Where has all the focus gone?

March 6, 2023 3:00 am

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If you’re driven to distraction behind the wheel in Nebraska, you’re asking for a $200 first-offense fine. You remember distracted driving: texting, fiddling with the music, scarfing a Big Mac and fries, having an intense conversation with a passenger that includes plenty of eye contact.

According to the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, all forms of distraction account for several thousand deaths on the nations highways every year. If youre keeping score at home, distracted driving is nothing new. Thirty-five years ago, when my Los Angeles commute involved the Hollywood Freeway, I saw drivers doing everything from shaving to sending faxes. (Yes, faxes. Look it up.)

Cell phones, obviously, have deepened the distraction dilemma … almost as much as another, bigger reason for our focus to be constantly under attack: We are more distracted than ever.

And not just driving or shaving or working, but in every conceivable thing we do. We are slowly losing our ability to focus for long periods of time and suffering the consequences of that, from reduced productivity to increased exhaustion to lives lived under the yoke of surveillance capitalism.

In Stolen Focus,” author Johann Hari warns we are losing our inability to concentrate in this brave new world of algorithms, massive information dumps and advancing speed.

Haris research took him all over the world, speaking with over 250 experts in focus and distraction. He found compelling numbers, too. We are now living in a serious crisis of attention — one that is analogous to the obesity crisis or the climate crisis. The average college student now spends just 65 seconds on each task. The average office worker spends just three minutes. Even the average Fortune 500 CEO only gets 28 minutes of uninterrupted focus a day.”

Nor does distraction come cheap: The switch cost effect” — those interruptions from phone or fellow worker — costs us 20% of our attention. We make mistakes (screw-up effect), reduce our artistry (creativity drain) and mess with our retention (diminished memory effect). And once our focus is broken, it takes 23 minutes to get back to the level at which we were operating.

A loss of focus means less reading, too. By 2017 Americans were spending 17 minutes a day reading a book and 5.4 hours on their phones.

Aside from the obvious, Hari connected the distracting universe to poor sleeping habits, a reticence for healthy daydreaming and our potential for mistaking environmental influences from genetic ones when diagnosing distracted children.

Of course, whats a discussion of distraction without a walk through the minefield that is tech giants using algorithms to addict us to our devices. Hari spared no criticism of the usual Silicon Valley suspects, warning that their surveillance capitalism — the practice of mining and using our personal data to tether us to our smartphones and enrich themselves — has irretrievably changed us and the world.

Yet, he held out hope … or answers. On the macro level, he called for an all out Attention Rebellion,” a change in how we do business and live our lives. Individually, Hari encouraged committing to quit switching tasks, getting more sleep and valuing more things without a screen.

Specifically, he suggested we turn off our notifications. Wait, what? How could I survive if I didnt know the Nebraska Legislature moved an abortion ban and anti-LGBTQ proposal out of committee moments after it did? Would life go on if I missed the moment a member of the U.S. House made the moronic and perhaps seditious suggestion that red states divorce blue ones?

The answers: “Just fine” and Yes.” But turning off all my notifications would also silence Amber Alerts and tornado warnings, so Im not sure Im on board with Haris proposition that would darken all the real-time doorsteps to the worlds information.

I didnt agree with everything in Stolen Focus.” Still, the book proved fascinating if not downright frightening in the way it described my relationship with information and the devices on which it is carried to my brain. Maybe Im more distracted than I used to be. Maybe my world is moving faster than I can handle. Maybe Im more exhausted and filled with stress. Maybe Big Tech and its algorithms do control my life.

Heres what I do know: The book is 623 iPad pages, not a quick read by any metric. But what should have been a read of a couple weeks stretched into better than a month. By that time the irony had set in.

I couldnt stay focused.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.