How To Become More Focused And Fight The Attention Crisis

I remember when I was twelve and my father would bring home my weekly comic book. I used to sit in my room for hours flipping the pages and laughing to myself at the silly illustrations. I used to get lost in those comic books without a care about what the time was or when I needed to stop. I’d just sit there, focused, having a great time. Sure, it’s easy to look back with rose-tinted glasses in a nostalgic way but those days were certainly more simple, more focused. Fast forward to today and I can barely read an article in its entirety before I start to feel bored.

Is there something wrong with me or is that just a sign of the times?

The other day I stumbled across a podcast with Johann Hari, the same guy that had given me fresh perspectives on the subjects of addiction and depression a few years earlier (and opinions that already aligned with my own). His new book explores focus and attention and how we have become a society that can’t sit still and do just one thing for long periods of time, as I used to do with my comic books, for example.

Hari talks about how our attention has been stolen from us in a very deliberate way by tech companies.

Last year I wrote an article about being addicted to your phone and how I think that smartphones have taken over our lives. Whilst I still think this is true, and still a major problem, the ‘attention crisis’ seems to be so much more than just smartphone addiction. Johann Hari makes some very interesting points about attention and focus and what is influencing our inability to simply sit and focus on one task for long periods of time, something that was seemingly much easier only twenty years ago.

Why can’t I stay focused?

Despite society pushing the idea of multi-tasking as being something you should aspire to keep doing better, it is a fundamental truth that you can only think about one or two things at once. If you try and think or do more than one or two things at once, your performance levels drop dramatically.

With this in mind, think about how many text messages you receive, WhatsApp notifications you get an hour, Facebook notifications, emails etc. Think about how many different tasks you’re trying to juggle throughout the day. Don’t you feel exhausted by it all? I know I do.

In fact, Hari discovers that if you receive eight text messages an hour, your brain power is diminished by 30% in relation to the main task you’re trying to do. This is the switch cost effect.

The switch cost effect

We live in a perfect storm that allows the switch cost effect to diminish our brain power and attention on a consistent basis. Not only are we being distracted by constant notifications on our phones, but we’re also addicted to the physical act of lifting our phones through habit, even when we’re working or doing something more important.

Because of our cell phones, we’re constantly available to the world. When I think back to sitting in my room reading my comic books, the biggest contrast between then and now is the fact that I wasn’t available to anyone and they weren’t available to me. I was able to focus, without distraction or the idea that I might be missing out on something in the online world.

I’m not going to bash technology completely, I love tech but constant ‘availability’ does seem to be a big problem. Being constantly available to your friends and your boss means you never feel as if you can completely switch off from the world and focus on something important to you, never mind something like reading a comic or a magazine to unwind without being distracted by your phone buzzing every few minutes or a TV show series you don’t want to miss out on.

Interestingly enough, France introduced a law that prohibits businesses from emailing their employees outside of working hours. They realised that in this digital age, it’s not healthy for their workers to be constantly available to their bosses. I think we all know this deep down and so for me, it’s great to see a country recognising this as a public health concern.

It takes you 23 minutes to regain your focus

Another very interesting point that Hari uncovered in his book is that it takes on average 23 minutes to regain your focus after being distracted. For example, if you’re working in a state of concentrated flow and you receive a text message, it will take you somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes to get back into a flow after you’ve paused your work and responded.

It’s easy to see why the average person can’t focus properly throughout the day.

Our diets are causing us brain fog

It’s no secret that our Western diets are getting worse and worse. With an abundance of cheap fatty foods and soft drinks, obesity rates are rising year on year and the average obese person is getting younger and younger. However, it’s not only our waistlines that suffer from a poor diet filled with fat and sugar. It turns out that our brains suffer too. It sounds obvious when you stop and think about it but how often do you have a chance to be still and mindful before you put your items in your shopping basket? Most of us rush our shopping trips so we can get out of the store quickly.

The truth is, at least in my opinion, most people don’t eat real food. We’ve been marketed highly processed garbage for decades now so it’s easy to see why our diets are largely poor. Nutrition is overlooked and not taught to young people to the extent it should be, in my opinion. Highly sugary foods are more palatable so it’s no wonder we go for those types of foods over foods that were grown in the ground without additives.

Although cheap and tasty, sugary, processed ‘foods’ are tasty, they’re ruining our focus. Due to the quick release of energy in these types of foods, we experience a rush before crashing again soon after. There’s no way our brains can function properly with the rushing and crashing of energy we experience with these types of foods. The worst part about highly processed foods is the brain fog that can come with them.

How often do you eat processed, sugary foods and find yourself feeling tired and sedated for hours on end afterwards?

We’re controlled by algorithms

Facebook themselves admit it. In fact, they go as far as admitting that their algorithms have taken on a life of their own as if ‘the genie has been let out of the bottle’ and can’t be put back in. Facebook, like many other big social networks, uses advanced algorithms to feed you posts that you may be interested in. However, those same algorithms push negative posts much more than positive ones.

These complex algorithms are constantly learning from human behaviour. For example, if someone writes a post that complains about someone, Facebook will push that post out to more of that person’s friends. The algorithm knows that the network will get more engagement from negativity than positivity and this all feeds into its need for you to keep coming back more and more.

So, it’s not as if the algorithms are inherently evil, they’re only learning from our own human behaviour and natural fascination with arguments and negativity which is why it could be beneficial for you to be more selective with what you engage in.

How often do you see sensationalised posts by big companies or news websites on platforms like Facebook, only to click their link and see a very mild and tame article on the other side? It’s because they know you’ll engage quickly with a topic that divides opinion, even if it’s been artificially inflated.

This only encourages a society that is constantly triggered and vigilant and is more likely to be divided and on edge. The truth is, most people will react out of emotion, rather than spend the time digging for the truth surrounding a subject. Social media like Facebook is a sensationalised parody of real life, it keeps you distracted and artificially preoccupied with things you don’t really care about.

It’s easy to see how this negativity can become distracting and steal your focus on real-world matters constantly and throughout the day.

It is within the interests of a platform like Facebook to use these algorithms because they keep you coming back again and again before you find yourself addicted. This is ideal because the more time you spend on it, the more money they make.

Rise of the infinite scroll

Social media is addictive partly because you can never get enough of it. Having all the information in the world in your pocket makes it very hard to sit still and concentrate. Platforms like TikTok have mastered the ‘infinite scroll’ with videos playing one after the other without you even needing to scroll up or down.

We live in a world where there’s always more to see, hear and learn. Whilst access to information is a good thing it can quickly become unhealthy if you are ignoring your physical surroundings.

How often have you been with someone and all they do is look down at their phone, not really taking in what you’re saying to them? This used to be seen as rude, but now it’s just normal. This, in my opinion, is part of the root cause of the mental health epidemic. The present moment is severely underrated with many forgetting how to be still and appreciate each moment. After all, being still is how you recharge and calm your mind body and soul.

If you didn’t take a photo, did it really happen?

Hari’s podcast got me thinking about how important being present is. If your focus is interrupted, you can never be present and in my experience, that leads to negative feelings and the inability to be truly engaged and happy. After all, living your own experiences moment to moment is all you have in those moments so how can you truly live if you’re always focused on capturing your life through a screen? Sharing everything seems to be a human compulsion so I don’t think you can blame it all on technology, however, technology has made this compulsion a chronic condition, in my opinion. How can you ever be content in the moment if your first thought is to pull out your phone and take a photo or a video of something?

I was recently on vacation in Mallorca and we went on a trip to some beautiful underground caves that featured an underground lake. Built into the ticket price was a musical performance where a paddle boat would come out on the lake once the crowd was seated. As soon as the lights dimmed and the crowd went silent, a man sitting in front of me pulled out his phone and held it up with both hands, completely blocking my view.

I wondered if he knew he was blocking other people’s views of the performance or if he just didn’t care. Sadly, it seemed he just didn’t care – it was far more important for him to take a video than enjoy the present moment. This sort of thing happens everywhere you look from sports events, festivals, weddings, and birthdays, everyone is living through their screen, neglecting the pleasure of absorbing the moment, capturing images they’ll likely never look back on.


Hari also touched on the pandemic in his book and recent podcasts. The pandemic caused us to go into a mode of hypervigilance, always looking out for danger. After all, the pandemic was and still is very scary for some people. The side effects of the pandemic include a hypervigilance hangover where many of us are still on high alert.

During the pandemic, we had breaking news after breaking news and I’ve personally noticed this phenomenon has continued where tame news stories are now being touted as ‘breaking news’ to get us to click. The manufactured drama the news and social networks create puts us into a state of hypervigilance, tearing our attention away from what really matters.

Again, the more eyeballs they get, the more money they make.

How to become more focused

With all these things working against you, how do you become more focused?

Hari says that in order to fight back against the ‘attention crisis’ we have to change how we behave on an individual level but we also need companies to change the way they do things too. For example, Hari says that he and his boyfriend lock their phones away whilst they’re watching TV.

Hari talks about the fact that our attention has been stolen from us so the first thing to do is to go easy on yourself the next time you feel you’re weak for checking your phone twenty times an hour. Profit-making companies like Facebook designed their products to be addictive but that doesn’t mean they can’t engineer them in a way that isn’t so intrusive to our health.

Because you and I can’t rely on these companies to do that, it makes more sense to first look at what we can do as individuals to reclaim our focus on our own terms, even with the lure and addictive nature of our smartphones, tech and diets.

1. Learn to monotask again

I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have enjoyed my comic books as much as I did if I had a smartphone distracting me all those years ago. To reclaim your focus, you must learn to monotask again, just like the good old days!

Monotasking is exactly what it sounds like – engaging in a task for long periods of time without distraction. Because being distracted is a habit, reversing it takes practice and sometimes a lot of it.

It sounds easier than it can often be but creating a good environment is a key part of creating good habits like monotasking. This might mean putting your phone in another room, turning off notifications completely, sticking to one tab on your computer and disconnecting your landline. If for example, you’re going out for dinner you might also consider leaving your cell phone at home and even your smartwatch if you own one.

how to pay attention

2. Leave some groups

How many group chats are you in? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by how available you are to everyone in your life? A few years ago I left some big group chats after I got fed up with constantly having my phone ping, almost always in a state of hypervigilance. I could never relax, always waiting for my phone to vibrate. If you’re in any group chats, don’t feel bad about leaving them. It makes much more sense for people to come to you directly if they want to speak to you.

3. Question why you post

On a surface level, you might tell yourself you post a lot on social media because it’s innocent fun. Whilst this is true to some extent, you can quickly get sucked into it before you end up chronically distracted. Posting on social media is like dipping your toe into a black hole. You can’t just dip it in and take it out. Once you’ve dipped your toe in, you quickly get completely sucked in.

Posting online is like casting a fishing rod and waiting. Once you’ve done it, you can find yourself being endlessly notified by responses and shares, never truly allowing you to switch off.

When I first went online I shared everything, to the point of sharing too much. It wasn’t until I asked myself why I was doing it that I practically stopped. The real answer was I was casting my fishing rod out there in the hopes of triggering some kind of response because I wanted attention.

Not needing that feedback is freeing and cuts a big distraction out of your life.

4. Eat better

There are so many ways you can eat healthy food these days and it doesn’t always have to be expensive. Like technology, food can be addictive. Most people eat healthier to lose weight but not many people think about how it affects their minds. When I first started to eat healthier a few months back, I did so because I just wanted to ‘feel good’. Any weight loss was a bonus.

I don’t believe in ‘diets’ but I do believe there are meals out there for everyone’s tastes that will benefit their body and their minds that will also help them to avoid the dreaded crashes you can often feel after a big processed meal.

A good rule of thumb is to mostly eat food that has been processed the least. I personally have seen an increase in my energy levels after doing this for a few months.

5. Make the time

Everyone always says ‘I’m so busy, I won’t have time to do this or that’. However, how much time do you spend relaxing in the evening watching TV or playing games? What if you spent that time doing something where you can get into a state of flow and focus? After all, a lot of that ‘relaxing time’ is often time spent being distracted whilst you bounce from your phone to your TV looking for endless entertainment that never really scratches the itch.

There’s no point in starting a project worth doing if you know you have to stop every five minutes. Try setting an hour aside to work on a project where you know you won’t be disturbed. For example, when I want to write, I tell my family I’ll be engaged for an hour. If they really need me they can call me but otherwise, they respect my request to be left alone to work.

how to be more focused

6. Get better rest

One of the most important things for focus is getting proper rest. It’s why you should take breaks on long drives, for example. The recommends getting better sleep by getting into a sleep routine, paying attention to what you eat and creating a restful environment. However, they also recommend getting enough exercise during the day and this, for me, is the biggest change you can make to get better sleep.

I personally notice that exercise calms the mind both during the day and at bedtime. With excess energy expelled, my mind is calmer with less racing thoughts and my body naturally drifts off into a deeper sleep than it would have without exercise.

I think it’s important to move your body in some way because it seems obvious that humans aren’t designed to sit down all day looking at screens. Even twenty minutes of cycling makes me feel less foggy.

7. Become more focused by doing nothing

When was the last time you just sat without noise or fast-moving visuals on a screen? The author of the popular blog The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday, wrote a book called ‘Stillness Is The Key‘. It’s the idea that stillness and solitude are where you find true calmness and clarity. Holiday writes about the fact that his best ideas have always come from when he was still, not frenzied or rushing around.

It makes sense, how can you ever make good decisions if you’re always in a state of distraction?

You don’t have to meditate, although it would help you to become still. You can simply make time to reflect. “Making the time is key”, Holiday argues, because it’s so easy to tell yourself you don’t have time or you’ll get round to it at some point. There always seems as if there’s so much to do or so much to catch up on and so stillness doesn’t ever cross our minds.

However, by being still, you can find the solutions you’re looking for and conjure creative ideas that may have been buried in the back of your mind. Being still is like a ‘reset’ that then allows you to get on with your work once you’ve calmed your mind.

8. Get your fix and move on

With so much information flooding your way each day it’s better to check in once and then get on with your life. This also takes practice and it’s difficult if you rely on your phone for work. However, if you can, allocating time slots to check your emails and messages allows you to section off parts of your day for engaging with technology. By doing this, you can free up slots throughout your day to be still or focus on one thing at a time like reading or writing. This also applies to checking the news.

During the early days of the pandemic, I would check the Covid news pages about 50 times a day, endlessly refreshing the pages to get the latest information. I’d created a bad habit within the space of 48 hours and had to undo it by limiting my screen time.

Regaining your focus is about limiting your availability

All of the above tips take time and patience, especially in a world where everyone and everything wants your attention. However, one of the biggest changes I think you can make to become more focused again is to make yourself less available to the world. That way, you can concentrate on the things you need and want to do without expecting your messages to pop off at any given moment.

The post How To Become More Focused And Fight The Attention Crisis appeared first on

By: Sean Clarke
Title: How To Become More Focused And Fight The Attention Crisis
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Published Date: Wed, 14 Sep 2022 14:58:17 +0000

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