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Distraction and Diminished Focus By Design

Changing Our Capacity to Govern, Learn, Make Collective Decisions and Be Productive

This new book Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is getting a lot of attention and for good reason. The author lays out in detail how we are all bombarded by systems that are designed to distract and hold our attention for the purpose defined in business models. This constant level of distraction has taken a heavy toll on our collective ability to think, focus for any length of time, listen accurately and deal with complexity. This has very real impacts on public leadership and democracy. It is already altering how we educate our citizens, communicate with them and choose to use/purchase technology that will protect citizen privacy.

To govern and lead with any success we need citizens and employees who can focus for more than seconds or minutes. It goes without saying that many studies including this book lay out the basic reality that our brains were never designed to multi-task and in fact are incapable of doing it. We continue to convince ourselves this is not the case, but studies confirm the opposite is true. Hari’s research shows that we use up a significant amount of our energy and productivity when we switch from one device to another, one tab to another, or constantly take calls on our phones while focused on something else. The author describes in detail our current reality. Teenagers in the US can only focus on one task for 65 seconds at a time and the average office worker is not much better clocking in at only three minutes of focused attention. Most senior executives now report a max of 20 minutes a day of uninterrupted time.

After decades of unregulated and unvetted technology we find ourselves with significant brain diminishment which is described in multiple ways in this book. The results effect our individual and collective productivity, sense of self-worth, fulfillment and ability to think beyond the superficial. The author interviews 250 experts on the topic of Stolen Focus and brain science from multiple professional backgrounds from all over the globe.

Given the current reality the question is what can we do as public leaders faced with educating the public as partners? On both an individual and organizational level we can begin to make changes now. We can begin by discouraging multitasking in meetings by establishing norms to eliminate distractions, including shutting off all electronic devices. Educate your residents and students and acknowledge that distracted multi-tasking people make many more errors that have to be repaired,which results in working less productively using more time and achieving less. Ensure that focused time on a task is the smart way to work and allow people to set up time and/or a space to just work and think without interruption. Use technology to help people to be more productive and limit distractions. This includes thinking about systems like Dropbox to create efficiencies instead of assuming alignment on file names etc. Encourage focused reading time to help people build back their focusing muscles. Not surprisingly the number of people who read one book a year has dropped off significantly.

Stop using or investing in technology systems which collect and sell information as their business model. The question is not whether technology is good or bad but whether their business model is designed to help the users improve performance and health vs, keeping them addicted to the technology or selling their information.

There are many resources available to you if you wish to educate your team on why you should act now to restore focus, improve productivity, achieve your goals and help people to be more physically and mentally healthy. Here are some resources…

Tristan Harris has been a pioneer in how to improve our use of technology. He is the President and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

Watch this extensive interview with the author of Stolen Focus, Johann Hari.

Watch the Video Documentary on Netflix, The Social Dilemma

Click to read Shoshanna Zuboff’s the Age of Surveillance Capitalism.