Why you cannot keep attention and why it is important

A long time ago now, I read “The Shallows” . A very sobering book about how computers, the internet and social media are messing up your attention span. Once you read that, you will never be the same.

Stolen focus

Hence “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. The book begins with a personal journey trying to detox from phones and social media. His detox journey reads a bit like Bill Bryson’s “The End of Absence“.

Our attention span is diminishing

It is followed by an analysis of why we are losing our attention span, with a particular focus on the younger generations. You should be very worried, and you should get angry. We live in an economic machine that requires greater speed to keep going, which inevitably degrades our attention over time. Lack of attention is causing crises in our whole society. The world is complex and requires steady focus to be understood; it needs to be thought about and comprehended slowly. 

  • On average, a student would switch tasks once every sixty-five seconds.
  • Our collective ability to pay attention is rapidly shrinking.
  • Lack of attention is a social epidemic (like obesity)
  • The fastest-rising cause of death in the world is distracted driving.
  • Today 40% of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. In Britain, an incredible 23% are getting less than five hours a night.
  • We are now exposed to ten times the amount of artificial light that people were exposed to just fifty years ago.
  • Google controls over 50% of all the notifications on all phones worldwide.
  • Infinite scroll makes you spend 50% more of your time.
  • The average weight gain for an adult between 1960 and 2002 was 24 lbs or 1.7 stone.
  • Facebook, in 2015, filed a patent for technology that can detect your emotions from the cameras on your laptop and phone.
  • In many parts of the South in the United States, 30 per cent of boys are now diagnosed with ADHD by the time they turn eighteen.
  • In the US, in April 2020, the average citizen spent thirteen hours a day looking at a screen. The number of children looking at screens for more than six hours a day increased sixfold, and traffic to kids’ apps trebled.
  • In 1986, if you added all the information being blasted at the average human being – TV, radio, reading – it amounted to forty newspapers-worth of information every day. Today’s information equals nearly 700 newspapers a day.

Information overload

We are flooding the system with more information. The more information you pump in, the less time people can focus on any individual piece of it. It is like we are ‘drinking from a fire-hose

Skimming the surface

As a result, we are sacrificing depth in all sorts of dimensions. Because depth takes time to develop. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth. Depth connected to your work in relationships also takes time. It takes energy. It takes long timespans. And it takes commitment. It takes attention, right? All of these things that require depth are suffering. It’s pulling us more and more up onto the surface.


If we don’t change course, he fears we are headed towards a world where ‘there’s going to be an upper class of people that are very aware’ of the risks to their attention and find ways to live within their limits. Then there will be the rest of society with fewer resources to resist the manipulation, and they will be living increasingly inside their computers, being manipulated more and more.

Slow flow

Speed is not always good. On the contrary, go for the slow flow. Study what happens to focus not when we speed up but when we deliberately slow down. Engage in deliberately slow practices, like yoga, tai chi, or meditation; when you practise moving at a speed that is compatible with human nature – and you build that into your daily life – you begin to train your attention and focus. That’s why those disciplines make you smarter. Slowness nurtures attention, and speed shatters it.

We are limited

We have very limited cognitive capacity- There are three ways in which your limited capacity is eroded by constant switching and not focusing.

  • The first is called the switch cost effect. The study found that ‘technological distraction’ – just getting emails and calls – caused a drop in the workers’ IQ by an average of ten points.
  • The second is the screw-up effect. When you switch between tasks, errors that wouldn’t have happened otherwise start to creep in.
  • The third cost to is the creativity drain.
  • A fourth consequence is the diminished memory effect. It turned out that afterwards, people couldn’t remember what they had done, as well as people who did just one thing at a time.

So if you spend your time switching a lot, the evidence suggests you will be slower, make more mistakes, be less creative, and remember less of what you do.


Our brains are not only overloaded now with switching – we are also overloaded with something else. You can think coherently about one thing at a time. The bouncer is essential: this ability to filter out irrelevant information is crucial if you are going to be able to attend to your goals. And that bouncer in your head is strong and ripped: But today, the bouncer is besieged in an unprecedented way. We are surrounded by high levels of noise, working in open-plan offices, sleeping in crowded cities, and tapping away on our laps in crammed coffee shops. We are completely overwhelmed.

No flow

That creates a third effect. You are missing out on flow. Read “The Age of Superman“. Losing the ability to focus for long stretches and enjoy it. The loss of ego. The loss of time. Pure joy. That makes us happier and healthier. Fragmentation makes you smaller, shallower, and angrier. Flow makes you bigger, deeper, and calmer. Fragmentation shrinks us. Flow expands us.


We are also physically and mentally exhausted. We don’t sleep enough. Lack of sleep is particularly bad for children. Adults usually respond by becoming drowsy, but kids typically respond by becoming hyperactive. If you’re not sleeping well, your body interprets that as an emergency. When you are sleeping, you’re repairing. Another thing that happens during sleep is that your energy levels are restored and replenished. The less you sleep, the more the world blurs in every way – in your immediate focus, your ability to think deeply and make connections, and your memory. Our Western society is a bit ADHD-ish because we’re all sleep-deprived


As a society, we are dreaming less and less. What does it mean to be a society and culture so frantic that we don’t have time to dream?

We are not reading anymore

The proportion of Americans who read books for pleasure is now at its lowest level ever recorded. Some 57% of Americans currently do not read a single book in a typical year. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his research that reading a book is one of the simplest and most common forms of flow that people experience in their lives. Reading books trains us to read in a particular way – in a linear fashion, focused on one thing for a sustained period. Reading creates a ‘unique form of consciousness. While we’re reading, we’re directing attention outwards towards the word on the page, and, at the same time, enormous amounts of attention are going inwards as we imagine and mentally simulate.

The disruption of mind-wandering

Being bored is good. Some mind-wandering is essential for things to make sense. When your mind wanders, it starts to make new connections between things – which often solves your problems. During mind-wandering, your mind will engage in ‘mental time-travel’, where it roams over the past and tries to predict the future. Lost mind-wandering is degrading the quality of our thinking. Without mind-wandering, we find it harder to make sense of the world – and in the jammed-up state of confusion that it creates, we become even more vulnerable to the next source of distraction that comes along. In situations of low stress and safety, mind-wandering will be a gift, a pleasure, and a creative force. In situations of high stress or danger, mind-wandering will be a torment.


It is possible to manipulate your attention to such a degree that a magician can, in many cases, turn you into his puppet. This is a core insight of magic – you can manipulate people, and they don’t even know it’s happening. It works because they don’t have to know your strengths – they just have to know your weaknesses. In Google, success was measured, in the main, by what was called ‘engagement’. The engineers were always looking for new ways to suck eyeballs onto their program. Telling them to distract people less was like telling an oil company not to drill for oil. Designed by the smartest people in the world to maximally grab and maximally hold our attention. It’s not your fault you can’t focus. It’s by design. Your distraction is their fuel.

Screen time vs lifetime

Facebook makes more money for every extra second you are staring through a screen at their site, and they lose money every time you put the screen down. Inside Facebook’s and Google’s servers is a little voodoo doll, and it is a model of you. Their model of you is so accurate that it’s making predictions about you that you think is magic. Imagine if I could predict all your actions in chess before you made them. It would be trivial for me to dominate you. That’s what is happening on a human scale now. The business model is screen time, not lifetime.

Turning hate into a habit

It’s not just the phone: it’s the way the phone is currently designed. It’s not just the internet: it’s the way the internet is currently designed. On average, we will stare at something negative and outrageous for a lot longer than we will stare at something positive and calm. It is called ‘negativity bias’. There is growing evidence that this natural human quirk has a huge effect online. If enough people are spending enough of their time being angered, that starts to change the culture. It is turning hate into a habit.

  • Sites and apps are designed to train our minds to crave frequent rewards.
  • These sites push you to switch tasks more frequently than you normally would – to pick up your phone or click over to Facebook on your laptop.
  • These sites learn how to ‘frack’ you. These sites get to know what makes you tick in very specific ways – they learn what you like to look at, what excites you, what angers you, and what enrages you.
  • Because of the way the algorithms work, these sites make you angry a lot of the time.
  • In addition to making you angry, these sites make you feel that you are surrounded by other people’s anger.
  • These sites set society on fire. This is the most complex form of harm to our attention, with several stages, and it is probably the most harmful.

We have big fish to fry

This machinery is systematically diverting us – at an individual and a social level – from where we should want to go. How can we solve the world’s most urgent problems if we’ve downgraded our attention spans, downgraded our capacity for complexity and nuance, downgraded our shared truth, downgraded our beliefs into conspiracy-theory thinking, where we can’t construct shared agendas to solve our problems?

Cruel optimism

It’s not your fault. I never said it’s your fault. I’m saying it’s your responsibility. Your stress comes from a failure to be mindful. However, the top causes of stress in the US have been identified by scientists at Stanford Graduate School of Business in a major study. They are a lack of health insurance, the constant threat of layoffs, lack of discretion and autonomy in decision-making, long working hours, low levels of organisational justice, and unrealistic demands. Stress is most of the time imposed on you. The people who say stress is just a matter of changing your thoughts are, he says, talking ‘from a privileged position. It’s easy for them to say that. It deflects attention away from the social causes of stress. Almost all the existing books about attention problems (and I read a lot as research for this book) present them simply as individual flaws requiring individual tweaks. Cruel optimism takes it for granted that we can’t significantly change the systems that are wrecking our attention, so we have to focus mainly on changing our isolated selves. But most stress is systemic.


The incremental healthcare costs from stress-inducing work conditions are about $190 billion annually. That is from “Dying for a Paycheck“. Stress is a significant factor in society. We struggle to sleep when we experience ‘stress and hyper-vigilance. Stress can cause structural changes in the brain with long-term effects. A more stressed society will be less able to resist distractions. 


If you put shampoo into a car engine, you won’t scratch your head when the thing comes out. Every day, all over the Western world, we are putting into our bodies substances ‘which are so far removed from what was intended for human fuel’. Most of us now eat in a way that deprives us of the nutrients we need for our brains to develop and function fully.Since the 1970s, several scientific studies have been designed to determine what happens to your attention when you change your diet. The team then monitored them for several weeks to see what happened. It turned out that more than 70 per cent of the kids who cut out the preservatives and dyes improved their ability to pay attention, and the average improvement was a remarkable 50 per cent. Our current diets aren’t just lacking in what we need – they also actively contain chemicals that seem to act on our brains almost like drugs. If you think your child’s ADHD may have something to do with food, science now agrees with you.


If you live in a major city today, you are breathing in a chemical soup every day. The worse the pollution, the worse the damage to your brain. As far back as ancient Rome, lead was known to be poisonous to human beings. Yet for centuries, lead was used to paint homes, and in water pipes, and then in the early twentieth century, it was added to petrol, which meant it was pumped into the air of every city in the world and breathed in by its inhabitants. Lead severely stunts your ability to focus and pay attention.

There is no escape

There are so many other attention-damaging chemicals. Let’s start with the main culprits: pesticides. Plasticisers. Flame-retardants. Cosmetics.’ There are over two hundred pesticides on the market in Europe, and about two-thirds affect either brain development or thyroid hormone signalling. Trying to personally avoid pollutants today, at an individual level, is largely a fool’s errand in a landscape so filled with them. We can eat organic. We can air our homes as often as possible. We can live in the countryside. But when it comes to these endocrine disruptors, ‘there’s no escape. There’s no escape, not at the level of the isolated individual.


Everyone diagnosed with ADHD has a real problem. The question the author asks is whether kids are being medicated for what is, in fact, an environmental problem. Is ADHD just a description of certain behaviours that sometimes occur together? He makes this point. When you’re very young, if you get upset or angry, you need an adult to soothe you and calm you down. Over time, as you grow up, if you are soothed enough, you learn to soothe yourself. The problem is that stressed-out parents, through no fault of their own, find it harder to soothe their children – because they are so amped up themselves. Many parents are currently overwhelmed with their life circumstances, so they cannot provide a stable, calm, supportive environment for their children.


We confine our children, Both physically and psychologically. Read “Free range kids“. In the past thirty years, there have been huge changes in childhood. In 2003, in the US, only 10 per cent of children spent any time playing freely outdoors regularly. Free play and free enquiry have fallen off a cliff. For years, scientists have been discovering a broad body of evidence showing that when people run around – or engage in any form of exercise – their ability to pay attention improves. When you stop kids from acting on their natural desire to run around, their attention and the overall health of their brains will suffer on average.


The deprivation of play impacts three main areas of child development. One is creativity and imagination. The second is social bonds. And the third is aliveness – how you learn to experience joy and pleasure. When children play, they learn the skills that make it possible to cope with the unexpected. If you deprive children of those challenges, as they grow up, they will feel panicked and unable to cope a lot of the time.


It’s easier to focus on something and stick at it if your motives are intrinsic. If you are doing something because it’s meaningful to you, the more intrinsic your motivation, the easier it will be to sustain your attention. Children in this new and radically different model of childhood are being deprived of the chance to develop intrinsic motives.

Our school system

We all need to have a sense of what he called ‘mastery‘ – that we are good at something. When you feel you are good at something, you will find it much easier to focus on it, and if you feel incompetent, your attention will shrivel like a salted snail. Kids naturally want to learn, and they’ll do it spontaneously when they can pursue things that seem interesting to them. They learn primarily by playing freely. In the Western world, the school system has been radically restructured by politicians to prioritise testing children much more. Almost everything else has been steadily squeezed out – from play to music to breaks. Do yourself a favour. Watch Ken Robinson on TED.com


Imagine that the first layer of your attention is your spotlight. This is when you focus on ‘immediate actions’. The second layer of your attention is your starlight. This is the focus you can apply to your longer-term goals. The third layer of your attention is your daylight. This form of focus makes it possible for you to know what your longer-term goals are in the first place. Imagine a fourth, your stadium lights – it’s our ability to see each other, to hear each other, and to work together to formulate and fight for collective goals.


When a scene is flooded with daylight, you can see the things around you most clearly. If you get so distracted that you lose your sense of the daylight, Losing your daylight is ‘the deepest form of distraction’, and you may even begin ‘decohering’, individually and as a society. You lose yourself in a cascade of distractions. It is called a ‘denial-of-service attack’. We are all living through something like a denial-of-service attack on our minds.

Distracted, overloaded, exhausted, malnourished, stressed, manipulated, poisoned, flooded

So there you have it. You are distracted, overloaded, exhausted, malnourished, stressed, manipulated, poisoned, flooded. No play, no flow, never at peace. We need to go back to deep focus or deep work. To grow and flourish to its full potential, your focus needs certain things to be present: play for children and flow states for adults, to read books, to discover meaningful activities that you want to focus on, to have space to let your mind wander so you can make sense of your life, to exercise, to sleep properly, to eat nutritious food that makes it possible for you to develop a healthy brain, and to have a sense of safety.

Three things to change

The author would start with three big, bold goals. 

One: Ban surveillance capitalism because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can’t focus.

Two: Introduce a four-day week because people who are chronically exhausted can’t pay attention.

Three: Rebuild childhood around letting kids play freely – in their neighbourhoods and at school


The biggest worry about the destruction of our attention is that it will prevent us from dealing with global warming. These solutions are not going to be achieved by an addled population who are switching tasks every three minutes and screaming at each other all the time in algorithm-pumped. The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time. I read something similar in “Radical curiosity“.  Total collapse is an option.

Focus together

At the start of the Second World War, the English poet W. H. Auden – when he looked out over the new technologies of destruction that had been created by humans – warned: ‘We must love one another, or die.’ The author believes that now we must focus together – or face the fires alone.



sensemaking cover


Sense making; morality, humanity, leadership and slow flow. A book about the 14 books about the impact and implications of technology on business and humanity.

Ron Immink

I help companies by developing an inspiring and clear future perspective, which creates better business models, higher productivity, more profit and a higher valuation. Best-selling author, speaker, writer.

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