Reclaiming Your Stolen Focus
A Lenten fast with a tech twist
A large portrait of “The Little Potato Peeler” by Albert Anker was hung prominently in my childhood kitchen. As a young woman, my mother had purchased a heavily framed reproduction of the painting at an estate sale at the side of a road in a Swiss village (often wondering whether it might actually be the original, which of course it was not). The girl’s face had always struck me as serene and focused. Many of Anker’s other paintings also feature children absorbed in their tasks of knitting, reading, writing, or tending to a sibling. There was no phone tucked in their aprons that tugged on their attention and no screens that would draw their gaze. I was reminded of these paintings last fall, when I saw a young Mennonite boy dangling his legs at the back of a horse carriage, his head bent keenly into a book on his lap.
I am grateful when I observe similar moments when my children are entranced by their various pursuits of writing, drawing, reading, or petting chickens. But I know that these periods of focus are under constant threat and that the most precious gift that I can pass on to them is the sanctity of focus.
And that means starting with myself. When squabbling in our annoying teenage ways, my sister and I used to squeal the quote from Matthew 7 at each other: “Oh yeah? Well…. You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” As a mother, trying my best to admonish my children in their proper use of limited screen time, this quote prompts me to remember that children are the mirrors of their parents. And they can smell hypocrisy keener than freshly baked cookies. So reclaiming focus and attention needs to start with me.
Here is a list of my most prominent planks:
Social Media. It is poison. Nicely dressed-up and entertaining poison, but still deadly. (Substack excluded).
News. Standard, independent, international, you name it, I like to read it.
E-mail. I love receiving messages or sending out notes, but I check my inbox excessively. I am tired of being the pigeon that keeps going back to the tray to peck for another kernel.
Although I do not have a cell phone, I have at times tripped deeply into the crags of the smorgasbord of internet distractions. Like most of you I feel the insistent tapping on my shoulder whenever I have a moment of downtime, the beckoning of a screen with a new interesting tidbit. One time when I am completely free of these Sirens is on my long-distance walks around a local conservation area. Then I reflect that one feature that makes us uniquely human is the freedom to choose, not just follow animal instincts.
Since the advent of social media and the hyper-connectedness of the internet, we have increasingly handed over our ability to choose to base instincts. When we check our messages and view posts we often do so out of a compulsion, not out of a free choice. Social media with its personalized algorithms is literally designed to bind us, compel us, and as a result eat away at our mental freedom. We know this, and even so we often cannot let go. Aldous Huxley prophesied accurately almost eighty years ago:
“People will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Johann Hari recently published Stolen Focus, a deep dive into our developing “attentional pathogenic culture”, in which sustained and deep attention is extremely challenging for all of us. He interviewed 250 experts and identified twelve deep causes that contribute to the state of our addled minds. The book is enlightening and at the same time disheartening. It lays bare the reality that we face a collective inability to pay attention, to focus, and that with every effort we may expend on self-control, “there are a thousand engineers on the other side of the screen working against you.”
Hari interviewed Tristan Harris, a former Google engineer turned advocate who, before quitting, appealed to his co-workers with a final message:
“I’m concerned about how we are making the world more distracted.” He was worried that the company -and others like it - was inadvertently “destroy[ing] our kids’ ability to focus”, pointing out that the average child between the ages of thirteen and seventeen in the U.S. was sending one text message every six minutes they were awake…We are “creating an arms race that causes companies more reasons to steal people’s time,” and it “destroys our common silence and ability to think.”
Hari continues to dissect the consequences of our lost focus including:
a more manipulable population drawn to simplistic authoritarian solutions
a degrading ability to evaluate complex arguments and increasing reliance on twitter snippets to form our opinions
a loss of ability for deep reading and associated decrease in emotional IQ
an increase in anger prompted by algorithms that are trained to stream negative and outrageous posts to engage maximum attention
I’ll leave the list at that for now, although you can imagine how much longer it gets throughout the 300 page book.
Stolen Focus does proffer some solutions to the problem of collective distraction, but it approaches them from a self-improvement angle with a layer of “what we really need is societal change”. Importantly it feels to me that the solutions lack a central anchor that would make the average reader care enough to change. However, on the practical side, Hari included solutions that I have found helpful in the past.
For example, he interviewed Earl Miller from MIT who explained that it is important to separate from source of distraction: “We are not machines. We cannot live by the logic of machines. We are humans and we work differently”. One way to do this is to not carry your phone on your body. At home, place your phone in a box. This might sound bizarre but the extra moments it takes to go to the box and lift the lid to remove it, allow your brain to check the impulse and resist it more easily. If you are on the go, carrying the phone in an extra zipper pouch inside your bag, will add extra seconds to override the urge to check. If you have a laptop, place it out of sight.
Another suggestion is offered by Guy Claxton, a professor of learning sciences at Winchester University. He notes that when we practice “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”. In other words, “slowness nurtures attention, speed shatters it”. A habitual daily walker, I have always felt that the proper speed for humans is foot pace. Anything faster and we easily feel harried. The same is true with information intake. I have never felt that a book was overwhelming me with information; the pages do not simply jump at you or plead to be clicked or scrolled. Choosing to move at human speed helps us to focus; doing less more slowly helps us regain a stiller mind.
However, while practical behavioral solutions may be helpful, they often do not last. The deluge of distraction is just too powerful for us to overcome with a self-help approach. As I noted, I feel this is where Hari’s book lacks a central anchor to compel us toward change; it lacks conviction to a greater story.
Pilgrims in the Machine strikes at the core when he states:
But there is something else the Machine brings, and this also needs to be countered: conviction. The power and ubiquity of technology makes us believe in its metaphors.
And yet, after more than a hundred years of factory systems, the factory model has become a natural metaphor for how we understand human life, to the point that we are now okay with leaping into the factory fire to liquify our values, our language, how we educate our children, and pumping them into the prescribed molds until they cool and harden into new values, new words, new ways of being.
Fluid modernity leads to mechanical reality. This molten-mechanical metaphor might be material and dead, but we believe in it because it is our underbody and feels almost natural. A more powerful metaphor is needed—not a metaphor but a story—to give us reason to resist.
When I consider the reasons why I want to resist and reclaim my focus from the jaws of the Machine, it is because I believe that my fractured mind removes me from the True, the Beautiful, and the Good. It is because I believe that God has made us to be creative, and distraction kills creativity and by extension makes us less human (my daughter rightly notes that the phone is where ideas go to die). And most importantly, I want to reclaim my focus because I want to be the mirror for my children to grow into full human beings who can engage with reality, nurture relationships, and use their brains without the shackles of distraction.
The Lenten fast can serve as a unique time of ‘disruptive spirituality’ because it is a shared tradition for Christians around the world. In a time of cultural upheaval and societal disintegration, Lent provides a solid, historic tradition that is deeply rooted in our daily realities. If we are to break free from the strangle hold of collective distraction, Lent presents an ideal opportunity to reclaim our focus. So in addition to following the traditional fast, I committed to fasting from distraction. For me this means:
No Social Media - I will instead share more cups of tea with real friends.
No News - I will instead take up N.S. Lyons’ suggestion and turn to “great voices of the past that have endured through epoch after epoch, and upheaval after upheaval”.
E-mail once per day - That will be plenty enough.
It has now been a week since I started my fast with a tech twist, and I feel relieved. I feel more normal and less agitated. I get more laundry folded and rooms straightened. I care more about what is happening around me right here and less about what is happening in tucked away corners of the internet. In his recent post on the Upheaval, N.S. Lyons commented that a vital grounding in the reality of life, “can remind you that you necessarily live life as an embodied being in direct relationships with other embodied beings and things – and therefore help you retain an authentic connection with what it means to be a human immanently alive in the world as it is”.
Do you feel that distraction eats away at your attention? Have you taken steps to reclaim your lost focus? What strategies have you tried? What has been helpful and what has not worked? Let me (and other readers) know in the comments below.
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I arrived here via a Recommendation from Caroline Ross...I'm glad I did! I wholeheartedly believe in limiting one's own screen time/distractions to model such behavior for our children. When my son was two we got rid of television...it was sort of trendy at the time and honestly, my husband and I always had our heads in books while the television jangled in the background, so it made sense.
When our son was supposed to go to school we decided to keep him at home. As an educator myself (I earned an M.Ed. but did not work in the system), I began reading the unschooling philosophies proposed by John Holt. As a result, we allowed our son to pursue his own interests (history and woodworking) with minimal academic interruptions. As Holt puts it, we allowed him as much freedom "as we [were] comfortable." He is now eighteen-years-old, is online less than an hour a day and has never owned a mobile phone. While we did not explicitly intend to create a focused adult, we did exactly that; he is now a professional furniture-maker. At this point, he is the model for us -- as we are both checking our email, etc. constantly. Your advice is spot on...social media is poison, news rarely informs but rather saps us of our time/attention and email, just like 'snail mail' need only be checked once-a-day and everything will run along just as smoothly.
Lovely essay...I'm glad to have found you.🙂
Thank you for this interesting post! Yes, I knew long ago social media was ruining my attention span (and I was only ever on Facebook, but that was bad enough). I read fewer books; I rarely wrote in my blogs. It was also affecting my attitude and relationships: I was quicker to annoyance and anger and had observed that if I knew someone online and in real life, knowing them online made like them *less.* But I didn’t “pull that plug” until I witnessed a family member subjected to an online mob. That was so horrible it seemed to stop all the dopamine rewards in my brain at once and I knew I had to get off.
But that has also opened the question of what to replace it with. Obviously more reading and writing and real life experience. But I do crave the dialogue and connection: for example, before the internet my favourite part of magazines and newspapers was the letters section. I like the commons, having the diversity of perspectives. So on that note I will be adding a link to your blog on mine!