I read Johann Hari’s new book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—And How to Think Deeply Again, to improve my focus. I thought Hari would primarily provide specific, actionable strategies. While Stolen Focus does some of that, Hari predominately offers deeper reporting on the causes of our degrading focus. His topics have society-wide relevance and are an important call to action for all of us.

For example, he writes extensively about the methods employed by surveillance capitalists that force our attention to constantly fracture. Shoshana Zuboff coins this term in her chilling but academic book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. I read it in 2020, around the time I also watched The Social Dilemma

As Hari tells personal stories, he explains the effects of algorithm-driven life on our attention spans and so much more. Then he interviews people who specifically devised those algorithms to distract us many times a minute. Many of their names were familiar to me from Zuboff’s book and the Netflix documentary. But Hari writes in a more approachable way than Zuboff. Hopefully, that readable style means more people will dive into this vital exposé on lack of focus.

It’s also important to note that Hari spends considerable time discussing the impact of stolen focus on children. He addresses the way it changes their academics. But more importantly, he explains the emotional impact of social media’s filter-filled world. It comes down to something simple: kids need to focus to accomplish and that builds their positive feelings about themselves and their lives. Hari also talks about what accomplishment means for kids, and how self-directed group play is essential and often now absent from their lives.

My conclusions

I regularly recommend Hari’s earlier book, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Now, I’m adding this book to my list of essential 21st-century reading. Not only should we read this, but we must push back against the methods employed by capitalists from Google to Apple to Twitter. They are destroying more than we realize, while we spend hours doom scrolling and swiping left.

What I appreciate about Hari’s work is how he takes a topic and looks at it in unique ways. The author also does a great job of narrating the audiobook. After listening, I picked up the ebook to focus more on his action steps. I’m well aware of the irony of listening to an audiobook about focus—usually while doing other tasks.

I heartily recommend Stolen Focus—it’s excellent. Pair with the books I mentioned above. Or for a more personal story about focus and attention, try Attention, A Love Story by Casey Schwartz.