#207 – The importance of flow states and how to reclaim focus | Johann Hari & Ben Grynol
Society champions multitasking, but we can’t truly multitask. Multitasking in fact impedes our focus and productivity. And 12 main factors tend to steal our attention. Johann Hari and Ben Grynol discuss why flow states are important for goal achievement, the things that distract us, and how we can reclaim our focus.
- Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus book: https://stolenfocusbook.com
- Johann Hari on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/johann.hari/
- Johann Hari on Twitter: https://twitter.com/johannhari101
- The Let Grow program, co-founded by Lenore Skenazy: https://letgrow.org
4:18 — Twelve factors can steal our focus
When the ability to focus feels elusive, we often blame ourselves. But 12 powerful factors in the world we live in today steal our attention. And we do have some control over how to reclaim our focus.
There are some aspects of the tech we use, the food we eat, the way our kids’ schools work, the way our offices work—just an enormous array of factors. But what I learned: there are loads of evidence that these 12 factors—many of them have been getting worse and worse in recent years. So if you’re struggling to focus and pay attention, if your kids are struggling to focus and pay attention, there’s nothing wrong with you and there’s nothing wrong with them; there’s something wrong with the way we are living. But once you understand these, your attention didn’t collapse; your attention has been stolen by some very big and powerful forces. Once we understand what those forces are, we can begin to get them back.
6:02 — Multitasking is a myth
We live in a society that often champions multitasking, but we can’t truly multitask. When we try to do it, we often further impede our focus and productivity.
You can’t do more than one thing at a time. What you do is you juggle very rapidly between tasks. You’re like, “What did Ben just ask me? What is this message on that? What does it say on the TV there? What is this message on Facebook? Wait, sorry, Ben, what were you asking me again?” So we’re constantly juggling, and it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost. The technical term for it is the switch-cost effect. When you try and do more than one thing at a time, it turns out you do all the things you’re trying to do much less competently. You make more mistakes. You remember less of what you do. You are much less creative.
10:49 —We need to be able to focus to achieve our goals
Focus is crucial for accomplishing challenging tasks, whether work-related milestones or personal benchmarks.
Think about anything you’ve ever achieved in your life that you are proud of, whether it’s starting a business, being a good parent, learning to play the guitar—whatever it is, that thing that you are proud of required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. And when your ability to focus is diminished, your ability to achieve your goals is diminished. Your ability to solve your problems is diminished. But when you get your attention back, it’s like regaining your superpower. So I am passionately in favor of these individual changes.
14:07 — Prioritizing deep focus is both a personal and social responsibility
When it comes to focus, we have choices regarding our own behavior. But the environments we’re in—whether at work or at home—also place demands on us. If those demands aren’t modified, that can impede our ability to prioritize focus. So in many ways, society needs to change to help us make better choices about focus.
If the condition of your job is you looking at a glowing screen at 11:00 p.m. because you’re worried your boss messaged you, right? It’s a totally false choice between individual and social solutions. Individual solutions make it better to achieve social solutions and social solutions make it better to achieve individual solutions. People make choices in environments, and—if we take the environment at the moment—we’ve got an environment that works against us now. There will still be heroic individuals who even in the worst possible environment, can make the right choices some of the time. But we want to have an environment that’s not rigged against us in our attention.
16:50 — Interruptions steal your time and impede focus
Unexpected tasks are often lobbed at us throughout the day—whether that’s an email that needs a response or a request from a family member. These unexpected to-do items pull us away from our deep focus for longer than we think, hindering our productivity.
If you are interrupted, it takes you on average 23 minutes to get back to the level of focus you had before you were interrupted. But most of us never get 23 minutes without being interrupted. So we’re constantly operating at this lower level of cognitive capacity. So you think, “Oh, why didn’t my worker respond to the email? It would’ve taken him 10 seconds.” Well, it would’ve taken him 10 seconds plus the 23 minutes to refocus afterwards, right?
27:21 — Three factors help you get into a flow state
Achieving a flow state requires time, passion, and a willingness to face a challenge.
The first thing is you’ve got to set aside a certain amount of time to do one thing, right? I’m going to do this operation, I’m going to paint this canvas, I’m going to write this chapter whatever it might be. If you’re trying to do loads of things at the same time, you won’t get into it. Secondly, you’ve got to choose a goal that’s meaningful and important to you. If you’re trying to flow focus on something that isn’t interesting or meaningful to you, you’re not going to get into flow. And thirdly—and this seems counterintuitive—it will help if you choose to push yourself to the edge of your abilities. Flow begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
30:12 — Mind wandering ultimately benefits your focus
We can’t constantly be in a state of deep focus. Letting the mind wander also benefits our attention spans.
Mind wandering is when you’re letting your mind float without any obvious thing to focus on. And we think of that as wasted time. If you go to parents’ evening and the teacher says, “Oh, little Johnny’s letting his mind wander all the time,” that’s not a compliment, right? But it turns out that when your mind is wondering, it’s doing all sorts of things that are incredibly important for focus and attention and just for thinking. When your mind is wandering, you are processing what happened in the past, you are anticipating what happens in the future. And crucially, you are combining things in your mind that otherwise wouldn’t get combined, which is where creativity comes from. So mind wandering is an incredibly precious and important form of thought. It’s not that we want to be deep focusing all the time now. I think we want to be deep focusing more than most of us are at the moment.
37:00 — The four-day workweek is linked to better productivity
Studies on four-day workweeks consistently show an increase in productivity, rather than a decline.
It comes back to what we were saying about productivity. Turns out exhausted, stressed, pissed-off workers are not good workers. Rested, happy, engaged workers are productive workers. So again, it’s about challenging that ratchet of exhaustion and stress that is so disastrous for attention.
40:08 — Free play is crucial for kids’ brains
Free play allows kids to develop the skills of assessing risks and learning from their mistakes and triumphs. These skills carry into adulthood.
Kids who run around develop more brain neurons, they’re better able to focus. There are lots of factors I go through in the book on free play, which is completely different to supervised play. I’ll give you an example. When children play freely, they take risks. You climb the tree, you get a bit too high, you shit yourself, but you find your way down. You’re like, “Oh, I didn’t die.” You develop a sense that you are a competent person who doesn’t need to be afraid of the world by taking lots of these small risks socially with other children in the environment. If you’ve got an adult standing over you going, “No, Johnny, don’t do that. Get down. No, Johnny, hand Amanda the ball. No Johnny,” you don’t develop those skills. You, actually become very anxious, and that destroys your attention. Anxious people can’t pay attention very well.
43:43 —Childhood looks different now
Children need some freedom to grow, but we’ve moved away from a society that traditionally granted children more freedoms regarding exploration and play to a society that prioritizes constant supervision. Some supervision is often important for kids’ safety—depending on the context—but society needs to find a better balance between that supervision and various freedoms.
We’re not giving our children a childhood that our ancestors would’ve recognized as a human childhood. A childhood where you are constantly endorsed and supervised by adults is not a childhood, and it profoundly, damages our children’s bodies and it profoundly damages their attention and focus.
Johann Hari (00:06):
… Everyone listening will have experienced a flow state, even if you’ve never heard the term. A flow state is when you’re doing something and you really get into it and your sense of time falls away, your sense of ego falls away. And when it’s over, you’re like, “Wow, is it 4:00 PM? How did that happen? Wow, I’ve really been in it.” And different people get flow from different things. For me it’s writing. For some people it’ll be making bagels. For some people it’ll be brain surgery. But flow states are a really important aspect of the debate about attention because flow is both the deepest form of attention that you can provide. And once you are in it, the easiest form of attention to provide. It’s not like memorizing facts for an exam or something.
Ben Grynol (00:51):
I’m Ben Grynol part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health. And along the way we have conversations with thought leaders about research backed information. So you can take your health into your own hands. This is a whole new Level.
In today’s day and age, distraction is inevitable. We are surrounded constantly by information flow, by notifications, by all of these things that can impact our ability to focus. How do we reclaim this focus when it comes to all of these different inputs? Well, even when it comes to things like diet, sleep and exercise, there are differences that can be achieved if you start to optimize those inputs. We know that poor food choices can impact our productivity. We know that poor sleep can impact our focus. We know that poor exercise well, that can also lead us to distraction. And so Johann Hari, New York Times bestseller and author of the book Stolen Focus, he and I sat down and discussed this idea of distraction. Why are people in today’s day and age having such a hard time focusing as compared to many years ago?
Is it the technology? Is it our behaviors? Is it our habits? What has slipped and what has changed? What is causing us to shift our ability to focus? And why are we having a more difficult time getting into a state of deep work? It’s something that we know can impact our ability to execute. And we know when it comes to things like intrinsic motivation, that being the positive feeling that we get from doing work, getting into a state of flow, well, that goes out the window pretty quickly when you’re constantly surrounded by a lack of focus and many distractions at a time. And so, Johann and I sat down and discussed his new book. We discussed different ways that people can become distracted. We discussed some of the implications of them and discussed some of the strategies for how to mitigate these distractions. Anyway, it was a great conversation to jam with Johann and very grateful for the lively interaction. No need to wait. Here is where we kick things off.
In the book Stolen Focus, you talk a lot about some of these pillars. We’ve got these pillars relating to metabolic health, that being sleep, diet, fitness, exercise. What is some of the empirical data that you came across in your research of when people might have, let’s say lower sleep or when people don’t exercise, how it impacts their focus? Because it’s such a, I think we are sometimes there’s a misconception in society that focus equals like being distracted when really there are all these other things that tie in like what we eat, it can make you sluggish. And so, what’s some of the empirical data that you came across when people have deficiencies in some of those areas?
Johann Hari (03:54):
Well, it really surprised me, because I just wrote the book for a very personal reason, which is that I could feel my own ability to focus and pay attention was getting worse with each year that passed, things that required deep focus that are so important to me, like reading books, having proper long conversations, watching movies even. Were getting more and more kind of running up and down escalator. Do you know what I mean? I could still do them, but they were getting harder and harder. And I wanted to understand why I was particularly worried about a lot of the young people in my life who I really loved. There was a particular moment with a young person I love that we can talk about if you want, that really horrified me and made me realize I had to write the book.
So I ended up going on this really big journey all over the world. I used my training in the social sites as it Cambridge University to go on a big journey all over the world from Moscow to Miami, to Melbourne to interview over 200 of the leading experts on attention and focus and very different aspects of it. And I learned that there’s scientific evidence for 12 factors that can make your attention better or can make it worse. And they range really widely actually, I was surprised. I think you would be less surprised than I was, you know more now certainly than I did at the start. But they range very widely. There’s some aspects of the tech we use, but the food we eat, the way our kids’ schools work, the way our offices work, just an enormous array of factors. But what I learned is there’s loads of evidence that of these 12 factors, many of them have been getting worse and worse in recent years.
So if you’re struggling to focus and pay attention, if your kids are struggling to focus and pay attention, there’s nothing wrong with you and there’s nothing wrong with them. There’s something wrong with the way we are living. But once you understand these, your attention didn’t collapse. Your attention has been stolen by some very big and powerful forces. But once we understand what those forces are, we can begin to get them back. So in terms of empirical evidence, I mean going right down the 12 causes, there’s an enormous amount of evidence for all of them. So I’ll give you an example of, if it’s okay, just of one of the causes that I think almost everyone watching will be experiencing to some degree right now. I went to MIT to interview one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, an amazing man named Professor Earl Miller.
And he said to me, “Look, there’s one thing you’ve got to understand about the human brain more than anything else, you can only consciously think about one or two things at a time. That’s it. This is a fundamental limitation of the human brain. The human brain has not changed significantly in 40,000 years. It’s not going to change on any timescale any of us are going to see.” But what’s happened is we’ve fallen kind of mass delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six or seven forms of media at the same time, and the rest of us are not far behind them. So what happens is scientists like Professor Miller, scientists all over the world get people into labs and they get them to think they’re doing more than one thing at a time. And what they discover is always the same. You can’t do more than one thing at a time.
What you do is you juggle very rapidly between tasks. You’re like, “What did Ben just ask me? What is this message on WhatsApp? What does it say on the TV there? What is this message on Facebook? Wait, sorry, Ben, what were you asking me again?” So we’re constantly juggling and it turns out that juggling comes with a really big cost. The technical term for it is the switch cost effect. When you try and do more than one thing at a time, it turns out you do all the things you’re trying to do much less competently. You make more mistakes, you remember less of what you do, you are much less creative. And I remember when I first learned that, thinking, “Okay, I get it. But that’s a small effect.” It’s a minor niggling irritation. The evidence suggests it’s a pretty big effect. I’ll give you an example of a small study that’s backed by a wider body of evidence.
Hewlett Packard, the printer company, got a scientist in to study their workers and he split them into two groups. And the first group was told, “Get on with your task, whatever it is, and you’re not going to be interrupted, just do what you got to do.” And the second group was told, “Get on with your task, whatever it is. But at the same time, you’re going to have to answer a heavy load of email and phone calls.” So pretty much how most of us live now. And at the end of it, the scientists studied both groups and he particularly measured their IQ and he discovered the group that had not been interrupted, scored on average 10 IQ points higher than the group that had to.
[Inaudible 00:08:16] give you a sense of how big an effect that is. If you or me smoked a fat spliff together now Ben and got stoned, our IQs would go down in the short term by 5 points. So being chronically interrupted in the way that most of us are now, is twice as bad for your intelligence in the short term as getting stoned, you’d be better off sitting at your desk smoking a fat spliff and doing one thing at a time than you would sitting at your desk not getting stoned and constantly interrupted. Now, I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. You’d be better off neither getting stoned nor being interrupted when it comes to work. But this is why Professor Miller said we are living in a perfect storm of cognitive degradation as a result of being constantly interrupted.
Ben Grynol (08:55):
Yeah, it’s interesting, because there’s a sense of deferring blame. It’s easy for us to defer, to point fingers at some of the things you highlighted in the book, big tech and the way that some of these products are now designed. We can point our fingers for processed food at big food. But I think it’s an ongoing debate because it comes back to life is made up of all these choices and our behaviors and the things that we decide, we’re in control, whether or not we decide to get down on the floor and do pushups like that is a form of exercise.
And so, who’s to blame for some of these things when on one hand we can say things like the products that we use are causing some of our distraction or the food that we eat leads us to maybe not be able to focus as well, but how much of it is on ourselves to point the finger back at ourselves and say, “Hey, I’m making the choice not to sleep. We can have Casper mattress, we can have these perfect mattresses, but it is my choice whether or not I sleep five hours a night or eight hours.”
So what are your thoughts on that, I guess that tension or that debate back and forth on saying, “Hey, we’re surrounded by all these things that lead us to be distracted. We get it, it’s not easy to form some of these positive habits around deep focus and deep work and being able to have some of these meaningful behaviors.” But then at the same time, is there a sense of ownership that we need to take upon ourselves to say, “I know that these things exist and I am going to willfully make the choice not to engage in the notifications or not to eat the food or not have poor sleep quality.” What are your thoughts on that tension in that debate that surfaces continuously?
Johann Hari (10:37):
So I don’t think it’s a debate. I think the answer’s really obvious, and it’s both. I find it quite a boring debate, but it’s obviously both. For all of the 12 factors that I write about in Stolen Focus that are harming our attention and focus, there are two levels of which we need to deal with them. I think of them as defense and offense. There are loads of things that we can do as individuals to protect ourselves and our children from the factors that are harming and invading our attention. And I’m a passionate advocate of those individual changes. I’ll give you an example of one we can go through many, many, but I have over in the corner there something called a K safe. It’s a plastic safe. You take off the lid, you put in your phone, you put on the lid, you turn the dial, you push the button down and it locks your phone away for anything between 5 minutes and a whole day, however long you tell it to.
I won’t sit down to watch a film with my partner unless we all put our phones in the phone jail. I won’t have my friends around for dinner unless we all imprison our phones. And I say to people, think about anything you’ve ever achieved in your life that you are proud of, whether it’s starting a business, being a good parent, learning to play the guitar, whatever it is, that thing that you’re proud of required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention. And when your ability to focus is diminished, your ability to achieve your goals is diminished. Your ability to solve your problems is diminished. But when you get your attention back, it’s like regaining your superpower. So I am passionately in favor of these individual changes. I’m also in favor of being really honest with people. And I don’t think most books about attention are being honest with people.
These individual changes are hugely important. They can deliver a lot of progress for us. They will not solve the problem entirely, because at the moment it’s like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day and then leaning forward and going, “Hey buddy, you should learn how to meditate then you wouldn’t be scratching all the time.” And you want to go off, “Screw you. I’ll learn to meditate. That’s hugely valuable. You need to stop pouring this itching powder on me.” So we also need to go on offense as a society against the forces that are doing this to us. That sounds very fancy, but I’ll give you an example of how individual changes make it easier to achieve the social changes and social changes make it easier to achieve the individual changes. So I’ll give you an example. In 2018 in France, they had a huge crisis of what they called burnout, which I don’t think I’ll need to translate.
And the French government was like, “What’s going on? It’s having a terrible effect on productivity in France.” So under pressure from labor unions, they set up a government inquiry to figure out why is everyone so burned out? And they discovered one of the key factors, 40% of French workers felt they could never stop checking their phone or email while they were awake, because their boss could message them at any time of the day or night. And if they didn’t respond, they’d be in trouble. And you think about how recent that is. We’re probably about the same age or though you look more glowingly healthier than me. Did your parents ever get contacted by their boss when they came home from work?
Ben Grynol (13:33):
Johann Hari (13:34):
Never. I mean, the only people who were contacted by their boss when we were kids, the only people who were on call were the president and doctors and even doctors weren’t on call all the time. So we’ve gone from almost no one being on call to almost half the economy being permanently on call. Now, you and me can say to these people, “Hey buddy, you’ve got a choice. Pull yourself together.” Well, if the cost of them making that choice is that they lose their job, that’s not much of a choice unless they’re independently wealthy. So the French government, again, important to stress under pressure from labor unions and a social movement introduced a pretty effective solution to this problem.
They introduced a law giving every French worker what they called the right to disconnect. Very simple says every French worker, your work hours have to be written down in your contract and when your work hours are over, you don’t have to check your phone and you don’t have to look at your email. When I was in Paris researching this Rentokil, the pest control company got fined. €70,000, because they complained that one of their workers didn’t check his email an hour after his work hours or over. Now, to me, that’s a really good illustration of how, you mentioned people need to sleep more, they need to multitask. That’s absolutely right. And we can go down the list of things they need to do. That’s hard to do if the condition of your job is you not doing that, if the condition of your job is you looking at a glowing screen at 11:00 PM, because you’re worried your boss messaged you.
So it’s a totally false choice between individual and social solutions. Individual solutions make it better to achieve social solutions and social solutions make it better to achieve individual solutions. People make choices in environments and if we make the environment… At the moment, we’ve got an environment that works against us now there will still be heroic individuals who even in the worst possible environment can make the right choices some of the time. But we want to have an environment that’s not rigged against us and our attention. And at the moment we have Dr. Joel Nigg, one of the leading experts on children’s attention problems in the United States, said to me, “We are living in what he called an attentional pathogenic environment.” He said, “We need to ask if we’re living in such an environment, the one that’s systematically undermining our attention.” If the environment’s rigged against you, you shouldn’t have to be a hero in order to be able to focus and pay attention.
Ben Grynol (15:49):
It’s this distraction by design like these company work expectations. And so, let’s say we both nod our heads and we’re agreeing, hey, deep work is beneficial for all these reasons we don’t need to get into, it’s better for your health, it’s better for your wellness. But we’re almost fighting this [inaudible 00:16:07] endeavor. It’s this battle uphill, because the conditions around us, let’s say somebody works at a company, they work at a company where the expectation is respond to like Johann, “I Slack messaged you, or I texted you one minute ago, where are you?” Or we’re judging people’s output based on the green dot showing online or the bum and chair principle if somebody’s in an in-person versus a remote environment.
And that means that they get things done, because they’re there and it’s just such a inaccurate or a misconception outlook on what output and what being able to produce meaningful work is. So what can we do to reset some of these expectations? Because, what happened in France is very much at the policy level. We know policy gets implemented, we still need to follow through on it. What can people do at the company level if you’re surrounded by these environments? Is it that you choose not to work at those organizations and you find ones that align with your values? Or do people have this bottom up movement to start to say, “Hey, there are better ways of working and here are some of the principles that we can rely on?”
Johann Hari (17:14):
Well, there’s all sorts of things that can happen. Firstly, at the top, we need to have a complete reappraisal of the concept of productivity. At the moment, we have a concept of productivity that in fact destroys the productivity of workers. Think about, we think the good worker is the worker who will respond immediately. In fact, study by Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon found that if you are interrupted, it takes you on average 23 minutes to get back to the level of focus you had before you were interrupted. But most of us never get 23 minutes without being interrupted. So we’re constantly operating at this lower level of cognitive capacity. So you think, “Why didn’t my worker respond to the email? It would’ve taken him 10 seconds.” Well, it would’ve taken him 10 seconds plus the 23 minutes to refocus afterwards.
So think about the scientific evidence we were talking about in relation to multitasking. A job ad saying, must be a good multitasker. You may as well say, must be a chronic stoner for all the productivity you’re going to get out of that situation. Or think about, we think the good worker is the worker who works themselves to the point of exhaustion. In fact, if you stay awake for 19 hours, your attention deteriorates as much as if you’d got legally drunk. And I spoke to a fascinating professor of organizational behavior at Stanford who said, “Look, in order to challenge this, everyone knows at some level that doesn’t work.” Because, ask any sports fan we are speaking, although I will never understand American sports, no matter how long I live in the United States, I think it’s insane and incomprehensible, but whatever, no supporter of either team at the Super Bowl wanted their team to walk onto the pitch exhausted, having done 10-hour days for two weeks, having slept poorly and no one wanted them to bring their cell phone onto the pitch and check it during the game. No one.
In fact, if you suggested such a thing, you would be regarded as insane. Well, what’s true of the team we support is true of the work we do. A good worker is not a stressed out, constantly distracted, exhausted worker. A good worker is a worker who’s well rested, who’s up for the game and who has periods of long depth and focus. So partly it’s about at the top realizing if your sole interest is profit maximization, you’re doing it the wrong way. And then at the bottom, I don’t think of it as the bottom, but that’s how it’s thought of, a level of workers. Maybe you’ll have an enlightened boss who grows to understand that. And I write about a wonderful enlightened boss, Andrew Barnes. I spent a lot of time at his company called Perpetual Guardian in New Zealand and he changed his company, we can talk about it if you like, in a way that massively improved the productivity and attention of his workers.
But to be completely honest with you, most bosses are not going to be like Andrew, I’d like them to be, we should try and persuade them. Most bosses will only be like that if we make them. And for that, I would say former labor union and make your workplace more humane and better, and all the places that improved attention did that. You can appeal to the benevolence of your overlords if you want. And sometimes that will prevail, but not that often and sadly, mostly workplaces are as good as the workers make them through democratic organization.
Ben Grynol (20:32):
We know the quality of our decisions diminished drastically as we get more fatigued, we make poor choices, you’re exhausted because maybe you didn’t sleep, you stayed up. And so, it’s not just your cognitive function as far as work output, it’s the choice you make to say, “I’m going to eat the thing that’s probably not good for me. I’m going to forego exercise.” Because, you don’t have the cognitive capacity to make the choices that you should. So it becomes this ongoing endeavor of basically your on a path that is on rapid decline as far as positive health and wellness goes and it’s harder to get back to that. And things like we know if you’re sitting in a work environment where the expectation is, “Hey Johann, I Slack messaged you.” And you’ve got this heightened anxiety and your cortisol is up because you’re going, “When’s the next one going to come?”
You can’t ever deeply invest your mind in making positive choices. So we know we can agree, sort of nod our heads, go, “Yeah, that’s not good being distracted all the time.” But is there a point where you can be too asynchronous or too deep in work that might have, if we’re going to steel man this and say, “Hey, maybe it’s not good to be so remote and so invested in deep work because productivity goes down.” Is that an outlook that we could ever worry about where people have so much autonomy and agency over their time that we go, “Hey, but now we’ve leaned too far the other way?”
Johann Hari (21:57):
Yeah, I mean, I don’t want us all to live in monasteries and I don’t want us to be all deep focusing all the time. And of course if there was an excess of autonomy, you don’t have cohesion in achieving the goal of your organization. I mean, we’re so far away from that, maybe in some very distant conception remote overbalance the other way. But I think, I can’t imagine there’s many people who are worried that that’s the risk we’re taking at the moment. Yeah, I mean it’d be like saying, what if the American population gets too thin? All right, okay, yeah, it might happen, but that’s not our concern right now.
Ben Grynol (22:33):
Yeah. One thing you brought up in the book, when you first started writing, and I think we have these thoughts around email communication, however we communicate, but let’s assume email is a very common form of communication in society. And so, there was this realization you had where, hey, the email kind of stops when you stop. So how can people start to realize that we have to point fingers back at ourselves and say like, “Am I the problem? Am I putting work into the system that might not be helping us to move things forward?” So it’s like we go and we’re on this hedonic treadmill of email and communication and email, and as soon as you stopped and you said, wait [inaudible 00:23:14].
Johann Hari (23:14):
We do need to be careful about that. I’m a really privileged person. I’m a writer. I don’t have a boss. What is true of me is not true of everyone. This wouldn’t be true of any of my relatives, for example. So for people who don’t know, very early on in writing the book, I took three months completely off the internet and I went to a place called Provincetown in Cape Cod and was without the internet for that whole time and learned a huge amount about flow states, which we can talk about, which I think would be really relevant to your audience and lots of other things that people can do to boost their attention. But look, if my relatives stopped emailing, they wouldn’t get a wonderful liberating release. They’d get a letter saying they’d been fired. So I don’t think we want to overstate that.
Certainly, there is a lot that individuals can do and some individuals have far more margin to change than others, which is why we also need social change to free people up to make the changes they want to make in many cases. But it’s a bit of both, there’s always a danger of what the sociologist Lauren [inaudible 00:24:18] called cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is where you take a big social problem like obesity, depression, attention problems, and you say to people, “Hey guys, they’ve got a solution for you. You just got to do these three simple things and it’s all going to be okay.” And it sounds like optimism. And for some people it’ll work. But the problem with it is very often the solution that is proposed is not commensurate to the size of the problem.
And what it does, is it sets people up to fail because it means that they’ll do the thing and then they’ll go, “But I did the thing you’re meant to do. And look, I’m still obese or I’m still depressed, or I’ve still got an attention problem, there must be something wrong with me.” Now, the alternative to cruel optimism is not pessimism. I am an optimistic person. And my book Stolen Focus is all about solutions. The alternative to cruel optimism is authentic optimism, and that’s where you scale the solutions to match the size of the problem. And we can do that. And for a lot of people listening, the scale of the solution will be individual changes in their life, because they’ll be privileged people, and I’m a hundred percent on their side in making those individual changes.
And there’s lots of them from the way we eat to integrating flow states into your life, to all sorts of changes that I learned about to how we can redesign our schools, how we can redesign our offices. But I also want to be conscious, there’ll be lots of people listening for whom those things will not be an option, because they don’t have that margin to change their lives. My grandmother’s job was to clean toilets. My grandmother who raised me, she didn’t have much margin to change her life. And we shouldn’t be saying to those people, “Hey, come on, pull yourself…” And it’s not what you are saying, I’m not imputing this to you. “Pull yourself together, you can do it.” Well, to some degree you can. And to some degree you need help to do that.
Ben Grynol (26:13):
And you can’t have certain roles, as you mentioned, let’s say there’s a doctor working in the ER, that doctor cannot choose to be autonomous to say, “Ah, I’m going to take my time and I’m going into a mode of deep work. I’ll come out when I feel like coming out.” Your job is to be on call and there for others. It’s a very different relationship. So I think [inaudible 00:26:36].
Johann Hari (26:36):
It’s a good example, because I think it’s worth thinking about that in relation to what flow. Everyone listening will have experienced a flow state, even if you’ve never heard the term. A flow state is when you’re doing something and you really get into it and your sense of time falls away, your sense of ego falls away. And when it’s over, you’re like, “Whoa, is it 4:00 PM? How did that happen? What? Whoa, I’ve really been in it.” And the way one rock climber put it is, “Flow for rock climbers is like when you feel like you are the rock you are climbing.” And different people get flow from different things. For me it’s writing. For some people it’ll be making bagels. For some people it’ll be brain surgery. But flow states are a really important aspect of the debate about attention, because flow is both the deepest form of attention that you can provide.
And once you are in it, the easiest form of attention to provide, it’s not like memorizing facts for an exam or something. So of course I wanted to understand, well, okay, if this is a gusher of attention that exists in all of us, how do we get it? So I went to interview, professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, it took me so long to learn how to say that. Who is the scientist who discovered flow states in the sixties and did an incredible amount of research on this. I sadly did the last interview he ever did. And he discovered a huge number of things, but there’s three things in particular he discovered that anyone listening, if you can do them, they will massively boost your chances of getting into a flow state. There’s no guarantee, but they increase your odds really enormously.
The first thing is you’ve got to set aside a certain amount of time to do one thing. I’m going to do this operation, I’m going to paint this canvas, I’m going to write this chapter, whatever it might be. If you’re trying to do loads of things at the same time, you won’t get into flow. Secondly, you’ve got to choose a goal that’s meaningful and important to you. If you’re trying to focus on something that isn’t interesting or meaningful to you, you’re not going to get into flow. And thirdly, and this seems counterintuitive, it will help if you choose to push yourself to the edge of your abilities, flow begins at the edge of your comfort zone. So let’s imagine that you’re a medium talent rock climber. You don’t want to just climb over your garden wall, too easy. Equally, you don’t want to suddenly climb Mount Everest too much. You want to climb a slightly higher and harder rock face than the one you did the time before.
If you do these three things, set aside a significant amount of time to do one thing, make sure it’s a meaningful goal, and push yourself to the edge of your abilities, you massively increase your chances of getting into flow. So think about your doctor in the emergency room. Now, we want him to have periods of flow, someone’s been brought in and they’re mangled, we want him to get into flow performing that operation. Equally, it’s not going to be available to him to do that the whole time. He’s going to have to be dealing with all sorts of crises. None of us can live forever in a state of flow, wouldn’t even be desirable to live forever in a state a flow. It’d be a very weird life and it would be impossible, but [inaudible 00:29:35] imagine it would be bizarre. So of course, no one wants to be focusing all the time.
In fact, it’s interesting you mentioned, I went away for three months to this place called Provincetown, and one of the biggest changes I made in my life based on that was about a different kind of focus that we don’t think of as focus. So when I went initially, I was reading just huge numbers of books and I brought an iPod. I didn’t have anything that connected to the internet obviously, but I had my old iPod, which looked like something from Noah’s Ark by then. But I was listening to audiobooks I’d downloaded. After I’d been there a little while, I started just going on these long walks for hours and hours. And Provincetown is one of the most beautiful places in the world on the Cape. And at first I felt a little bit like, “Oh, this isn’t what you came here to do. You came here to focus, not to just wander around.”
But weirdly, although later learned why, those hours where I was just letting my mind wander were almost invariably the most creative and fertile part of my day. And I thought, “Well, why is that?” And I later learned, there’s been this huge renaissance, or not even a renaissance, a naissance in the study of mind wandering and the science of mind wandering partly because of the rise of brain scans makes it easier to study. So I interviewed lots of the leading experts on this. People like Professor Marcus Raichle, who’s in St. Louis, Missouri. They discovered that actually mind wandering is when you’re letting your mind flow without any obvious thing to focus on. And we think of that as wasted time. If you go to parents’ evening and the teacher says, “Oh, little Johnny’s letting his mind wander all the time.” That’s not a compliment.
But it turns out that when your mind is wondering, it’s doing all sorts of things that are incredibly important for focus and attention and just for thinking. When your mind is wondering, you are processing what happened in the past, you are anticipating what happens in the future. And crucially, you are combining things in your mind that otherwise wouldn’t get combined, which is where creativity comes from. So mind wandering is an incredibly precious and important form of thought. So it’s not that we want to be deep focusing all the time. Now, I think we want to be deep focusing more than most of us are at the moment.
The average office worker now focuses on any one task on average for three minutes. I think most of us want more than three minutes per task. One small study of college students that was monitoring them found they focused on average for 65 seconds. Okay, that’s too far the other way. We want more focus than we have now. But equally, we also want periods of mind wandering. I mean, in funny way, I think we’re actually in the worst option because we are neither focusing nor mind wandering. We’re sort of jammed up with task switching, which is not [inaudible 00:32:30]. Well, the evidence shows it’s not conducive to being intelligent, to thinking intelligently, to being creative, to thinking deeply, to doing anything very effectively.
Ben Grynol (32:39):
Is there an amount of time that you’ve come across that is the optimal? Let’s assume that an environment is very supportive of deep work and people can choose for, you often hear about the manager days and the maker days, and in our best intent, we might block off the calendar and say, “Here’s my maker day.” And ironically, calendars get filled up with all these meetings over those days. But neither here nor there.
Is there anything that you came across that said if people, and this is a hard thing about flow, because you can’t say, “Go into flow for three hours.” It’s like you can be in a flow state for end number of minutes, 45 minutes, or you could be there for 6 hours straight without realizing it, because it feels so creative and it feels good when you come out of it and you go, “Wow, I didn’t even realize I was that deeply invested in being creative and thinking critically and really trying to solve a problem.” But is there anything that you came across that if people could have a takeaway as far as how much time to invest deeply in a task, 90 minutes before, 2 hours, is there anything?
Johann Hari (33:41):
It doesn’t make sense to talk about how much attention you should apply to a task without knowing what that task is. So it would completely vary according to what the task is. Making bagels is different to writing a chapter about art history, which is different to writing a chapter about clowns. Attention is specific to tasks. It’s why even the concept of an attention span isn’t that helpful a concept because well, attention applied to what? I asked these questions to lots of experts, and they were just like, “Well, it doesn’t really make sense because it depends what you are doing.”
Ben Grynol (34:18):
Yeah, you hear people say, “Oh, I’m going to block off two hours to do this thing.” And you think that might be way too much time or not enough time. You might be out by a factor of 10 on that amount of time.
Johann Hari (34:31):
And also there are just differences in temperament. If someone told you there was a scientific answer for all human tasks and all humans in response to that, I would be very skeptical of them to be honest.
Ben Grynol (34:41):
What’s your outlook on the four-day work week, which has come up a lot as it relates to the workplace and even kids, the four-day learning work week. I think we have this mental model that we need to sit in a chair for 5 days a week and work 8 hours a day, and that means output when really it’s just totally inaccurate and it’s something that we’ve all accepted in society, but is probably not right.
Johann Hari (35:06):
I have chapter on this in Stolen Focus and did a lot of research on it. So it actually begins with the story of Andrew Barnes who I mentioned before. So Andrew, initially he worked in the City of London, the British equivalent of Wall Street. So you picture in the 1980s, all those videos of stockbrokers in very expensive suits, yelling, “Sell, sell, buy, buy.” He was one of those guys and he used to, in that world, he used to wake up at 6 in the morning and leave when it was dark and he would get home in the dark at 9:00 PM. In that world, you were kind of wuss if you were there later than 7:00 AM. And so, Andrew missed the sun. He never saw the sun and it screwed up his marriage. And he didn’t have a great relationship with his kids and he was smart enough to realize that was not a good life for him. So he quit and he went to Australia and New Zealand and became a really massively leading businessman in Australia and New Zealand.
And one day, in 2018, he was on a plane and he read in some business magazine that the average worker now focuses in an 8-hour day on their work for only 3 hours. And he thought, “Wow, this isn’t good. It’s not good for the worker, their life is passing them by and they’re not doing what they want to do and for obvious reasons, it’s not good for the business.” So he just did a back of the envelope calculation. He said, “Well, if I paid everyone the same as I do now, but they only had to work 4 days a week, and they were more rested and they were less stressed and in return they just did 45 minutes more of actual focused work a day. It would pay for itself.” So Andrew did a conference call, he runs with one of the companies he owns Perpetual Guardian who do wills and trusts and minister estates all over New Zealand.
Where I spent a lot of time in his offices. He said, “Okay, everyone, you’ve all got one less day a week to work and you’re being paid the same.” His head of HR literally fell over. People were like, “What’s going on? Is this a trick? What’s happening?” And this was monitored by the scientists at the University of Auckland Business School. Perpetual Guardian achieved more in 4 days than it did in 5. I don’t mean per hour. I mean overall, they achieved more in 4 days than they had in 5. This is something that’s pretty consistently found in 4-day week experiments in Toyota, in Sweden found that they had a 40% increase in productivity, in Microsoft in Japan, had a 40% increase in productivity when they moved to a 4-day week.
In lots of other companies all over the world, there’s a huge and growing body of research that go through. And it comes back to what we were saying about productivity. Turns out exhausted, stressed, pissed off workers are not good workers. Rested, happy, engaged workers are productive workers. So again, it’s about challenging that ratchet of exhaustion and stress that is so disastrous for attention. And it was fascinating. I spent a lot of time in the Perpetual offices in Rotorua, one of the towns in New Zealand. And the thing that people there most talked about was how much their attention got better.
And they developed all sorts of productivity tools to do that. For example, and saying I recommend everyone who works in an office do. Everyone at Perpetual Guardian because they wanted to keep the productivity up so they didn’t have to go back to 5 days a week, has a mug on their desk with a flag. And when you are focusing and don’t want to be interrupted, you put the flag in the mug and that says, “Don’t interrupt me unless it’s an emergency.” And when you’re up for chatting and collaborating, you take the flag out and people can come over to you. Very simple, but again, fits with what we know about the science of interruptions and massively boosted productivity there. So yeah, comes back to that evidence that we were talking about.
Ben Grynol (38:59):
Why don’t we wrap on a note that is starting to surface more and more as it relates to play. So we know we talk a lot in the world, how important play is for kids. Sir Ken Robinson was notorious for highlighting play as adults. Like we have this mental model when we’re kids, everyone puts up their hand, “I’m an artist, I’m this.” We identify differently with play and the older people get, it’s almost like it’s looked down upon if, “Oh, I like to play, I like to have fun.” But we know how important it is for stimulating our mind, for feeling balance, for being creative. What are your thoughts around this idea of play between kids and adults and how that can help us to maintain a good sense of balance in her life?
Johann Hari (39:44):
One of the heroes in my book is a woman called Lenore Skenazy. And Lenore is not the hero because she identified a problem, because she built a solution. So when Lenore was a kid, she grew up in Chicago in the sixties. From when she was six years old, she would leave her home at 8:00 AM or whatever it was every morning and walk to school on her own. But she would generally bump into all the other kids because in the 1960s, literally almost every child in the United States walked to school on their own. And then when school day ended, the kids would leave without any adults. They were playing the neighborhood for a couple of hours and go home when they were hungry. By the time Lenore was a mom in the nineties in Queens in New York that had ended, you were expected to deliver your child like a package and collect your child like a package at the end of the day.
In fact, by 2003, it was almost completely over. Only 10% of American children ever played outside without an adult supervising them. And it turns out that childhood we’ve lost a free unsupervised play, contains a huge number of things that are really important for kids to be able to focus and pay attention. To give you a real no shit Sherlock one, exercise. Kids who run around develop more brain neurons, they’re better able to focus. And there’s lots of factors I go through in the book. In free play, which is completely different to supervised play. I’ll give you an example. When children play freely, they take risks. You climb the tree, you get a bit too high, you shit yourself, but you find your way down. You’re like, “Oh, I didn’t die.” You develop a sense that you are a competent person who doesn’t need to be afraid of the world by taking lots of these small risks, socially with other children, in the environment.
If you’ve got an adult standing over, you going, “No, Johnny, don’t do that. Get down. No Johnny. Hand Amanda the ball.” You don’t develop those skills. You actually become very anxious and that destroys your attention. Anxious people can’t pay attention very well. And there’s lots of other things going on in free play. So Lenore was learning this science and this evidence, and she’s like, “Huh, this is really bad. I’m going to let my kids out to play.” She thought, “This is the solution. I’ll let my kids out to play.” But she quickly discovered, if you are the only adult letting your kids out to play, you look nuts. Often the kids get scared. Sometimes people call the cops. So Lenore pioneered a different solution, one that I really recommend everyone with children they love in their lives, look into.
She runs an organization called LetGrow.org. And what they do is they go to whole schools and whole neighborhoods and they persuade everyone to give their kids increasing levels of independence that build up to letting their kids play outside again. So I think of all the conversations I had for my book Stolen Focus, probably the most moving was with a 14-year-old boy in a LetGrow program in Long Island. This is just before COVID hit. So this was a big, tall, strapping 14-year-old boy. And until this program had begun 9 months before, he had never played outside his house without an adult watching him, ever. I asked him why, and he said, “My parents were afraid of all these kidnappings.” I mean, this was a town where the olive oil store is across the street from the French bakery, and he had a level of fear that would be appropriate if he lived in Medellín under the terror rain of Pablo Escobar.
There’d never been a kidnapping in his town. And then this program began and his whole face lit up when he described it. I said, “What did you do?” He said, “We started to play ball games in the park.” And then I’ll never forget this, he leaned forward, he said, “And then we started to go into the woods, even though we don’t have any cell phone signal in the woods.” And I was like, “All right.” I said, “What do you do in the woods?” He said, “We built a fort and now we are building a castle.” And his whole face lit up. And it was like watching this boy come to life. And I thought about how many kids I know who never get to explore anything except on Fortnite and World of Warcraft. We can hardly be surprised they’re so obsessed with it.
And Lenore was with me that day, and when he left, she turned to me, she said, “Think about human history. For all of human history, young people had to go out and explore the environment. They had to figure out how it worked. They had to play, they had to explore. And in the space of what? One and a half generations, we took all that away from them. But that boy given a tiny little sliver of freedom, what did he do? He went into the woods with his friends and they built a fort because this is so deep in human nature.” So there are lots of individual changes I advocate in Stolen Focus, and there are lots of bigger social changes. And one of the biggest social changes is we need to restore human childhood. We’re not giving our children a childhood that our ancestors would’ve recognized as a human childhood. A childhood where you are constantly indoors and supervised by adults is not a childhood.
And profoundly, it damages our children’s bodies and it profoundly damages their attention and focus. Whatever you think about the COVID restrictions, we can all see the terrible effects of locking children away for two years. Okay, well, if it was bad when we at least had the excuse of a pandemic, wasn’t it bad before the pandemic when by any historical standard we were locking our kids away? So I would argue every school in the United States should have a LetGrow program and we should restore human childhood. It’s one of the many big changes that I advocate in the book.
Ben Grynol (45:10):
Lots of societal change to make the impact over time. Sneak peek, quick hit on what you are working on now? I know it’s [inaudible 00:45:18].
Johann Hari (45:18):
I’m writing a book about a series of crimes that have been happening in Las Vegas that I’ve been researching for 12 years, insanely. I’m just finishing, but I’ve been ordered by my publishers. They’ll tase me if I say anything more than that. But it’s a series of crimes that have been happening. It’s why I’ve spent a lot of time in Vegas. I’m also meant to say, or my publishers will also tase me that anyone who wants to know any more information about the book we’ve been talking about, or they can listen to audio, lots of the experts that we’ve been talking about for free, go to stolenfocusbook.com. You can get the audiobook, ebook, physical book, but you can basically get them anywhere. If you want to find out about my other books about depression and addiction and other subjects, if you go to johannhari.com, you can find that information there.