Bringing "Focus" Back!
It all started as a conversation part of my podcast episode, where Tina Muir mentioned she had read a book named “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari. I made a note of it, and when the name kept ringing in my head for several days, I finally started to read it.
The book talks about how unknowingly we are surrounded by a systematic framework built by Technology Companies working hard on “stealing our focus”.
This article is about my reflections and the aspects that left me thinking after reading the book.
Free Products by Big Tech.
I vividly remember how excited I was in 2005 when I got my first PC. I was busy writing my dissertation on Microsoft Word. I wanted the internet to give quick answers, but going to the library was easy as the internet connection took forever to connect via a modem.
Then in 2009 came WhatsApp, and in 2010 was the invention of Instagram. Life from Microsoft Word to Instagram went by quickly. Remember 2013 when Microsoft stocks plummeted, and how Instagram took the world by surprise? Since then, there has been a rapid rise in the revenue of the technology giants. These companies have been building their revenue by systematically disrupting our focus.
Netflix is open to accepting that their competition is sleep, and binge-watching is our guilty pleasure. So much so that we are ready to cancel plans to meet our friends to complete the latest episode from one of the trending lists.
The tech giants are constantly bombarding us with new information - we have no time to process one incident completely in a way where we can go to its depth, understand its gravity, and take action. Eg: the Ukraine-Russia war - this is still not over, we are yet to reach a consensus and we now have Gaza Israel, where they are yet to understand the repercussions. And this list goes on and on.
To achieve any results the human race has to come together, meet in person, understand the situation, and then take action. Well now, we just don’t want to meet to take action unless it directly affects us. We are currently fragmented in ways we are yet to come to terms with.
Some tips to get better at work:
- Reduce emails. We started using emails to connect people across geographies for faster connectivity. Fastforward to today, we are connected through audio/visuals. Increased emails work well when there is low trust within teams.
- Free up a few hours even during office. Eg: 30 minutes post lunch, when no one sends email. (And for this, don’t send emails!)
- Let there be no anxiety about missing an email or fear of getting “pulled up” in public. This creates psychological safety.
Delusion of connectivity.
Growing up, we waited every week for the “World of Sports” on our television channel and there was no repeat telecast. In contrast, now I can watch my favorite athlete’s races on repeat, long after the race is over. The internet has given us unlimited access.
We want our opinions to matter on every topic with limited words (and knowledge). We are constantly wanting to put our best foot (face) forward. Johann very aptly says Instagram is a place to exhibit the best of ourselves and our possessions.
While growing up, we had guests at our place unannounced. It brought me joy, a break from my studies as they shared their stories. We would prepare meals and make do with what we had. We made our memories in “hardcopy”. Now, community meal preps are events that people pay for. We now have grazing plates as part of our exhibit, when meals were once eaten together as part of a family commune.
In the book “Stolen Focus”, the author Johann Hari gives up his phone for 6 months, and at the end of it, he realises that no one misses him as much as he thought. The beauty of our memories is they fade quickly.
This reminded me of Morgen Housel, who said “No one is interested in your possession as much as you”.
We wait for a phone to ring and if it does not, we check if it is on or if the battery drained off… we are so glued to our phones that at times we are searching for the device that is in our very hand.
I see many WhatsApp statuses set to “Message only, no call”. This surprised me the very first time, wondering how busy would this person be to broadcast such a message to the world. Later over time, I got used to it. Now I think this might be a good way to protect our focus from interruptions.
My experience during my recent visit home:
On my recent visit home, I was surprised to see a blooming blue zone in my neighborhood. The youngest is 66 years old running a 10Kms race and the oldest aged 90, enjoying their days with their great-grandchildren.
I was pleasantly surprised when one of my uncles (~75 years old) was making chikki (crackers made of jaggery, til or peanuts) for his grandkids. He wanted me to try a few and pass through his final sanity checks :). Post which his aunt ~85 years washed all the utensils for the night.
I have watched a lot of documentaries of centenarians from Japan and the EU and this was in my very own neighborhood.
The only thing they were doing was minding their business, doing their job, and keeping their family and friends close. They were taking care of each other, and most importantly they knew what was enough for them.
How much screen time is good for kids? I hear this in my social and professional circles. While some parents have aced the art of none to minimal screen time, for some it’s a struggle.
To keep the child away from the screen, parents resort to enrolling their kids in various classes for language, arts, etc.
Last year, I was talking to a friend, and also met their kids for the first time… I started chatting with the kids in English. That’s when my friend intervened and said they only talk in their mother tongue and thus they might take time to respond or not respond… This was refreshing, on probing a bit more my friend said, my kids will anyway learn English, I want them to enjoy their childhood and speak with their grandparents in the language the grandparent understands.
Kids need to be kids. I just loved this thought. I observed them play in mud, in the swimming pool, and by themselves, it was their picnic which they enjoyed to the hilt.
I also hear that kids are sent to tuition for competitive exams by the age of 10 or 12 these are the kids who start coding by age 8 and can speak multiple languages by the same/similar age.
I’m not saying any one approach is better, however, I was thinking of the kids who are undergoing these childhoods. Whether childhood is carefree or not, both bring their own sets of consequences for the child to decipher in their adulthood.
Johann Hari, in the books, cites an incident where in a school experiment, kids of similar age were put in a playground without giving them any instructions. There was a conducive environment with the teacher overlooking from afar. The kids in the playground did not know what to do as they were awaiting instructions. After a point, a few kids got bored and went to sleep.
The above example is not about stealing focus from childhood. However, somewhere the need to keep kids active, and engaged in an organised way, doesn’t leave much for their creativity. Also, I’m cognizant that not all kids would be facing this.
It was a reflective reading on the whole. While a lot of things we know, this book brings home the reality effectively. We are in a delusional connected world.
- Being on social media 80% of our waking time hooks us in switching apps and if we have nothing that grabs our attention in the first fraction, we get anxious for ourselves and thus the fear of missing out
- We are less than a drop in today’s online world, thus the content industry is trying hard to get us in. By being online and constantly distracting our focus. The tech giant wants us distracted, so we don’t focus on important issues
- Sleep is the competitor of every tech company currently. Sleep is highly underrated and this ends up burning the midnight oil
- Ever-increasing aspiration and desirability to constantly signal and exhibit our laurels on social media.
We need to get together in person and define our goal post - our enough! It can be anything we care deeply about. We need to stop scrolling and look up and start living a life more close to one another. Work for a cause, not typing on social media platforms, but coming together.
We are living in a world of constant distractions, it becomes imperative for us to pause and reflect on the trajectory of our lives. The influence of technology giants, the allure of delusional connectivity, the evolving nature of childhood, and the potential loss of social well-being are threads woven into the fabric of our existence.
As we navigate these, it’s crucial to reclaim our focus and redefine our priorities. The call to action echoes not just in individual practices but also in the communities we are a part of. We need to carve out spaces for genuine connection, both within ourselves and with others.
The journey towards reclaiming our focus begins with small, intentional steps. Whether it’s creating gadget-free zones, embracing moments of stillness, or fostering a sense of community, let us strive to live a life more connected, purposeful, and meaningful.