When I was reading Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus, I was constantly distracted by my mobile—though I had turned on its “do not disturb” feature. For no reason at all, I would reach out for it every few minutes, to scroll through memes. Many minutes later, I would return, guiltily, to the pages.
If this isn’t enough to tell me, or anyone else suffering a similar problem, that this book is a timely exploration of a crisis plaguing our daily realities, I don’t know what would be. Speaking to my specific struggle, Hari paraphrases Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine: “…if you have spent long enough being interrupted in your daily life, you will start to interrupt yourself even when you are set free from all these external interruptions.” I interrupted myself despite Hari’s easy and evocative writing—my biases don’t allow me to expect the latter from the self-improvement genre.
Also read: Take ‘micro-breaks’ to stay focused at work
What he narrates of himself from a trip to Graceland—Elvis Presley’s mansion-turned-museum—with his godson, a fan, is a well-executed literary trope: to everyone else, discovering the place through Augmented Reality on their iPad guides, Hari looked like a madman; in actuality, he is the only one able to call the situation out for what it is. Nuts. Why wouldn’t you just look at the real thing instead?
Dedicating a chapter to the difference between distraction and mind-wandering, Hari says the latter is a positive that gives our minds the space to nurture original thoughts. He recalls his feelings on seeing co-passengers on a six-hour bus ride doing nothing except look out of the window. Why weren’t they using time productively? I could relate to this desperate urgency—fuelled usually by a potent mix of anxiety and guilt at resisting the various demands on our attention.
Despite saying that he offers no definite solutions, Hari touches upon the idea of resistance at a community level. At a time when the idea of ‘rest as resistance’ is catching on, with American artists like Tricia Hersey are advocating against capitalism’s burnout culture through organisations like Nap Ministry, he talks to people who imagine the possibilities of a ban on surveillance capitalism. In the same way we kept house-paint but managed to ban the lead content in it, he says.
My only niggle was this: In his concluding chapter, Hari talks about how “corporations are constantly finding ways to cram more stuff into the same amount of time…they want you to watch TV and follow the show on social media….” What he ends up doing is vaguely, laughably similar. At the start, Hari invites us to “listen along” to the audio versions of the book’s interviews, on its website. Having written close to 300 pages on the problem and why the onus shouldn’t be on the individual to overcome it, why would he open us up to a world of distractions like that?
Also read: Four new to-do apps to organise your life