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Almost everyone is losing their ability to pay attention and focus. It's natural to blame yourself and criticize your lack of self-discipline. Unfortunately – and based on an alarming case by Johann Hari in his latest must-read book, Stolen Focus- we can only solve a portion of this problem alone. The challenges each of us have go far beyond you and me having a focus problem. Cumulatively, we are losing hours and hours of our days and lives.

We all know we should slow down, do one thing at a time, and get more sleep to improve our attention and focus, but most of us are doing the opposite. Crazily, we think we can somehow hack our human body because we know better or think we can shortcut some system – like Elvis Presley having caffeine injected straight into his veins to get him out of bed for the day. First, we must better understand all the reasons why we are feeling and behaving this way. Next week, in Part 2, I will explain the best solutions to these many problems.

What are the causes of our attention problems?

Our serious attention problems will only get worse if we continue “being a society of people who are severely under-slept and overworked; who switch tasks every three minutes; who are tracked and monitored by social media sites designed to figure out our weaknesses and manipulate them to make us scroll and scroll and scroll; who are so stressed that we become hypervigilant; who eat diets that cause energy to spike and crash; (and) who are breathing in a chemical soup of brain-inflaming toxins every day.”

The even bigger picture? “More screens. More stress. More collapse of the middle class. More insecurity for the working class. More invasive technology.”

It's a painfully long list, but at least it begins to explain why you might be feeling a little crazy often! YOU ARE NOT ALONE!

Why is a LIFE full of distractions so damaging?

1. It is scrambling your brain

a) Your immediate actions keep getting interrupted, and your days keep getting scattered:
You head to the fridge to get something to eat when you wonder what the temperature is outside. You glance at your phone and get distracted by a completely unrelated text or notification on your phone and return to your computer to address it.

b) Your longer-term goals fail to launch
For example, you want to write a book, start a business, or be a better parent, but too many other things keep getting in the way – too many things are trying to grab your attention.

The average American spends three hours and fifteen minutes daily on their phone.
We touch our phones 2,617 times every twenty-four hours every day.
The average American worker is distracted roughly once every three minutes.
The middle child between thirteen and seventeen in the US sends one text message every six minutes they are awake.

You can't achieve a challenging goal if your attention is everywhere.
You can't focus long enough to do the actual work!

c) You don't have a way to reflect or think clearly to even know you want to achieve a specific goal, so you obsess over petty goals and simplistic answers.
“It scrambles your ability to figure out who you are and what you want. You become lost in your own life.”

When we don't like something about our lives, it's common to distract ourselves because we don't want to think about it: looking at our devices is one of those ways. This distraction will NEVER help us deal with what is bothering us.

d) Your ability to see others, hear others, and collaborate for collective goals is damaged because you feel so “inundated” and “depleted.” This makes it harder for groups to form and focus on a significant purpose or cause like global warming.

e) You are living a diminished, surface life

You're rarely living in the moment of real life with the real people right in front of you. Scrolling through your life, you need to include what is happening.

Our information system has been increasingly flooded over recent decades, so there has been a collective decline in attention spans (since the 1880's). But attention and presence are precisely what we need to reflect deeply enough to solve problems and to put into enjoying quality relationships. Otherwise, we live a superficial life. Without tech, you can process info at your own pace.

Our devices are the easy thing to do rather than the important thing! This leads to a drop in IQ; increased distractions mean you make more mistakes, lose 20-30% of your brain power (mental fatigue), and drain your creativity.

Why is it increasingly challenging to pay attention and focus?

1. We are more stressed out, and stress corrodes attention

There is a lot for most people to be stressed about:
The middle class is collapsing.
There is a rise in financial insecurity.
We are working more but could be more engaged and more productive.
This cripples your flow state (your most productive time when time seems to pass freely because you are on a roll performing a positively challenging task).

2. We are messing with our sleep and experiencing more insomnia

“Today, 40 percent of Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, getting less than the necessary minimum of seven hours a night. In Britain, an incredible 23 percent are getting less than five hours a night. Only 15 percent of us wake up from our sleep feeling refreshed. This is new.”

The first symptom is an inability to pay attention. Your body also interprets poor sleep as an emergency, adapting accordingly. This is okay for short periods, such as when raising an infant or sheltering from a tornado, but longer-term, it is hazardous for your health, focus, and creativity.

3. We are being manipulated by thousands of very smart engineers, psychologists, and marketers at the tech giants: “It's not your fault you can't focus. It's by design. Your distraction is their fuel.”

Tristan, one of the people Hari interviewed who worked on the team at Google for many years developing Gmail, describes it this way: We are “caught in this arms race to manipulate human nature.”

The creators of Facebook, Instagram, and Google are “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” – they know exactly what they are doing: More eyeballs, longer time, more money.

Google creates “voodoo dolls” (online profiles) of many people for everything we buy and search for – even the places we drive to – and then sells this information to companies who can market to us exactly what we are looking for. Then they feed us information and products to sell us more – and we think it's just thoughtful or amusing rather than Big Brother and manipulative. They learn your personal triggers to distract (“engage”) you further.

Algorithms on Facebook and YouTube are deliberately designed to share content with you to get you to stay. Our feeds are FILTERED. On some sites, the designers know you will stay longer if they share content that will outrage you and make you feel angry rather than share something that will make you feel good because they know our brains have a negativity bias. “If it's more enraging, it's more engaging” (just like news shows: if it bleeds, it leads). This is seeping into our culture and prompting more people to incite anger and hate to get more eyeballs – this behavior is becoming more socially acceptable. These algorithms are a big reason why our kids can't get off screens – they are sucked into something far more engaging than Mum or Dad wanting them to set the table for dinner or do their homework.

Apps are often designed so you crave the rewards and behave in ways you wouldn't normally so you can get the rewards. One game my nine-year-old daughter plays rewards her with ‘money' to use for every consecutive day she plays the game. If she misses one day, her streak and rewards go back to zero! This forces her to play every day even if she'd rather play something else – and very quickly, she spends more (real) money to keep building on the site. I know this because I get the credit card statement.

Tony Fadell, the co-inventor of the iPhone, wakes up in cold sweats, worrying that he helped create a “nuclear bomb” that can “blow up people's brains and reprogram them.” Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice president of growth at Facebook, “explained in a speech that the effects (of social media sites) are so negative that his own kids ‘aren't allowed to use that shit.'”

This tells us everything. The creators and engineers of these sites don't use them because they know they are designed to suck you in. The upper class is aware of the risks, and the rest of society is being manipulated to spend as much time on screens as possible. I've got to say this: it scared me to read the depth of Hari's case and then pay more attention to the people around me everywhere I go, staring at their phones even while waiting in their cars for 30 seconds at traffic lights. We all lived in a different world 20 years ago. Does it honestly feel healthy to you?

4. What we are fueling our bodies with has declined over two generations

Our brain gets built from food. This affects our ability to pay attention. Often, we feed ourselves products that cause too many spikes and crashes, which deplete our ability to focus.

5. We are reading fewer books and mostly reading off screens

Dozens of studies have found that reading off a screen is a different type of reading where we skim far more than on the page of a book. The world is complex and requires time that no Tweet, breaking news announcement, blog, or Insta post can address.

6. We are not letting our minds wander.

Most breakthroughs in our thinking happen when we let our mind wander – which is generally considered frivolous today. It is challenging in our fast-paced lives because letting our mind wander can feel like we are not doing anything ‘productive,' but the brain needs time to digest what happens and what it learns and start making connections (also while we sleep!). Caveat: Let your mind wander when feeling safe and not stressed; otherwise, the mind tends to nosedive into negativity.

7. The rise of “cruel optimism”

Much of our culture communicates in the language of cruel optimism – where you take a big problem with deep causes – like obesity, depression, or addiction – and offer people a simplistic individual solution using upbeat language. It is a problem because it educates us to have false, simple expectations about the sometimes truly complex challenges of a real-life situation and not focus long enough on finding the multiple solutions needed.

And too often, these solutions are offered either by people in a privileged position who don't have to deal with the problems most others do or by the freak exceptions to the rule – people who endured horrible trauma in their past and are driven to prove something to the world that their results are tough to replicate and they often lead pretty miserable lives (e.g., David Goggins – I'm a huge admirer of what he does but he fits this description).

Blaming the individual when so much has changed in our society in the past 50 years is unhelpful and inaccurate. 95% of people who lose weight on a diet regain it in 1-5 years. Diet books have not solved the obesity crisis. The tech industry is not going to solve the attention crisis – their business model is to grow profits, not to look out for the wellbeing of humankind (contrary to their marketing message)!

8. Rising pollution

Long-term exposure to pollution damages brain cells. It can cause attention deficit in children and adults. When you throw in pesticides, plasticizers, flame retardants, and cosmetics, “we can't have normal brains anymore.” Before you think this is getting too political, please consider that the human body was never made to naturally smoke, absorb fossil fuel gases, toxins, and pollutants, and inhale cleaning chemicals around the house or put them on its skin to make it look ‘prettier' or eat food with additives, preservatives, and dyes. These things cannot possibly be helpful most of the time. And they all go to our brains, which cannot detox them all out.

I know this can feel like bleak reading, but I also found it refreshing to read a holistic explanation of the human attention problem that wasn't simplistic. The book also increased my compassion for all of us challenged by this and those challenged by obesity, which Hari draws parallels to and which I'm ashamed to say I did generally think was an individual problem. The cruel optimist solution is ‘just turn your phone off and beat yourself up for being weak when you get distracted.' But if you've read this closely, you'll see that you need to work on being distracted. Fortunately, there are some of the solutions to this ever-deeper crisis. That's Part 2 next week.

To more focus and flow!