Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I am here with you on this journey to learn so that we can make our highest contribution.
Have you ever felt that your ability to pay attention was in freefall? If you have, you are not alone. By the end of today’s episode, you will have a better understanding of why this is happening and one specific tool that you can use to do something about it over the next two weeks.
I’m going to share an insightful story from a book I’ve been reading, Stolen Focus, by Johann Hari, and also some actionable advice. I’m going to invite you to do it with me. Let’s get to it.
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Sune Lehmann’s sons jumped into his bed, and he knew with a lurch in his gut that there was something wrong. Every morning his two boys would leap all over him and his wife excitedly shrieking, glad to be awake for another day. It’s the kind of scene you picture longingly when you imagined becoming a parent and Sune adored his sons. He knew he should be thrilled by their joy at being awake and alive, but each morning whenever they appeared, he would instinctively stretch out his hand, not for them, but for something colder. I would reach over and grab my phone to check my email. He told me, even though these amazing, wonderful sweet creatures are crawling around my bed every time he thought about it, he was ashamed.
Sune had trained as a physicist, but after a while, he figured he was going to have to investigate at the Technical University of Denmark, where he is a professor in the Department of Applied Mathematics and computer science, what was happening not just in physics but in himself. I had been obsessed with how I was losing my own ability to focus. He told me I was realizing that somehow I was not able to control my own use of the internet. He found himself mindlessly following the small details of events like the US presidential election on social media, hour after hour, achieving nothing. This wasn’t just affecting him as a parent but as a scientist.
He says, “I came to this realization that my job, in a way, is to think something that is different from everyone else, but I was in an environment where I was just getting all the same information as everyone else. I was just thinking the same things as everyone else.”
He had a sense that the deterioration he was experiencing in his focus was happening to a lot of other people around him, but he also knew that at many points in history, people have thought they were experiencing some kind of disastrous social decline when in fact, they were merely aging. It’s always tempting to confuse your personal decline for the decline of the human species.
Sune, who was in his late thirties at the time, asked himself, am I a grumpy old man, or is the world really changing? So with scientists across Europe, he launched the largest scientific study yet conducted to answer a key question: Is our collective attention span really shrinking?
As a first step, they drew up a list of sources of information that they could analyze. The first and most obvious was Twitter. The site had launched in 2006 and Sune began this work in 2014, so there was eight years of data to draw on.
On Twitter, you can track what topics people are talking about and how long they discuss them for. The team began to do a massive analysis of the data. How long do people talk about a topic on Twitter for? Has the length of time they focus collectively on any one thing changed? Do people talk about the topics that obsess them, the trending hashtags for more or less time now compared to in the recent past?
What they found is that in 2013, a topic would remain in the top 50 most discussed subjects for 17.5 hours. By 2016, that had dropped to 11.9 hours. This suggested that together on that site, we were focusing on any one thing for shorter periods of time. Okay, they thought, that striking, but maybe this was a quirk of Twitter, so they started to look at a whole range of other data sets. They looked at what people search for on Google. What’s the rate of churning that they analyzed? Movie ticket sales. How long did people carry on going to the cinema to watch a movie after it became a hit? They studied Reddit. How long did topics last there? All the data suggested that as time passed, we were focusing less on any one individual topic. The one exception intriguingly was Wikipedia.
Every dataset they looked at, the pattern was the same. Sune said, “We looked at a lot of different systems, and we see that in every system, there is an accelerating trend. It is faster to reach peak popularity, and then there is a faster drop again.”
The scientists wanted to know how long this had been happening for, and that’s when they made a really eye-opening discovery. They turned to Google Books, which has scanned the full text of millions of books. Sune and his team decided to analyze books that were written between the 1880s and the present day using a mathematical technique. The scientific term for it is detecting engrams that can spot the rise and fall of new phrases and topics in the text. It’s the equivalent of finding hashtags from the past. The computer could detect new phrases as they appear. Think of, say the Harlem Renaissance or no-deal Brexit, and they could see how long they were discussed for and how quickly they faded from discussion. It was a way of finding out how long the people who came before us talked about a fresh topic for. How many weeks and months did it take for them to get bored and move on to the next thing?
When they looked at the data, they found that the graph looked remarkably similar to Twitter’s. With each decade that passed for more than 130 years, topics have come and gone faster and faster. When he saw the results, Sune told me he thought, “It really is true. Something is changing. It’s not just the same old, same old. This was the first proof gathered anywhere in the world that our collective attention spans have been shrinking. Crucially, this has been happening not just since the birth of the web, but for the whole of my life. My parents’ lives and my grandparents’ lives.”
Yes, the internet had rapidly accelerated the trend, but crucially, this scientific team had discovered it was not the sole cause.
Sune and his colleagues wanted to understand what has been driving this change. So they built a complex mathematical model to try to figure it out. It’s a bit like the systems that climate scientists construct to successfully predict changes in the weather. It was designed to see what you could do today to make it rise and fall at faster and faster rates in ways that resembled the decline in collective attention they had been documenting.
What they discovered is that there is one mechanism that can make this happen every time. You just have to flood the system with more information. The more information you pump in, the less time people can focus on any individual piece of it. It’s a fascinating explanation of why this acceleration is happening, Sune told me. Today, there’s just more information in the system. So if you think about 100 years ago, literally, it would take time for the news to travel. If there was some kind of huge catastrophe in a Norwegian fjord, that would have to get from the fjord down to Oslo. Someone would have to write it up, and it would slowly wind its way across the globe.
Compare that with the 2019 massacre in New Zealand when a depraved racist began to murder Muslims in a mosque, and it was literally streaming live so anyone could watch it anywhere. “One way of thinking about this,” Sune said, “is that at the moment, it is like we are drinking from a fire hose. There’s too much coming at us. We are soaked in information.”
The raw figures on this have been analyzed by two other scientists, Dr. Martin Hilbert at the University of Southern California and Dr. Priscilla Lopez at the Open University of Catalonia. Picture reading and 85-page newspaper in 1986. If you added up all the information being blasted at the average human being, tv, radio, and reading, it amounted to 40 newspapers worth of information every day. By 2007, they found it had risen to the equivalent of 174 newspapers per day. The increase in the volume of information is what creates the sensation of the world speeding up.
How is this change affecting us? Sune smiled when I asked. “There’s this thing about speed that feels great. Part of why we feel absorbed in this is that it’s awesome, right? You get to feel that you are connected to the whole world, and you feel that anything that happens on the topic, you can find out about it and learn about it, but we told ourselves we could have a massive expansion in the amount of information we are exposed to and the speed at which it hits us with no costs. This is a delusion. It becomes exhausting. More importantly,” Sune said, “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 connected to your work and relationships also takes time. It takes energy. It takes long time spans, and it takes commitment. It takes attention, right? All of these things that required depth are suffering. It’s pulling us more and more into the surface.”
There was a phrase in Sune’s scientific paper summarizing his findings that kept rattling around in my head. It said that “we are collectively experiencing a more rapid exhaustion of attention resources.” Sune is a smiling, affable Dane. But when I asked him about how these trends will develop in the future, his body stiffened, and his smile turned to a tight pucker. “We’ve been accelerating for a very long time, and for sure, we’re getting closer and closer to whatever limits we have. He said this acceleration can’t continue indefinitely. There’s some physical limit to how fast things can move. It must stop at some point, but I don’t see any slowing down right now.”
Once he had learned all this, Sune deeply changed his own life. He stopped using all social media except Twitter, which he checks only once a week on Sundays. He stopped watching tv. He stopped getting his news from social media and instead took out a newspaper subscription. He read many more books instead. As you know, everything with self-discipline is not like it’s a thing you fix, and then it’s fixed forever. I think the first thing you have to realize is it’s an ongoing battle, but he told me it had helped to trigger a philosophical shift in how he approached life. (1)
I’m reading here from Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention by Johann Hari. I’m thoroughly enjoying reading this book, and I’ve reached out to Johari about having him here on this podcast, but that philosophical shift that Sune is advocating really makes me think about what it means to be an essentialist and also my most recent research and thinking at Cambridge because it seems to me that as this information and opinion overload increases our ability to understand what’s really going on in our own minds, in our own lives, in our own relationships, on the teams at work, everywhere goes down and that is quite a trade-off. To know more and more of the trivial at the surface and less and less of what is essential but hidden way below the surface is, I think, for most of us, a trade-off we do not mean to be pursuing. It certainly seems completely consistent with the treaties that Hari has laid out, that the challenge is growing faster than our response to it has grown, so that even if we’re above average at filtering through the noise, we’re still going to feel mentally cluttered most of the time.
I just put out a poll today on LinkedIn. What is your most felt pain today? And the top item was mental clutter. That beat out, by almost double, time pressure or relationship strain. Even though I think those things are all connected, this sensation of mental clutter has tremendous ramifications for our sense of clarity, of peace, of direction, of meaning, of our ability to connect with other people. It certainly says to me that we need new tools to be able to up our game, to cope, and to thrive amidst all of this noise.
So I’m going to be experimenting over the next two weeks with a simple process. I wonder if you’ll do it with me and let me know how it goes. Is this working for you? How do we need to tweak this? Because I want to create a daily process for going from confusion to clarity to creation of a day that really matters. And my experience with most of the planning tools that exist out there is that you’re expected to just immediately prioritize what’s most important, and that’s a huge jump, an unrealistic jump for people who are consumed with this shallow but ever-increasing amount of information, for people who feel full of mental clutter. I want a process in my life to be able to handle the chaos of the modern workplace with so many loud voices all around us, pulling us in so many different directions.
It’s more important now than ever that we learn to resist the siren song of distraction and keep our eyes and ears peeled for the headlines, especially in our own lives and then in the relationships we have around us as well.
So here’s the process. I followed it this morning. I’m going to try it for two weeks, and I’ve been inviting you now to do it with me.
Number one, with the prompt: What’s important now, time myself for six minutes of complete free writing as or as long as you like. I covered in detail how to do that in episode 168, but I timed myself this morning, six minutes just with that single prompt, what’s important now, and when I’m looking at the piece of paper in front of me. It’s pretty messy. I wouldn’t want to publish this anywhere. Just all that noise, all that clutter that’s in my head, all the stresses and worries of yesterday, the anxieties I’m waking up with, it’s just flooding onto the paper. Six minutes.
I timed it, and when I was done with that, I then moved to the challenge of What are six important things I want to accomplish today? And I wrote them down, but not identifying the order yet, just the important things, and by this point, they were becoming clearer. I then walked through and identified in priority order so that I have, if I only do one thing today, what is it? And so on until I’ve identified the top six. That seems to be a formula that works for me. It’s not too few, and it’s not too many.
Then to complete this 10 minutes or so total planning process, I just wrote down a few things that I was grateful for from yesterday so that I could again see context and a positive context for everything that’s going on in my life. That was it. That’s the whole process. It took me 10 minutes. Maybe it took me a little longer, 12 or 13 minutes. I didn’t time the entire thing, but I did time that first six minutes, and I found, as I looked at that clear, I found myself oriented better in the world. And the number one thing on my list, and now I’ve done it, is to do this solo episode for you, to be able to help you deal with this ever-growing challenge of increased information and therefore decreased attention, and therefore a greater risk to miss the things that really matter. I hope that you will take this 14-day challenge. Don’t worry if you don’t do it every day, but I’m going to be coming back to you reporting on my own experiments with Essentialism.
What is one thing that stood out to you from today’s conversation? What is one thing you are going to do differently? Will you sign up and do this two weeks? Take this challenge? Do this little planning exercise every day? And who is one person you can invite to be a design partner with you to help keep you accountable so that you can help each other deal with this ever-increasingly complex commotion of a world that we live in?
Remember, if you haven’t already done it, to sign up for the One Minute Wednesday newsletter, it has grown even further. It’s 150,000 now and counting, so join in this momentum to be able to design a life that really matters. Just sign up on gregmckeown.com. It’s just in the top right-hand corner.
If you found today’s episode interesting, intriguing, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of today’s episode will receive access to the Essentialism Academy. Thank you. Really, thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time.
Hari, J. (2022). Stolen Focus. Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.