce work hours, fight pollution, and more.

  4. Readers can start their groups to improve attention and alert the author to add them to the book. Collective action can make a difference.

  • The average American spends over 3 hours daily looking at their phone. People touch their phones over 2600 times a day.

  • We live in an age of urgency and distraction. Life moves fast and waits for no one. However, we can use pre-commitment strategies to resist temptation and stay focused. Studies show that pre-commitment can improve diet and limit gambling, and other behaviors.

  • A large study found that collective attention spans are decreasing over time. The world's information storage, communication, and computing capacities are increasing exponentially.

  • Speed-reading is possible but always comes at the cost of comprehension and retention. Studies show that reading too quickly impairs understanding. Professional speed readers still need to catch up on information.

  • People today talk faster and walk faster, and there is a growing cultural obsession with speed and productivity. However, slow, deliberate practices like Tai Chi can improve focus and cognition.

  • In summary, the modern world contains many distractions that fracture our attention and decrease our focus. However, we can work to reclaim our focus by being more intentional and adopting strategies to slow down, limit interruptions, and avoid distractions.

The key arguments and takeaways are:

  1. Modern technology and culture cultivate distraction and diminish attention spans.

  2. Pre-commitment and deliberate strategies to limit distraction and slow down can help improve focus.

  3. Speed and productivity are not the only measures of success; comprehension, retention, and quality of experience also matter.

  4. Collective attention spans are decreasing over time, but individuals can work to strengthen their focus.

Here is a summary of the sources:

Source 14 (25–39): Discuss a study finding that an acute yoga session improves cognitive performance on tasks requiring updating working memory, monitoring, and inhibition of inappropriate responses.

Source N. Gothe et al.: A study finding an acute yoga session increased cognitive performance on executive function tasks. Participants who did yoga showed decreased P300 amplitudes, indicating improved allocation of attentional resources.

Source P. Lovatt, "Dance Psychology": A review discussing how dance, like yoga, can enhance psychological and cognitive well-being. Dance helps develop cognitive skills such as creative thinking through improvisation.

Source C. Lewis and P. Lovatt, "Breaking Away from Set Patterns of Thinking": A study finding that regular participation in dance improvisation classes can enhance divergent thinking ability. Dancers showed improved fluency, flexibility, and originality on divergent thinking tasks compared to non-dancers.

The sources review research showing acute yoga or dance sessions can enhance executive function and creativity. Regular yoga or dance practice may improve cognitive performance and divergent thinking ability. Both practices help develop skills such as updating working memory, monitoring, inhibiting inappropriate responses, and thinking flexibly or originally.

Here's a summary:

The article suggests that people with narcolepsy, a sleep disorder that causes excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks, may be more creative. Their fragmented nighttime sleep and naps during the day may promote connections between unrelated ideas.

Sleep is essential for memory. During sleep, your brain replays and consolidates memories from the day. Rats that learned a maze during the day showed activation of those memory pathways at night during sleep. Lack of sleep in children can lead to attention problems and impaired cognitive abilities.

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard's research shows that sleep cleans waste from the brain. Lack of sleep increases the risk of car accidents and other adverse outcomes. According to Dr. Charles Czeisler, artificial light and screen time disrupt our natural circadian rhythms and make sleeping harder.

Reading rates have declined significantly, especially for pleasure reading. Americans spend little time reading books but many hours on phones and social media. Studies show that reading comprehension is better from print books versus e-readers or audiobooks. Exposure to storybooks is associated with increased empathy and theory-of-mind in children.

Attention has been described as "withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others." Mind-wandering and daydreaming are natural parts of human cognition, and some mind-wandering is essential for creativity, planning, and delaying gratification. However, excessive mind-wandering can lead to unhappiness and distractibility.

Technology companies have become highly effective at capturing and directing human attention. Persuasive technologies are designed to be more compelling and persistent than human willpower. They activate psychological vulnerabilities to influence our thoughts and behaviors, often in ways that benefit the companies rather than the users.

bid., ix.

The summary: According to various sources, social media and technology companies exploit psychological weaknesses in humans to capture and keep our attention. Features like "infinite scroll" and "autoplay next video" are deliberately engineered to keep us engaged for as long as possible. Outrage and anger spread faster on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Companies tailor feeds to stoke those emotions, knowing that hostile and provocative information travels farther and broader and generates more clicks. This profits the companies but harms society. Many former tech insiders regret their role in building platforms that undermine truth and civility.

Here is a summary of December 16, 2016:

  • The Guardian had 286 million visits, the New York Times had 354 million, and the Washington Post had 185 million visits in the six months before September 2020 according to SimilarWeb.

  • A study found that 75 fascist activists were radicalized through memes and Infowars.

  • Another study found that far-right people on Twitter mostly used YouTube.

  • Tristan Harris said "Do we have a system that is systematically...pumping out more radicalization?"

  • A Brazilian politician told a congresswoman she was not "worthy" of sexual assault.

  • Another Brazilian politician said certain groups "are not even good for breeding."

  • Supporters of Brazil's new fascist president chanted "Facebook! Facebook! Whatsapp! Whatsapp!" at his inauguration.

  • Tristan Harris said "the collective downgrading of humans and the upgrading of machines."

  • Tristan Harris testified that we could only solve the world's problems by downgrading our attention spans.

  • A study found that the top causes of stress in the U.S. are work, economy, and health issues.

  • Studies found 95% of dieters regain weight within five years and the average weight gain for U.S. adults from 1960 to 2002 was 24 pounds.

  • Countries like the U.S. and U.K. have high obesity rates, 42% of U.S. adults and 15.5% of children are obese.

  • The BBC is the most trusted media organization because of its funding model.

  • Tristan Harris said "Just turn it off. They can turn it off in a heartbeat."

  • Amazon found that 100 milliseconds of delay reduces revenue.

  • A study found YouTube's algorithm leads to radicalization. Critics argue against the study's methodology.

  • Tristan Harris directed people to turn off notifications to avoid addiction.

Here is a summary of the references from the text:

Professor Arvind Narayanan, a professor of computer science at Princeton University, tweeted on December 29, 2019, that according to internal Facebook research discussed in an article by The Wall Street Journal, Facebook executives ignored recommendations from their researchers on how to reduce polarization and misinformation on the platform in order to prioritize user growth and engagement.

In her 1997 book Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women, Andrea Dworkin quotes an unidentified man saying "But if you cannot rape your wife, who can you rape?"

In her 2018 book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris writes that childhood trauma can have lifelong impacts on health and development. The 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences study found a strong relationship between childhood trauma and poor health outcomes in adulthood. Children with four or more adverse childhood experiences were 32.6 times more likely to have health problems as adults. Other research has found links between childhood trauma and ADHD symptoms, especially in institutionalized or neglected children. Britain's Office of National Statistics found much higher rates of conduct disorder, hyperactivity, and inattention in children from disadvantaged families.

A 1994 study found higher rates of PTSD, depression, conduct disorder, and ADHD symptoms in sexually abused children compared to non-abused children. While mild to moderate stress can temporarily improve attention, chronic or extreme stress impairs attention and executive function. Prolonged stress can cause structural changes in the brain. Insomnia may have evolved as an adaptive response to perceived threats. Poverty itself impairs cognitive function, according to research showing that Indian sugarcane farmers had lower I.Q. scores during the scarce pre-harvest season compared to the post-harvest season.

Essential income trials, like one in Finland, suggest that providing people with economic security increases their motivation to work. Psychologist Edward Deci has shown that financial insecurity and lack of control undermine intrinsic motivation. Experts argue that long work hours and workload increases are unsustainable and cause stress, work-life conflict, and disengagement.


Did you find this article valuable?

Support Literary Insights by becoming a sponsor. Any amount is appreciated!