Getting Our Focus Back
We have been trained against consuming long-form information
By: Andrei Taranchenko (LinkedIn)
Created: 24 Aug 2023

“We was robbed…”

Attention is arguably the most precious resource of the 21st century. Technology companies have expended incredible efforts to improve the ways in which they capture our attention and convert it into revenue. That fight for the nine unmonetized glances.

An “addictive” app or device is not merely a figure of speech. Your compulsion to check your phone without any specific reason is not significantly different from any other form of dependence. Substance addiction is psychoactive, whereas this is behavioral, but the effect is strikingly similar. “Addictive” technology has transformed us all into seekers of micro-dopamine hits, with attention spans akin to that of a squirrel.

Your brain - now rewired

Johann Hari starts Stolen Focus with a story of how he realized - after going device and Internet-free as an experiment - that he is no longer able to sit down and finish a chunk of a book without his mind wondering off.

Hari has been called out for cherry-picking scientific studies, and yet the book could stand on anecdotal evidence alone, as the concepts he discusses are profoundly relatable. Even as a fidgety teenager, I remember being laser-focused for hours on chapters of the next science fiction book, to the point where my parents were getting worried about me not playing enough outside. Now? I am not able to get through half a page without thinking of checking something. Similarly, at the (home) office, getting deep work done has gotten extremely challenging.

As proof that Hari’s (and mine) observations are not that unique, Nicholas Carr noticed the same thing:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think.

I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances—literary types, most of them—many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing. Some of the bloggers I follow have also begun mentioning the phenomenon.

The kicker? This was written in 2008.

Why is that notable? Because just before - 2007 - was a pivotal year in the evolution of the internet:

  • Twitter and Facebook go into hyper-growth
  • Steve Jobs launches the iPhone
  • Hadoop brings the rise of Big Data

Nicholas Carr and his “literary friends” noticed their focus slipping away even back when they used the classic web, before we had the Internet on our phones all day long, buzzing with notifications, and before Slack or Microsoft Teams gnawed at our productivity. The boiling frog effect has made us unaware of just how bad it has gotten.

Later, Carr wrote a whole book on the subject - The Shallows. Back in 2011 the book might have been met with a scoff, and many people did just that. Now, however, this subject is coming back with a fiery vengeance. Carr was just much more attuned to the changes in his attention span than most other people. I pushed the panic button only after realizing I could spend three days in a row on Twitter without accomplishing a single thing.

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Social media, device notifications, and work group chats have changed the way we process information. Think about your regular session on an app such as X-itter. You doom-scroll through items, and they are very different items, forcing your brain to switch context rapidly and violently:

  • A troll says something repulsive - "triggered"
  • A dog does something funny - "lol"
  • A study shows that X amount of Y every day may be good for you - "interesting!"
  • A large company gets fined for violating the law - "yay justice!"
  • The market is down - "ugh"

All of THAT will happen within 1 or 2 minutes, your brain taken for a wild ride of news and whimsy. Much of the content will have articles attached, but you don’t click and read those - you are “power browsing”. This ritual is taxing and exhausting, sapping your power to focus. This is why taking a break from work on social media does not count as rest.

Do this long enough, and your brain will learn to pay attention to things only in small doses. It will seek small things to process - group chat pings, text notifications, headline alerts. Like hamsters, we are now trained to be in this relentless loop of FOMO.

The situation with work chat has reached obnoxious levels as well, where it’s impossible to get 5 minutes of peace without being distracted. There is a channel for everything. We are yet to come to terms with the tab incurred from the distraction economy, but the data is beginning to come in - and it’s not good.

Rani Molla writes in “The productivity pit: how Slack is ruining work”:

Much like the ubiquitous open-floor plan, this type of software is meant to get different parts of a company working together, to break down hierarchies, to spark chance interactions and innovations.

In practice, it can be hell.

There is a pill for that

Is it any surprise that (in the United States), the consumption of focus-enhancing stimulants has skyrocketed? Adults who previously had no issues with focus now find themselves struggling, and students have gone as far as getting professors dismissed due to their inability to concentrate on courses that have been successfully taught for decades.

While ADHD is a genuine condition, it’s worth asking - did some of us develop ADHD suddenly at the age of 37? Did we ever have it? Is it necessary to alter our brain chemistry to get through the day, or has the excessive fast-scrolling on Instagram turned more than five sentences at once so hard to process? Maybe instead of resorting to medical-grade meth and speed for our focus problems we should try and go for the root cause first?

What can we do?

For some of us, the reflex to switch context for no reason is so strong that self-limiting does not work. Just like food diets do not work, a screen diet doesn’t either. It’s not a quick fix - it’s a lifestyle change (or a lifestyle rollback?).

So what can we do? There are basic things to try, but these are pretty well-known:

  • Uninstall addictive apps that sap your time
  • Ruthlessly disable notifications for apps that keep bothering you
  • Mute noisy work chat channels
  • Do not check your phone before going to sleep, in the middle of the night, or right after you wake up

This baseline TODO, however, still requires discipline and many for us will quickly go back to our old ways of being easily distracted. From my personal experimentation, perhaps you will find some of these mental (and physical) tricks useful…


One mental device I came up with is to imagine my attention (which is a finite resource) as oxygen in a spaceship. Once I “open” the airlock, I lose that oxygen/attention at a very rapid pace. So every time my mind wonders off in search of a distraction, I ask myself: “do I want to open the airlock and lose my attention oxygen now?”

Separate from your device

Why not just leave your phone behind entirely for a non-critical amount of time when going outside? Before the smartphones and before people were used to texting, I would disappear in the NYC subway and no one would know where I was for hours, unless I dropped a quarter and called on a NYNEX pay phone. Ask yourself - what could be so end-of-the-world catastrophic that you must respond now and not in, say, 45 minutes?

Try and leave your phone behind when you get out of the office for lunch, for example - alone or with your colleagues. After the initial freak-out, a sense of zen is going to settle in - and it will feel glorious. If not alone, your colleagues will also appreciate you not planting your face in that phone while they are trying to have a conversation over lunch - an added benefit.

Say NO to “mission control” work setup

While that fourth monitor is going to look ultra-cool, perhaps you should go back - to one. It’s not clear how the constant movement of logs, messages, and popups that you notice with the corner of your eye is supposed to help you do deep work. There is a reason IDEs now offer “focus mode”, where all you see is your editor and nothing else. This is a silly trend that should seriously be questioned.

There are some kinds of work where multiple monitor setup is helpful. Specifically, where context switching and distraction is the nature of the job, but for focus work? Perhaps you need that second screen for fast preview of content? Operating systems offer quick virtual desktop switching, which is just as good. The screens are getting so huge that even that is not necessary - just go splitsies on the screen real estate.

Producer/consumer mode

No matter how many Marvel moves you watch, the truth is that none of us are super-human - our brain is not capable of multitasking. It can only do somewhat fast yet taxing context switching. It’s fine if your day consists of small tasks. In knowledge work, however, it makes the process of getting into the flow very fragile. Do you notice how, after you finally get into the flow, even you are impressed with how much you can crank out?

The next time you sit down at your work station, think about what mode you want to be in: are you a producer, or an attention-wasting consumer? You cannot be both.

Background café noise

I am personally not a fan of working in coffee shops (I cannot focus with all the comings and goings), but some people do find those helpful for concentration. Curiously, a simulation of café ambience does help me get in the zone when I am working from home, at low volume, using a playlist like this (Spotify).

Pink, white, and brown noise

If your woe is a very noisy open-office work environment where the constant jibber-jabber is making you, uh, stabby (noise-cancelling headphones are not that effective against human voice frequencies), the combo of pink white and brown noises will put you at 30 thousand feet and inside a humming passenger plane. The hum drowns out human voices, helping you get in the zone.

Your device has a Focus Mode

Both Android and iOS operating systems now have Focus Modes. This mutes all of your notifications but allows for exceptions, in order to let emergencies get through.

Dedicate a “distraction device”

You may also want to dedicate an old laptop or a tablet as your “distraction device”. It can certainly not be your phone. Introduce a certain barrier of entry - don’t let distraction be within a simple reach of a hand. The goal is to force yourself to make a conscious decision - “I am going to walk away from my work station now and waste time”.

The password “confidant”

If you are being a totally difficult customer who has zero impulse control, use a password confidant - a person that you can trust with your account. Here is how this works:

  • Transfer your [social media] account to the other person’s email and phone number
  • Use the problem app until you know you should stop
  • Change the password but do not memorize or save it!
  • Log out
  • When you seriously need the fix, reset the password and bother the confidant for the confirmation code

The benefit of this system is that you have to actually ping someone else about the password reset, and you cannot abuse that trust, as your confidant can only be disturbed only so many times before they start getting tired of your antics. They own your account, so be nice.

What to read

I mentioned the “FOMO loop” before. It’s not really that - it’s the habit loop. I have read many books on compulsive behavior, but The Power of Habit is really the one that explains to the laymen why we are locked in the doom loop of bad behavior - be it drinking, checking the fridge for a snack out of boredom, or biting your nails. “The Power of Habit” doesn’t really go into compulsive device use, and it doesn’t have to - the mechanics of these behaviors are identical. It’s key to understanding and undoing the re-wiring done to us.

What to watch

Tacky dramatizations aside, The Social Dilemma is a pretty good crash course in how large tech companies malt your attention (and you) into a product. None of this is new information, but it is presented in a digestible manner. In short: to an algorithm - we are just a bunch of marketing dimensions, constantly refined, until the algorithm knows about what we are going to want and need before we do.

It’s an ongoing fight

Regaining and keeping your focus is hard. You will almost inevitably relapse into time-wasting routines, but hopefully this can be a starting point and a toolkit. It’s a struggle, and while we may not be winning the war yet, it’s time to start winning some battles.