Rethink Book Club: Stolen Focus
A relevant book as we try to figure out where and how to focus our attention
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This week’s Rethink Book Club recommendation is below. But, quickly, I wanted to touch on what else we’ve been talking about in the Rethink community over the past week…
Rethinking Strength and Weakness: Last week’s Rethink newsletter edition was about strength and weakness. When does a weakness become a strength, vice versa? In this edition, I give advice on how we can rethink those dreaded performance reviews. Read it here.
On expectations: We can all get better at setting expectations for ourselves and for others. It does wonders for trust. Here’s a fascinating idea about reframing expectations as something to live into, rather than up to.
Here’s this week’s recommendation from the Rethink Book Club. Speak soon.
A friend of mine, who leads a sizeable creative team, was sharing with me how much her team’s focus has shifted post-pandemic and she’s not she what to do about it. She said it wasn’t just people not wanting to come into the office, it was like the saturation of work in people’s life had faded. I asked if she felt like her own attention had shifted. She admitted, yes. Ditto.
It’s not that I can’t focus but that my attention is not as deep as it once was. I like to think that I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things but I feel like something is tugging me out of concentration.
Why I picked up this book:
Last year, I read Johann Hari’s book when it was first released called STOLEN FOCUS: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again. I picked it up again after our conversation. Hari interrogates different causes that are stealing our attention, such as the increase in speed. I recommended the book now because it’s almost more relevant as people are trying to figure out where and how to focus and how work fits into their lives.
What this book made me rethink:
How we think about the quality of our attention - and the association with focus as concentrating on one thing.
Hari says, “It’s the moment Beyonce appears, alone, on the stage, and everyone else around the seems to vanish.”
This is a spotlight type of focus.
But another type of attention is getting lost – mind wandering. It’s the space where our mind drifts to make connections and sense of the world. When you’re jammed up, constantly skimming and doing, this other form of laser focus also gets blocked. Both are damaging our quality of thinking.
“You need space in your life for the spotlight of focus – but alone, it would be like a solo oboe player on a bare stage, trying to play Beethoven. You need mind-wandering to activate the other instruments and to activate the sweetest of music,” writes Hari.
One powerful idea I’ll take with me:
How living on the surface, constantly skimming and switching, sacrifices depth. Hari interviews Professor Sune Lehman, who extensively analyzed data sets to understand how topics are speeding up. She explained to Hari:
“What we are sacrificing is depth in all sorts of dimensions…Depth takes time. And depth takes reflection. If you have to keep up with everything and send emails all the time, there’s no time to reach depth. Depth connection your work in relationships also takes time…It takes attention.”
So, here’s the combo I want to get back:
Spotlight focus + mind wandering = depth
Three words that sum up this book:
Fascinating, timely and provocative.
Why I’m recommending this book:
Here is how I explained the book to my good friend:
You know that feeling of being at a dinner, and you have this really great conversation with a couple of guests. You talk about one or two things, and the dialogue stays with you. And then there are those conversations that skim and flit from one thing to another – Meghan Markle to the Oscars to the Super Bowl. They can be so enjoyable, but you can’t remember what was said a few hours later. That’s why you should read it! Stolen Focus is a wake-up call as to why these deeper conversations and sustained focus are getting hard to maintain.
The book explains why we must put effort into protecting our attention and the steps we can take to do the same (without falling into the trap of self-help advice.) I read the book through the lens of a parent wanting to understand how to help their kids give their phones and devices less attention - but it’s useful for teachers, leaders, and anyone interested in why we can’t always control their own behaviours.
You’ll enjoy this book if you also enjoy:
Two very different books I recommend reading alongside Hari’s are THE LOOP by Jacob Ward and FLOW (an oldie but a classic) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which explains the deepest form of attention and focus that we know of.
If you prefer to listen to something, I really enjoyed this conversation between Erza Klein and Johann Hari : “It’s not your fault you can’t pay attention – here’s why.”
Please do let me know what you think of Stolen Focus. Join our discussion below.
I’ll be in touch with paid subscribers again on Wednesday.
Attention is many things to many people. Our bosses want us to pay attention to what they think is important, even though they can't illuminate it clearly. Our individual experiences tend toward focusing on specific items which, if solved, will smooth outcomes of the project. In general, we humans want others to focus on us, in our daily lives. Let's give each other a break and seek to find out what makes us each tick. Build each other up, instead of assuming we know what is important. Curiousity made the cat stronger.
Haven't gotten to this one yet. I did listen to "Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions" and it was very good and insightful. Thanks for the recommendation.