There is something that I have noticed going on for a few years now that is affecting me, and I know it’s affecting others too. I recently read an article that named what it was: Stolen Focus.
Over recent years I have noticed that my attention span has changed. I find it hard to focus on things without jumping to other things. There is one place where I can get it under control without too much effort, and that’s when I’m out in nature. But if I’m at home, I find I have to dig deep and be very disciplined to stay focused on one task. If I don’t, I find myself switching to check my emails, popping on Facebook or Instagram, carrying out some easy admin tasks that don’t require much thought, or anything that will distract me from the thing that demands unbroken attention.
Reflecting back to ten years ago, I didn’t struggle with paying attention in this way. This problem has crept up on me. I have noticed it for a while now, and have been blaming myself. ‘You need to be more disciplined Nicola. Just turn the internet off. Just tell yourself to stop when you start to feel the urge to jump onto something else.’
But I have recently discovered it is a lot more complicated than that. Reading the book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari, which was published in January this year, has opened to my eyes to the reasons why I have this challenge. Through his book Johann explains how our attention has been stolen from us. There is a design to take our attention away from us, and he shares twelve different ways on how this has been achieved. Reasons range from the design of technology coming out of Silicon Valley through to our diets, children’s play to pollution, exposure to light before bedtime, and not giving time for the mind to wander.
I know I am not alone in struggling to keep my focus. The book is full of examples of people who feel the same, along with some startling statistics. For example, a study in the US found that the average time an adult stays on one task at work is three minutes. Most office workers never get an hour of uninterrupted work in a typical day. Johann writes: “If this goes on for months and years, it scrambles your ability to figure out who you are and what you want. You become lost in your own life.”
This raises these questions in me. If we become lost in our own lives, how can we follow our soul’s calling? How can we find our happiness? How can we lead fulfilling lives?
Learning about the concept of ‘stolen focus’ profoundly impacted me, and I immediately started to address some of my challenges. Over the past month I have created tighter boundaries on when I go online. I take particular notice when I feel the urge to check emails and Facebook and reflect on why this is. I make sure I put aside time each day for reading. I have also made efforts to focus on just one thing at a time until I complete it, rather than jumping between projects.
I have put a lot of effort into this as I believe reclaiming and maintaining our focus is one of the most important aspects of our spiritual work. To follow a spiritual path is to find the way to our true selves and live the life that we came here to live. To follow a spiritual path is to find and follow our soul’s calling. How can we do this if our attention is elsewhere, far away from ourselves?
For this reason, I wanted to bring the awareness of Johann’s research to our community and so ‘stolen focus’ formed the theme of our January Mystery School Shamanic Journey Circle. The outcome from that evening has led me to write this blog. Here I will share a few examples to describe the problem of ‘stolen focus’ as it might be something you can relate to. I will share two of twelve ways our attention has been taken away from us that Johann explains in his book. And I will describe ways to reclaim it back and why this is so important.
Johann Hari is a great storyteller. He begins his book by sharing a story about his nephew who as a young boy was obsessed with Elvis. He learned the shaking dance moves and song lyrics and asked his uncle to promise to take him to Graceland in Memphis one day, the huge mansion Elvis had bought for his mother. Johann agreed and didn’t give it a second thought until things started to fall apart for his nephew ten years on.
By his mid-teens, his nephew had dropped out of school. He spent his life at home, not leaving the house, just flicking between screens on his phone, whether it be Facebook, snapchat, youtube or other channels. He started to be very withdrawn. So, at that point, Johann suggested going to visit Graceland. His nephew had completely forgotten about this dream he had as a boy, but it was a trip to America, and so he said yes. Johann explained it was on the condition he didn’t use his phone during the daytime, and booked plane tickets for a two week holiday.
Johann then describes this bizarre scene when they arrived at Graceland. He explains that when you go in through the entrance, you aren’t greeted by any people at all. Instead, you are given an iPad. You then walk around the mansion and listen to the narrative for each room through earphones. As he was walking around, he noticed that no one was looking up from their iPad. The mansion was full of visitors who had travelled from all over the world but they were all looking at Graceland through their electronic devices.
As he walked from room to room, Johann tried to catch other people's attention to shrug his shoulders and say: ‘hey, we are the only ones looking around’. However, the only time people looked up from their iPad was when they were getting their phones out to take selfies. He arrived at the jungle room, Elvis’s favourite room, which is full of plastic plants - the same plants that Elvis had bought. There were a couple of people in there and one of them said to the other: ‘look, this is amazing. Look if you flip between the screens you can see different angles of the room. See, this is what’s behind us and to the side of us!’
Johann turned to the couple and said: ‘there is an old fashioned way of doing this, which is where you look up from your iPad and move your head and see the different angles of the room!’ They ignored him and shuffled off, looking at him like he was a complete madman. Johann went to tell his nephew about what had happened, and found him sitting in the corner of a room with his head underneath his coat. He was on snapchat.
His nephew had been on his phone all week, from the moment the aeroplane had touched down onto the tarmac. At that first point, Johann pulled him up and reminded him of the conditions he had agreed to for the trip. His response was: ‘of course I have to use my phone. I promised not to make any calls on it, but I can’t do without texting and snapchat.’ It was as if he was asking his nephew to hold his breath for a long period of time. He just couldn’t do it.
Through these encounters with his nephew on holiday, Johann recognised that he was seeing the amplification of something he was struggling with himself, which he had noticed in his friends and all the people who were visiting Graceland.
Like Johann, I see this in myself too, and I make a conscious effort to control it, and have been for many years. I also see it everywhere I go: people disengaged with their surroundings as they lose themselves in their phone. I see teenagers crossing the street staring at their phones. I see couples and groups of people in restaurants all looking at their phones rather than talking to each other. And I think it is getting more pronounced every year.
When Johann returned from his trip he embarked on an extreme method to try to resolve it himself, which he recognises that he is in an unusual and privileged position to do. He completely cut off from the online world.
To do this, he moved to a small beach town called Provincetown in America, where he lived for three months offline. He explains the lengthy process he went to, to prepare for his trip. For example, he needed to find a laptop that could not connect to the internet so he could write, and he had to find ways to replace all the functions that his phone performed, which included buying an iPod and a Kindle. He describes the disbelief and mild panic displayed by people when he explained what he was planning to do.
During the first three weeks of his experimental new life, he found it difficult to slow down, but then he hit a sweet spot in week four. What he found was that he dropped into a gentler pace of life and was able to think much more clearly. He was able to read. He looked forward to writing and found it easy to get into the flow. He would go for walks, long walks, starting off two to three hours long, getting up to five hours on the beach.
I can relate to Johann’s experience here but on a smaller scale. When I take myself off into the countryside for days at a time camping, I shift into a different state of mind. It might take me a day or so, but I do slow down, and can find I apply myself to tasks far easier than if I had stayed at home.
If I have planning to do, or a course to design, I schedule in a two or three day trip away in my little red van and take myself off to focus. In the winter, outside of camping season, I will take myself off up onto Anglezarke Moor with my laptop if I have writing I need to do. I can find my creative flow out in nature, but indoors it is very hard to access.
Jason and I find that we can drop to an even deeper level when we go on a two week holiday. Our minds slow down a notch or two further, and we start to come up with ideas that we just wouldn’t have thought of during our everyday lives.
I have noticed this for many years, that I need to retreat away in order to achieve a different state of mind. But what I didn’t realise, was that there is something going on to actually steal my ability to focus on the things I want to focus on. Johann realised this during his three-month offline experience. Over time he started to see that there was something much bigger going on for him. He realised that we are now living in what he calls a ‘stolen focus culture’.
Johann embarked on a massive research process to explore this further when he returned from his three-month retreat. He interviewed 250 experts in this field across the world, namely academic researchers and professors, and reviewed 400 papers. He presents his findings in his book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention. It is an excellent book, and I thoroughly recommend reading it.
Early in Johann’s research, as he was investigating the validity of researching why we seem to have lost our sense of focus and how we can get it back, he interviewed one of the world's experts in willpower and self-discipline. Professor Roy Baumeister at the University of Queensland in Australia has been studying this science for more than thirty years. During their conversation, Professor Baumeister was interested that Johann had come to speak with him about this, and shared his own personal challenges:
“I am feeling like my control over my attention is weaker than it used to be. I used to be able to sit for hours, reading and writing, but now it seems like my mind jumps around a lot more. When I start to feel bad, I play a video game on my phone and then that got to be fun. I can see that I am not sustaining concentration in perhaps the way I used to. I am just sort of giving in to it and will start to feel bad.”
This is the experience of an expert in willpower who has written a book entitled 'Willpower'. If Professor Baumeister is struggling, doesn’t that say something about what we are up against? This is a topic that we can’t afford to pass by.
Stolen by design
After reading the book, I reflected on attention challenges that I have. It highlighted to me the things that I am already doing to help, and that I have been working on this for over two decades now. This includes not reading newspapers, watching television, listening to the radio, limiting the time I spend on social media and trying to just check my emails at set times. But even with this awareness and taking all these steps, my ability to pay attention is still waning. I am reading less than I was five years ago. And I notice that left unchecked I can easily slip into endlessly scrolling through social media and checking my emails regularly throughout the day to avoid focusing on other tasks. It is really hard to address.
Since finishing Stolen Focus, I have managed to read five books, which I am really pleased about. I am also noticing how often I get distracted when I am completing tasks that I need to focus on. A small victory, but I can see how easy it is to slip back into old patterns.
Here are some words Johann shares in his book about his findings:
“I came to believe that we have profoundly misunderstood what is actually happening to our attention. For years, whenever I couldn’t focus, I would angrily blame myself. I would say: 'you are lazy and undisciplined'. Or I would blame my phone and rage against it. But I learned there was something much deeper than personal failure or a single new invention happening here.
I found strong evidence that our collapsing ability to pay attention is not primarily a personal failing on my part, or your part, or your kids part. This is being done to us all. It is being done by very powerful forces. Those forces include Big Tech, but they also go way beyond them. This is a systemic problem. The truth is that you are living in a system that is pouring acid on your attention every day, and then you are being told to blame yourself and to fiddle with your own habits while the world’s attention burns.”
There is a grand design to steal our attention away from ourselves.
Learning this has highlighted even more to me how important the Earth-based spiritual practice is. This includes getting out in nature, quietening the mind, attuning to the natural world and the messages there for us, dropping into a different state so we can tune our brains into a different frequency: the spirit realm. This is not a big time commitment, and the rewards are huge. But it also helps explain how so many people find it hard to have the discipline to do this with all the other orchestrated demands on their attention.
Earlier I mentioned that Johann speaks of twelve different ways in which our attention is being stolen from us by design. I would love to speak of each of them here, as they all strike a chord with me, but each is worthy of its own blog. The two I have chosen to write about today are the myth that we can multitask and the controlling power of the tech companies.
I have shared how I can drop into a different state of mind and can think more clearly when I take myself out into nature. Johann also experienced this himself when he took long walks along the beach. On returning from his three-month retreat, one of the things he reflected on was why, culturally we aren’t trying to slow things down to a pace where people can think more clearly. His searching for an answer to this question led him to meet with one of the world’s top neuroscientists, Professor Earl Miller, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Professor Miller explained that there is one core fact about brains and how they function that everyone should know. He said:
“Your brain can only produce one or two thoughts in your mind at once. That’s it. We’re very single-minded. We have very limited cognitive capacity. This is because of the fundamental structure of the brain, and it is not going to change. But rather than acknowledge this, we invented a myth. The myth is that we can actually think about three, five, ten things at the same time.”
Multitasking was a word I was familiar with when I worked in my career as a sustainability manager for large businesses. It was the ability to jump from one task to another and seemingly do several things simultaneously. I was proud that I could do it as it was an attribute employers were looking for.
Over the years since leaving that world and working for myself, I have found that I am far more effective when I focus on just one thing at a time. So, I could relate to Johann’s section in his book about the multitask delusion. When we are multitasking, what we are doing is rapidly jumping back and forth between tasks. This is not good for our minds. A research study found that technological distractions such as receiving emails and calls caused a drop in IQ of ten points.
Focusing on one thing at a time allows us to be creative, whereas jumping quickly from one thing to another stops that creative ability. To do things well, you need to focus on one thing at a time. This is not happening in our culture anymore. Johann asked Professor Miller that given what we know about the brain, was it fair to conclude that attention problems today really are worse than at some points in the past. He replied that he “believes we have created in our culture ‘a perfect storm’ of cognitive degradation, as a result of distraction.”
We are living in a perfect storm that is degrading our capacity to think.
Professor Miller then goes on to explain that it isn’t all bad news, as it is possible to retrain our brains and that we can do this by starting today. First, take steps to remove the distractions. Then, if you are struggling to focus, try doing just one task for ten minutes. Then another ten minutes. Over time your brain will strengthen the neural connections required for that behaviour. It won’t take long before you can increase this to fifteen minutes and then half an hour. The key is to practice, little by little.
I find this so encouraging: to have a problem named like this but also the solution explained that really is quite simple. We give ourselves the space we need to retrain our brains once again.
Time out in nature gives me this space.
One of the activities we teach in our Mystery School is to go and sit in nature, without any distractions for one hour. This is alone, without a dog, without a book to read or a journal to write in. Just to go and sit and be present. It is a fascinating exercise and one that is met with different reactions. Some people love the idea. Some people find that a conversation immediately enters their minds when we suggest it. Thoughts such as: ‘I haven’t got time for that. What is the point? I can’t do that.’ Some people have safety concerns, in which case we suggest just doing this in your garden or back yard or finding a park where they do feel safe.
Sitting out in nature for one hour can be harder to do than it might sound. However, whatever arises in this activity shines a light on a deeper issue going on inside. When I do this, I know I have the temptation to distract myself by taking out my journal or checking online for something. Reading the conversation between Johann and Professor Miller has helped me appreciate how important this practice is. To help retrain our brains, we need to separate ourselves for increasing periods of time from the sources of our distraction.
The second reason behind our attention being stolen that I would like to share here in this blog is the controlling power of the tech companies. Maybe I have chosen to write about this one because of my own experience working inside the corporations, and seeing first-hand how big businesses operate. Perhaps it is because of my worry about the level of control that the corporations have over us, when their primary and often only interest is to make money at the detriment to the health and wellbeing of people and the Earth.
To explain the controlling power the tech companies have over us, please bear with me as I want to cover some science that Johann talks about in his book. I want to take us back seventy years to a piece of research undertaken in the 1950’s by a Harvard professor named Skinner. Skinner became an intellectual celebrity by discovering something strange. He found that it is possible, with relative ease, to change an animal's behaviour and what it is choosing to pay attention to. Put differently, you can control an animal’s focus as if it were a robot being programmed to obey your requests.
Let's take for example, a pigeon. If you keep a pigeon in a cage and don’t give it any food, it will go hungry. Then introduce a bird feeder where a button is pressed to release food for the pigeon to eat. Then wait for the pigeon to do a particular movement, such as lifting its wing. When it makes that movement, you press a button and give it some seed. When it does the same movement again, lifting its wing up, you press the button and it gets more seed. It doesn’t take very long for the pigeon to quickly learn that if it wants seed, all it needs to do is lift its wing and get the seed. So, if you manipulate it correctly, it will keep on lifting its wing up and that becomes its dominant movement.
Skinner tested this to see how far he could take it. He found that you can teach a pigeon to play ping pong, and a rabbit to pick up coins and put them in a piggy bank. Skinner believed the human mind is the same, it can be reprogrammed in any way.
Skinners ideas went out of favour for quite a while, but they were then picked up by the tech companies in Silicon Valley. Because if you can control the minds of the people, then that equals power. You have power as you can control what people think, how they spend their time, what they look at and what they buy.
As an example, the designers of Instagram asked – if we reinforce our users for taking selfies – if we give them hearts and likes – will they start to do it obsessively just like the pigeon will obsessively hold out its wing for seed? They took Skinner’s core techniques and applied them to a billion people.
Johann describes a conversation he had with a former Google strategist he met, James Williams, who is a mole if you like, on the inside of one of the major tech companies. James became disillusioned with their practices and left and speaks openly of his experiences there. This is what Johann says about James’s experience:
“Every day, the company he (James Williams) worked for – from its base in Googleplex in Palo Alto, was shaping and reshaping how 1 billion people navigated their way through the world: what they got to see, and what they didn’t. James told one audience later, ‘I want you to imagine walking into a room, a control room with a bunch of people, a hundred people, hunched over desks with little dials, and that control room will shape the thoughts and feelings of a billion people. This might sound like science fiction, but this actually exists right now, today. I know as I used to work in one of those control rooms.’
The engineers were always looking for new ways to suck eyeballs into their programme and keep them there. Day after day, he would watch as engineers proposed more interruptions to people's lives – more vibrations, more alerts, more tricks and they would be congratulated.”
It is eye-opening stuff isn’t it, reading it in black and white and hearing an insider experience? This isn’t new information to me. I was aware that this was happening. I just didn’t realise the extent that it was happening, and how I am unconsciously responding to it. I didn’t realise the extent to how it was working on me.
Why this matters
I would like to finish by sharing some of the reasons why this matters so much. I think you probably know intuitively what I am about to say.
Johann summarises three crucial reasons why this issue of stolen focus needs to be addressed:
- “A life full of distractions is at an individual level a life diminished. When you are unable to pay sustained attention, you can’t achieve the things you want to achieve.
- Stolen focus is causing crisis in our whole society. Democracy requires the ability of a population to pay attention for long enough to identify real problems, distinguish them from fantasies, come up with solutions and hold their leaders accountable if they fail to deliver on them. We lose our ability to have a fully functioning society if we lose that. People who can’t focus will be more drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions, and less likely to see clearly when they fail.
- The third reason is the most hopeful. If we understand what is happening we can begin to change it.”
So, what positive things will happen in our lives when we do reclaim back our attention?
Well, reclaiming our attention will mean reclaiming the ability to focus on immediate actions like finishing a book, writing in our journal, taking a walk, going on a shamanic journey, spending quality time with our family, arranging to meet up with friends. Our lives will be enriched with the things that we want to do, and that bring us happiness.
Reclaiming our attention will also enable us to focus on longer-term goals and keep sight of where we are heading. These are projects that will take sustained focus over a period of time such as writing a book or creating a business.
And reclaiming our attention makes it possible for us to know what our long term goals are in the first place. If we are not focusing on ourselves, how will we know that we want to write that book? Set up that business? Without space to reflect and think clearly, it’s not possible to figure out these things.
The Earth-based spiritual path is one route to reclaiming our attention. Jason and I created The Way of the Buzzard as a place where like-minded people could come together and practice the old spiritual ways of our land. At the time I don’t think either of us realised the significance of this as we progress into the twenty first century.
Earth-based spirituality gives you the tools to find your way back home, away from the noise and distractions of the modern world that are designed to pull you away from what is important in life. Distractions tempt you back to screens where you are shown information that someone else chooses for you to see. Now more than ever, we need to find our way home. We need to reclaim our focus in the best way we can. It is not going to be easy. It is likely to be a life-long task for many. It might not even be entirely possible now we are living in the digital age. But through awareness, we can begin to take action.
And where better to seek advice on what action to take than our spirit guides and nature? To move outside of our conscious minds and find ways to reclaim our focus. This is the way of the buzzard.
Nature time brings us back home. I spend a lot of my time out in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. I lift my gaze to watch the courtship dance of the kestrels or the silent hover of the barn owl as it hunts across the dried grasses. I walk in the company of robins and wrens, hearing their early spring songs. I watch the sway of the first spring flowers as they rock back and forth in the wind. I take delight at seeing the first buds blossom in the trees, and leaves emerge one by one through each species in the woodlands and hedgerows. I pay attention to the subtle changes through each season and take time to mark each turn in the wheel of the year, spring to summer, autumn to winter.
As I do this, I give myself the space for my mind to wander. I remove myself from distractions and give my brain time to make new connections, come up with fresh ideas, and reflect on where I am going in life. When I need answers to specific questions, I can journey to the Otherworld and meet with my spirit guides to get a different perspective. I can do all of this to help me find my way out of the distracting world of the twenty-first century that we live in.
Stolen focus has shown me that after all these years of awareness, I still have ongoing challenges around attention. It is a relief in one sense to find out that there is a grand design underway to steal our attention and that it isn’t just me becoming less disciplined. It is also a relief to know that there are things that I can do to retrain my brain and that I have already found my way to them naturally.
This new awareness around stolen focus though does lead me to worry even more about where this is all going in our world. But, the spiritual path is about awakening to what is wrong about our world and taking steps to change what we can, which always begins with changing ourselves. This feels empowering, maverick even. I know I am in good company working to reclaim my focus, as I know it is something that many people in our community are also aware of and working on too. As you have made it to the end of my blog, I suspect that you are one of these people. I am delighted to be sharing this adventure with you.
I would love to hear your thoughts about what has been discussed here. So, do write a comment in the box below if you are drawn to.
If you have enjoyed this blog, I highly recommend reading Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari.
If you are a member of our Mystery School and didn’t make it live to our January Shamanic Journey Circle, then do see try to watch the replay and go on the shamanic journey we lead to ask the question: ‘What is getting in the way of my attention’. Members can access the recording to ‘Reclaim Your Attention’ via this link.
And if you aren’t a member of our Mystery School, and are interested in learning some of the techniques that we teach do check out our free course in Shamanism and Shamanic Journeying if you haven’t done so already, which you can access via this link.
You can also find out about our Mystery School here to see if it is something that you might like to be a part of.