Book Excerpt: Johann Hari Is in Search of Our Stolen Attention Span

In his new book, Johann Hari talks about our shrinking attention span, and why it's a bigger problem than we think.

4 min read
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Book: Stolen Focus

Author: Johann Hari

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Do you ever find yourself scrolling through your phone while you're watching a movie?

Do you often scroll past a video because its a few seconds too long, or can't read more than a page of the book you've been meaning to pick up for the longest time?

You've likely acknowledged, and even made peace with your shrinking attention span, but Johann Hari is here to tell you why this modern epidemic deserves more of your attention.

In his new book, Hari talks about our shrinking attention span, and why it's a bigger problem than we think.

Here's an excerpt from the book:


...It’s because, given all the economic insecurity, people were even more keen to show they were working so they didn’t get laid off.

What this shows is that no big outside force is going to come along and free us from the ratchet to work more and more hours – not even a global pandemic. We will only get it through a collective struggle to change the rules.

But COVID also showed us something else that is relevant to a four-day week. It demonstrated that businesses can change their working practices radically, in a very short period of time, and continue to function well.

When I caught up with him on Zoom in early 2021, Andrew Barnes said to me: ‘If a chief executive of a British bank had said, “We could run a 60,000-person bank from home,” a year and a half ago you’d have said – no chance. Right?’ And yet it happened, pretty seamlessly.

‘So … surely you can run a business in four days, not five?’ Andrew told me other managers used to say to him that a four-day week couldn’t possibly work because they wouldn’t be able to trust their staff if they couldn’t see them.

Andrew called them back and said they should think again now: 'They all work from home. Amazingly, the work got done.'

The way we work seems fixed and unchangeable – until it changes, and then we realise it didn’t have to be like that in the first place.

Ten thousand miles away, in Paris, workers had come up with a parallel proposal to help slow their lives down. Before the rise of smartphones, it was unusual for a boss to contact her worker once she had left the office and gone home.

As a kid, plenty of my friends had parents with demanding jobs – but I almost never saw them get phoned by their employer once they got home. It was rare in the 1980s: when work was over, it was over. The only people who lived on permanent call were doctors, presidents and prime ministers.

But since our work lives came to be dominated by email, there’s a growing expectation that workers will respond at any time, day or night. One study found that a third of French professionals felt they could never unplug, for fear of missing out on an email they were expected to reply to.

Another study found that just the expectation that you should be on call causes workers anxiety, even if they don’t actually get contacted on any given night. In effect, the idea of work hours has disappeared, and we are all on call all the time.

By 2015, French doctors explained they were seeing an explosion in patients suffering from ‘le burnout ’, and voters started to demand action – so the French government commissioned Bruno Mettling, the head of the telecoms company Orange, to study the evidence and figure out a solution.


He concluded that this constantly-on-call way of working was disastrous for people’s health and their ability to do their jobs. He proposed a significant reform: he said that everyone should have a ‘right to disconnect’.

This right is simple.

It says: you are entitled to clearly defined work hours – and you are entitled, when those work hours are over, to unplug and not have to look at email, or to have any other work contact.

So in 2016, the French government passed this into law. Now any company with more than fifty people has to formally negotiate with its workers to agree the hours in which they can be contacted – and all other hours are out of bounds. (Smaller companies can draw up their own charters but don’t have to formally consult their workers.)

Since then, several companies have faced penalties for trying to force people to respond to email out of hours. For example, the pest-control company Rentokil had to pay a local branch manager € 60,000 (around $70,000 in the US and £ 50,000 in the UK) in compensation aft er it had complained he didn’t respond to out-ofhours emails.

In practice, when I went to Paris and spoke to my friends who work for companies there, they said change is happening too slowly on this – the law is not being enforced by a tough regulator, so most French people haven’t yet experienced a big shift .


But it’s a first step in the direction we all need to travel. Sitting in a café in Paris, I thought about what I had seen.

There’s no point giving people sweet self-help lectures about the benefits of unplugging unless you give them a legal right to do it.

In fact, lecturing people who aren’t allowed to unwind by their bosses about the benefits of unwinding becomes a kind of maddening taunt – it’s like lecturing famine victims on how they’d feel better if they had dinner at the Ritz.

If you have an independent fortune and you don’t need to work, then you can probably make these changes now.

But for the rest of us, we need to be part of a collective struggle in order to reclaim the time and space that has been taken from us – so we can finally rest, and sleep, and restore our attention.

(Excerpted with permission from 'Stolen Focus' by Johann Hari, published by Bloomsbury.)

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Topics:  work from home   COVID 

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