Mr. Hari, in your book you cover the topic of distraction and how you can improve your concentration. How did you do that?
John Hari: Our ability to concentrate is reduced. The average student only concentrates on a task for 65 seconds, while the average employee can complete it in just three minutes. And every year it gets worse. I have to go on a long journey around the world to find the answers. I interviewed over 200 leading mindfulness and concentration experts to find out why this is happening and what can we do about it?
And what result did you come up with?
We need to radically change our attitude towards this problem. This is not a personal failure. When it was difficult for me to concentrate, I told myself: you are weak. You are lazy. You are undisciplined. In fact, external factors also affect our concentration.
Can you provide an example?
I interviewed Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he explained to me one important fact about the human brain: the brain can only produce one or two thoughts at a time. It’s all. We have very limited cognitive abilities. But we believe that we can do several things at the same time. The average teenager thinks they can watch six or seven multimedia at the same time.
But what’s wrong?
When neuroscientists looked into this, they discovered that we are actually “juggled”: switching back and forth. We don’t notice the changes, but our brains rewire themselves from moment to moment, from task to task—and there’s a price to pay.
What would happen?
This constant switching impairs the ability to concentrate. Imagine filling out your tax return, getting an SMS in between, and then going back to your tax return. It’s only a short moment, five seconds, but the brain has to rewire itself as it moves from one task to the next. You have to remember what you did before, and you have to remember what you thought about it, and that takes a little time. When this happens, performance is degraded.
Does it mean that browsing on a smartphone takes us more time than we might think?
Exactly. If your screen time shows that you use your phone for four hours a day, then you are actually wasting even more time without being able to focus.
How much time is wasted due to distractions like looking at your smartphone?
When you’re interrupted, it takes you an average of 23 minutes to focus again, but most of us never have 23 minutes, so we’re constantly working at a reduced workload.
So should we put our smartphone away more often?
We must strive for solutions at two levels. The first is personal, the second is collective. I minimize my personal smartphone distraction by locking my phone in a safe for at least four hours a day so I have time to think and focus. And I break away from social networks for six months in parts.
What about the collective decisions you mentioned?
Many people will hear this and say, “I can’t do this. My boss can text me at any time, and if I miss a message, I’ll be in trouble.” In France, you have a legal “right to turn off”. Every employee has the right to written working hours and the right not to check their phone or email during non-working hours. This is just one example of the collective changes we can make as a society that will radically improve our focus.
One possibility is not to use the smartphone for a certain period of time. What else can we do to work as one with concentration?
We sleep much less than we used to, about 20 percent less than we did a hundred years ago. There is scientific evidence that the ability to concentrate and pay attention is significantly reduced when you sleep less. So if you sleep well, you will be able to concentrate much longer.
Is it also possible to train concentration?
Yes, to a certain extent. Attention is like a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger it gets. You can also put your mind into a state of flow.
The state of flow is when you’re doing something really interesting and time flies by and you’re like, “Wow, that was really fast.” Different people get into the flow through different things – it could be bagel baking or rock climbing. Flow is both the deepest form of attention and the simplest.
And how do you manage to get into this flow state?
This was explained to me by the creator of the theory, Professor Mihai Chisenmihai. There are three things you can do to get into this state. First, set a clear goal for yourself. Flow is only possible when you are doing a “monotask”—when you decide to drop everything else and just do one thing. Flow requires all of your mental faculties to be devoted to one task. Secondly, you must do something important for you. And thirdly, it helps when you do something that is at the limit of your capabilities, but does not exceed them.
What do you mean?
If your chosen destination is too easy, use the autopilot. If it is too difficult, you will feel anxious and will not enter the flow.
In your book, you also blame nutrition for your focus problems. What it is?
Dale Pinnock, a UK nutritionist, explained it to me this way: “If you put shampoo in a car engine, don’t be surprised if it dies.” And yet every day we introduce substances into our bodies that are so far from what was intended for human fuel. Attention is also a physical process that requires certain actions from the body. So if you deprive your body of the nutrients it needs or pump it with toxins, your ability to focus is also impaired.
Can you provide a specific example?
Many of us can start the day with a piece of toast. Since this food is low in fiber, glucose, which provides energy, is released very quickly. Blood sugar rises quickly, which is very good – in about twenty minutes. Then it crashes, and when it does, you’re sitting at your desk, almost unable to think. “If you eat these cheap carbs at every meal, you’ll be going through that rollercoaster over and over again,” says Pinnock. The effects are enhanced when you take this type of caffeinated food.
You have spoken to various experts for your book. What is the most important thing you learned from your interviews?
That it’s not your fault that you can’t concentrate. It is not your child’s fault that he cannot concentrate. Your ability to focus is not lost, it is being stolen from you. We tend to view lack of attention as an individual failure. But it is not. It is a product of large environmental factors. Professor Joel Nigg, an expert on attention problems in children, talks about how we develop a “pathogenic attention culture” – an environment in which it is difficult for all of us to maintain constant and intense concentration. There are solutions, of course, by changing our individual behavior. But also because we, as a society, are taking on larger forces such as our work culture. This requires a shift in our consciousness. We must stop blaming ourselves.