How To Fix Your Focus & Stop Procrastinating: Johann Hari | E114 | Transcription
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You're not being present in your life. You're not being present at all. Johann Hari. He's been on a journey to understand attention and why we seem to have so little of it these days. And know something's really wrong, but I don't know what it is. And that's when I thought, "Are we having an attention and focus crisis? "If we are, why is it happening?" And most importantly, what can we do to get our brains back? Because you've got all these smart engineers and they've got one incentive. How do I take Stephen's attention the absolute most I can? We need an attention movement to reclaim our minds. If our goal is as a country to be a country that's innovative, my God, country people who can think is going to be innovative, country of adult people flicking between WhatsApp, Snapchat, and TikTok ain't going to be a place full of innovation. Do you want your child to be able to focus? Do you want your child to be able to read books? Do you want your child to be able to think deeply? Of course you do. OK, we've got to fix the society and culture to give them those things and we absolutely can change them. Quick one. Can you do me a favor if you're listening to this and hit the subscribe button, the follow button, wherever you're listening to this podcast? Thank you so much. Today, one of my favorite ever guests on this podcast returns and they return with a completely different conversation for you. Johann Hari. What he wrote about mental health and the causes of depression, anxiety, and meaningful connection changed my life. It's probably the number one book I recommend and you've heard me recommend on this podcast, The Book Loss Connections. But over the last several years, Johann's been on a completely different journey. He's been on a journey to understand attention and why we seem to have so little of it these days, but why it's so fundamentally important for our happiness, our success, and everything in between. We all know we're a generation that are glued to our screens and our phone. But what is the cost? What is the cost to things that actually matter? How do we change it? Why should we change it? Johann went on that journey, the most remarkable entertaining, hilarious journey, and he's an unbelievable, maybe the best everyone's podcast storyteller. You're going to absolutely love this conversation and entertainment aside, it might just change your life. So without further ado, I'm Stephen Bartlett and this is the Dirova CEO. I hope nobody's listening, but if you are, then please keep this to yourself. Johann, first and foremost, thank you for coming back. I just dawned on me that you visited here more than any other guest. Oh, I'm so shocked to have that. You now have the record as three times. I mean, I'm officially the king of your podcast. You're the king of my podcast. And my first question to you is, I know how talented you are at writing and how you could basically write about anything if you wanted to, because your books have been so successful.
Discussion On Focus And Attention
Why did you write about focus (02:43)
You're a very, very well acclaimed author. So my first question is, and this is the question I asked myself when I received your book from your publishers, why did you decide to write about attention when you could have spent your life writing about anything? You know, for years, I had this feeling like when I walked around in my friends in myself, something was going badly wrong with our ability to focus and pay attention. And every now and then, I would see small studies that seem to suggest this was true. There's a study of American college students that found that now they only focus on average on any one thing for 65 seconds. There's a study of office workers that found on average now, office workers only focus on one task for three minutes. But I thought, people have always felt their attention is getting worse, right? What happens is you get older, you know, your attention deteriorates and you mistake your own deterioration for the deterioration of the world around you, right? You can read stories amongst in the middle ages, letters they wrote to each other saying, oh, my attention isn't what it used to be. I'm a bit worried about this, right? So I just thought, everyone thinks this. And then there was a moment that for me, I thought, I do think there's something deeper happening here. When he was nine, my godson, Adam, developed this brief but really freakishly intense obsession with Elvis. I never found out why he must have seen him on YouTube or the telly or something. And he didn't know that like Elvis impersonation has become this cheesy thing. So he did it with this totally like heart-catching sincerity. He would sing Viva Las Vegas and Suspicious Minds and all the kind of Elvis classics. And he kept getting me to tell him the story of Elvis, that Elvis is born in this little town called Tupelo and Mississippi. And one of the poorest places in America, he's born and his twin brother died as he was being born. And as he was a little boy, his mother told him that if he looked at the moon and he sang, his little brother could hear him. So that's why he became one of the reasons he became such a great singer. So I was telling my godson this story. And I obviously told him that Elvis became really famous and bought this palace that he called Graceland. And one day I was tucking him in. And he said to me, "Look to me very intensely." And he said, "Yoham, will you take me to Graceland one day?" And I said, "Yeah, sure. In the way you do with little children, you'll just like to know that I forget it the next day." And he said, "No, do you really promise will you take me to Graceland?" And I said, "Yeah, I promise you." I didn't think about it again for 10 years until really everything had gone wrong. So by the time Adam was 19, he dropped out of school when he was 15. And he was just spent, he seemed to spend just all his time alternating between his iPad, his laptop, and his phone. And he seemed to live in this kind of blur of WhatsApp and YouTube and porn. And it was like he had fragmented as a person. It was like he was kind of whirring at the speed of Snapchat, right? You couldn't have a conversation with him, lasted more than a few minutes. He was very intelligent, decent, not good person. But it was like nothing could gain any friction in his mind. And one day we were sitting on my sofa. And I was looking at him doing this, and I was thinking, "God, in the decade that you've become a man, this has happened to so many people I know." Okay, this is the extreme end of the spectrum. But I could feel it happening to myself, right? Things that require deep focus, like reading a book, obviously I still do that a huge amount. But it felt like with every year that passed, that was more and more like running up a down escalator, right? Some people can still get to the top, but and the escalator is getting faster, right? And I was looking at him and I thought, "I have to break this routine. I can't bear to see this happen to him. I can't bear to feel this happen to myself." And I suddenly remembered when he'd been a little boy. And I said, "You know what, let's go to Graceland." And he looked at me like, "Well, what are you talking about?" He didn't even remember this other obsession. And I was like, "No, I'll take you to Graceland. Let's go. Let's just leave." But I'll take you on one condition, which is that when we go there, you leave your phone in the hotel when we go out, right? Because I can't take you there and just you be looking at your phone the whole time. So two weeks later, we flew, we went to New Orleans first, but we left from Heathrow and we flew out to the south. And when you arrive at the gates of Graceland now, this is pre-COVID, I imagine it's worse now. But when you arrive at the gates of Graceland, there isn't a physical guide to show you around anymore. What happens is they give you an iPad and you put in little earphones, and the iPad shows you around. So you look at the iPad and it says, "Go left." And then there's an actor telling you, like, in this room and it explains all these things. And in each room, you're in, there's like a representation of that room on the iPad. So what happens is people walk around Graceland staring at their iPad, right? So I'm walking around surrounded by this kind of United Nations, a blank face people from Korea and Canada and everywhere else. And no one is looking at the thing they've traveled to see, right? And I'm getting more and more like tens as I'm watching this. And I'm trying to make eye contact with someone to go like, "Oh, you know, wait for someone else to look up and go, look, we're the people who traveled 3,000 miles and actually looked at the thing we traveled to." And finally, I did make eye contact with a guy and I smiled and I was about to say exactly what I just said. And then I realized he'd only taken the earphones out and put down the iPad so that he could take out his phone and take a selfie. And I was feeling more and more tense. And finally, we got to the jungle room, which was Elvis's favorite room in Graceland. It's just a kind of fake jungle with those fake plants. And there's this couple next to me and the man turned to his wife and said, "Honey, look, this is amazing. If you swipe left, you can see the jungle room to the left. And if you swipe right, you can see the jungle room to the right." She goes, "Oh, wow." And so she's swiping left and right on her iPad. And I look at this guy and I said, "Right, but sir, there's an old-fashioned form of swiping you can do. It's called turning your head because we're actually in the jungle room, right? You don't need to look at a digital representation of it. We're literally here. Look, it's in front of you." And of course, this couple thought I was insane, not possibly, not unreasonably. And they walked off. And I turned to my godson to kind of bond with him and laugh about, "Well, isn't this mad?" And he was just standing in a corner looking at Snapchat from because the minute we landed, he just was on his phone constantly. And I remember when I said to him, I thought he said, "You weren't going to use your phone." He said, "Oh, I thought you meant I won't take phone calls. I can't not use social media, right?" And he said it with a kind of baffled sincerity as if I was asking him to hold his breath or something. I got really angry and I said to him, "You know, you're frightened of missing out, but what this is doing is it's guaranteeing you miss out. You're not being present in your life. You're not being present at all." And he kind of stormed off. Again, not unreasonably, I was being a bit angry. And so I stomped around Graceland on my own for a while. And then that night I found it, we were staying in the Heartbreak Hotel, which is across the street from Graceland. And I found in there's a swimming pool that shaped like a guitar, where they play all this songs in a constant loop. And I saw him sitting there looking at his phone and I went up to him. And I realized like a lot of anger, my anger at him was really anger at myself. I could feel these pressures happening to me. I could feel my own attention and focus fragmenting. And he just looked at his phone and he said, "I know something's really wrong, but I don't know what it is." And that's when I thought, "Okay, I need to look into, are we having an attention and focus crisis? If we are, why is it happening?" And most importantly, what can we do to get our brains back? And what did you discover in terms of the stats, facts and figures around the attention crisis? Is it a real thing? Is it happening? And linked to that, I guess, what is the... What are we losing because of the attention crisis? Yeah, so I ended up traveling all over the world, I interviewed 250 of the leading experts in the world about attention and focus. And I went to just places that have been really differently affected by this. So from Moscow to Miami, from Favella, a slum in Rio de Janeiro where attention had collapsed in a particularly disastrous way to an office in New Zealand where they discovered this amazing way to restore people's attention. And what I learned is, so the best way we could know if attention has collapsed would be if for the last 150 years, every year scientists are given the same kind of attention test to people, and then we'd be able to track it that way. No one did that, so that we don't know that. But I do think there's another way we can reasonably conclude that this is a real crisis. So there's scientific evidence for 12 different factors that affect attention and focus, that either boost it or trash it. And there's good evidence that a lot of these factors have been rising throughout your lifetime and my lifetime. So I think it's fair to conclude, therefore, that we are facing a real crisis. And there's various pieces of evidence that do show collectively our attention span really is shrinking. So, and I think that leads to, we've got to understand what's happening to us in a very different way. Because when I felt my attention fraying, my main response was to go into, you know, just self-criticism, just go, you're weak, you're lazy, you're not good enough, you're strong enough to resist these forms of distraction. And actually, when you know that this is happening to almost all of us, or in fact, these factors are bearing on all of us, right? They're affecting some of us differently, that made me realize you've got to think about this in a different way. So as a guy, I went into being one of the leading experts on children's attention problems in the world, a guy named Professor Joel Nigg, who's in Portland in Oregon. And he said to me, think about obesity, right? If you look at a beach, a photograph of a beach in Britain in 1970, or in the US anywhere, everyone is by our standards, either slim or buff. There's nobody who's what we think of as fat, right? No one. It's really weird, and it's not that the fact people just stayed at home, right? What happened is, if you look at 1970, there was almost no obesity in the Western world. And then, certain absolutely crucial changes happened in the way we live, right? Our food supply change, people used to eat fresh and nutritious food, we moved to heavily processed and ultra-processed food, which affects your body in a very different way. And our city's completely changed, so you used to be able to bike and walk to work, to places you wanted to go. In a lot of our cities, that's now impossible. And as a result of these two big changes, and some other ones, actually stress, right? The more stressed you are, the more you want it comfy. As a result of these big changes, obesity exploded. So it's not that individuals got like we call whatever the stigmatizing these people say about, overweight people. And what Professor Nigg said is something very similar is happening with attention. There are changes in the way we live that are pouring acid on everyone's ability to pay attention. The way he put it, the kind of technical term is that we have an attentional pathogenic culture, a culture in which it is very hard for all of us to form and sustain deep focus. This is why activities that require deep forms of focus, like reading a book, have just fallen off a cliff, right, in the last 20 years. So what we've got to do is there's two levels of response. One is there are individual responses. There are changes we can all make in our lives. Obviously, I talk about this a lot in the book, Stolen Focus, about this. There are changes we can all make in our lives. There are also big changes we need to make as a society. So we need to come together and demand changes in the society that would make it possible for us to make a lot of these positive changes we want to make. So these two layers, I mean, there's a lot there to... Okay, so if we were to agree that attention has decayed, what I really want to know is, like, so what?
What is the cost of losing our attention? (14:22)
What is the cost to my life outside of the fact that I might not have as engaging relationships? Is there any other cost to my productivity? Anything else that really, really matters to me? Yeah, this is such an important question. I think there's two levels we need to think about it. The first is, as an individual, if you can't focus on pay attention, your ability to achieve your goals across the board diminishes, right? So you want to set up a business, you want to write a book, you want to learn how to play the guitar. All of those things become much harder if you can't focus and pay attention. If you're constantly pulled away by the pings in your phone, well, let's say you want to be a good parent. If you're constantly pulled away from that, if you're constantly distracted, your ability to do that. So any goal you have in your life is diminished if you can't pay attention. And so that's the personal layer. There's also just a collective and social layer. If you live in a society where people can't pay attention, if you're surrounded by people who can't pay attention, our ability to solve our collective problems, and we're facing a lot of collective problems at the moment, also breaks down. So attention is crucial for achieving goals and problem solving. And to me, those are the two of the most important things in life, right? And you went to the other one, just being present with people, right? You know, if you can't be present with people, if you think about my godson, you can't form the deepest relationships. Yeah, if most of us think about, if I said to you, you know, what's a moment that's been deeply meaningful to you in your life, it'll be a moment very likely when you are paying attention and other people are paying attention to you, right? It's a moment of shared focus, a moment of meaning. And we can't do that if we can't pay attention. So you become a sort of stump of yourself. There's a, you know, you can sense that you might have been more. It chokes off growth. And there's kind of, there's a few ways of thinking about this. There's an amazing expert on attention called Dr. James Williams, who I interviewed in Moscow. It's a former Google engineer who said that there's a few kind of different types of attention that we see and we seem to be losing all of them. So the first type of attention is called your spotlight, right? So let's say there's a fridge in the corner of this room. Let's say I want to go and get two drinks from that and bring it to the people in the other room, right? So my spotlight, I've got an immediate task, go and get the drinks, take them to the people in the other room. Now, if I'm constantly interrupted, if I'm constantly checking my text, I might get to the fridge, get a load of text, forget, why did I go there again? The guys in the room are saying, where the hell's Johann? Why is he not brought to this stuff? So your spotlight is your ability to hone in on an immediate task, right? That is obvious that we can all see how that's being disrupted. I can talk more about that if you like. Then there's what he calls your starlight, which is your more medium term goals. So a medium term goal might be, you know, a goal that you obviously had a few years ago. I want to start a business, right? That's a medium term goal. It's called starlight because when you're not sure where you are, you look up at the stars and you're like, oh, you orientate yourself by the stars, right? That is being disrupted. If your life is full of distractions, if your consciousness is hijacked by really petty goals or goals that are someone else's goals, like social media, you can't, you lose, you begin to lose your ability to formulate. It's not just that you can't achieve the short term tasks. You lose your ability to achieve your longer term tasks. And the third form is what James calls Dr. Williams calls your daylight, which is how do you even know that you want to set up a business? How do you even know what it means to be a good dad? How do you know what it means to have a good life, right? For to be able to see clearly a room has to be flooded with daylight. And it's not just that we're losing our short term attention. It's not just that we're losing our medium term attention. When those things happen, you have less ability to make sense of your own life. He compared it to on the internet, a denial of service attack, where when someone wants to take down a website, they get many thousands of computers to log on simultaneously, and the computer crashes. It's like we're experiencing that. We're so overloaded that you're sensitive like, who am I? What do I want to do? If your life is atrophied into 65 second and three minute chunks, how do you build a sense of where you want to go and who you want to be? You begin to feel lost in your own life, and you can see that happening to lots of people. I certainly can. And as you were saying... Do you feel that for yourself, Steve? Oh, 100% percent. And as you were saying that I was reflecting on how difficult I find it to just sit with my girlfriend and just pay attention and just try and connect with her. Like, how is your day been without devices and screens? And there was a big change we made together where we kind of made a rule that we would exclude devices from certain parts of our life. So we don't have them in the bedroom if we're in bed together. We don't have devices in there. And there'll be sometimes where we commit to putting the phones away and doing something sometimes for seven hours. So it'll be like, she'll say to me, "I want to do this special type of dance that I've never done before." Right? So put the phones away. And as I'm doing it, especially at the start, as we're doing this, like, there's called contact dance you wanted to do with me, where you always maintain one point of contact. I was just thinking about my phone. And then, you know, I think we get into our five and six, and I'm still thinking about my phone. And it's funny because I'm not being present. I'm actually kind of like complying with what she wants to do so that I can get back to my phone. And I find that really, really sad. And it's actually... I can see how it would jeopardize the chance of a really meaningful connection in modern relationships, where you're never really connected. I think a lot of relationships are actually more connected on social media than they are in real life. And I wonder if that's had an adverse effect on the success of relationships. This absence of focus and attention. I think there's so many important things in what you just said. So what you've built for you and your girlfriend there, your first response is a good first response, which is an individual level. There's big collective ones as well. But an individual level, a good response, is what's called pre-commitment. So what you do is you said, you and your girlfriend say, we're going to put our phone away for seven hours, right? So you say it in advance. And there's a woman called Professor Molly Crockett at Yale University, who I interviewed as a kind of expert on pre-commitment. So pre-commitment is we all know there's all sorts of things you want to do that you know you might crack and give in later and not achieve them, right? So I don't want to eat any Pringles, right? Because they make me even fatter than I am, right? So the best form of pre-commitment is when I go to the supermarket, don't buy the Pringles, right? Because I buy the Pringles and tell myself, I'll just have five tonight. And of course, you get to 2 a.m. you wake up, you're fucking chugging them like I'm a Simpson, right? So the one form pre-commitment there is, a) don't buy the Pringles, b) tell everyone you're not going to buy the Pringles. Because even just articulating your goal out loud makes you more likely to achieve it. So you've got one form of pre-commitment there, right? You've said, okay, we're going to say to each other, we've got seven hours now we're going to put the phone away. So that's a really good model of pre-commitment. But also, you've got to one of the challenges with that, which is you feel like your consciousness has been hijacked by these technologies. And it was really interesting researching this, because a lot of people when I say I've done a book about attention and focus, they say, oh, you've written a book about tech. Actually, tech's only about 20% of what's going on, I think, although it's a very important 20%. And it was really interesting researching this, because actually, most of the problem is not inherent to the technology. It's the result of something else, which is actually more fixable, because you and me, we're not going to give away our phones, nor should we, right? We're not going to abandon this technology. We could make the technology work for our attention rather than against it.
Social Media and the part it plays (22:09)
So I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley interviewing a lot of the people who designed the world in which we now live, right? And really feel bad about it. And they have all the problems that you, me, and everyone watching have. There's a really short James Williams, the Google engineer who I just mentioned. There was an incredible moment when he spoke at a tech conference. So he's speaking entirely to some really influential designers who are making the stuff that we're all using. And he said to them, is there anyone here in the audience who wants to live in the world that we're creating, put up your hand, and not one of them did? Another one of them, Tristan Harrison, amazing, dissident in Silicon Valley, who also worked for Google, he worked on the Gmail team when they were designing Gmail and, you know, spreading it to the whole world. And one day he was in the Googleplex, and one of his colleagues said, I've got an idea, because they were trying to figure out how to get more and more people to use Gmail more. One day I had an idea, he just said, why don't we make it so that every time someone gets an email, their phone vibrates. And everyone in the team said, that's a good idea. And Tristan a week later was walking around San Francisco and just heard these vibrations everywhere and thought, shit, we did that. And that's happening everywhere within a few months into the calculation. There were 11 billion distractions every day because of his company, right? So these people are really open to, there's a big, obviously a big debate about this. But there was a moment and there's lots of things to say about it. And lots of techniques these social companies use to maximally hijack your attention. And we can talk about those techniques and loads we need to learn about that. But actually to me, the most important thing, the root of this is to understand that social media doesn't have to work that way. And the moment that really helped me to understand it, because we're struggling with getting my head around that, if I open Facebook, it'll tell me all sorts of things. It'll say, oh, it's your mate Rob's birthday today. This is something you said five years ago. There's been a terrorist attack and you look, these people have marked themselves as safe. I'll tell you all sorts of things. What it won't do is something that actually lots of people would really love. There's no button on Facebook that says, I'd like to meet up with my mates. Who's free now? Who's nearby and available, right? Now that's technologically, unbelievably easy. Facebook could design that in an hour, right? That would be really popular. I'm sure everyone listening thinks, yeah, that'd be a really handy thing to have. It doesn't exist. Why does the market not provide it? If you follow the chain from why the market doesn't provide it, I think you begin to understand some of the ways our attention are being invaded and how we can get it back. So when you open Facebook, Facebook makes money in two ways. First way is very obvious. You see ads. We all understand how that works. The second way is much more valuable to Facebook. Everything you do on Facebook, everything you like, everything you dislike, everything you message to people is scanned and sorted by their AI technology. To build a profile of you. Let's say that you like Kylie Minogue, Donald Trump, and you message your mum going, I've just bought a load of nappies. So the AI is figuring out this person's probably gay. No disrespect to the heterosexual friends of Kylie. You're probably out there. This person's gay. They're quite right-wing. And they've got a baby. Because why would they be messaging about nappies? So think about thousands and thousands of data points like that. It's building up a very complicated and detailed profile of you, which it then sells to advertisers so they can target you. Because if you're making nappies, you don't want to send an ad to me. I don't have any children. You've wasted your money. You want to target your advertising. So Facebook is making money every moment you open it. Facebook makes money through those two revenue streams. And every time you put the Facebook cap down, or you shut your phone off, Facebook loses money. Or they don't make the money they would make if you carried on scrolling. That's it. That's their business model. It's simply that. Once you understand that, you can see why there's no button that says who's available and wants to meet up now. Because if you push that button and it said, "Oh, Joe's around the corner. I'll go for a coffee with Joe." You and Joe would sit opposite each other and talk to each other. Well, then you're not on Facebook. They're losing money. Their entire business model, as Sean Parker, who was one of the first investors in Facebook, said, "Our whole business model was to hack people's attention. We knew we were doing it and we did it anyway." So they have the most sophisticated engineers in the world. Specifically working to figure out maximally how to hack your attention. But the thing that blew my mind about this, because you can talk about that and very often this is framed as, "Oh, okay. So is this an anti-tech or pro... Are we pro-tech or anti-tech? Are we... It's completely wrong way to think about it. The question is not, are you pro-tech or anti-tech? The question is, what tech working and who's interests? Because that business model, which is designed, has to be about fracking your attention. That's the only way it can work, is not the only business model for these companies. So let's say, Azaraskin, one of the who designed key aspects of the internet that we now use, amazing guy, said to me, "We should just ban that business model. A business model that is based on tracking you, surveilling you, invading your attention and selling that attention to the highest bidder, that is just an inhuman way of doing it. It's like letting paint ban it." So I said, "Well, what to all these people? What happens the day after we ban it, right? So do I open Facebook?" And it just says, "Sorry, closed." Now, no, what would happen is all these companies would have to move to other business models, which already exist. So one model might be subscription, like Netflix, we're going to have subscription works, or it might be that we choose to own it together, somewhere beneath where we're sitting, there's a sewer, right? We own that sewer. You and me as taxpayers own that sewer together. Because when we didn't have sewers, we had shit in the street and we got cholera and people died. And then together we built the sewers and together we own and maintain the sewers, because it's important for all of us. Now, it might be, we want to say, just like we own the sewer pipes together, we might want to own the information pipes together, because at the moment we're getting the equivalent of cholera for our attention, right? But the key thing about that is when you move to these different models, instead of you being the product, right? Today, you're not the customer of Facebook. You're the product they sell to advertisers. If we move to those different business models, suddenly you're the person they want to please, right? If you want to pay attention, they could start redesigning Facebook in all sorts of ways, very practical ways. I can tell you about lots of them, that are designed not to hack your attention, but are designed to heal your attention, are designed to make your life better. So that's really interesting. So obviously my background is social media. So I've been knee deep in this industry for a long, long time. And in 2019, Mark Zuckerberg wrote a letter where he said, and he posted it on his Facebook saying, "We've done some studies, we've spoken to some people, and we've discovered that the timeline is bad for you. It's net negative, predominantly because of these highly addictive, very short viral videos. I'm going to put my hands up. That was part of the company I built business model. We had huge, huge Facebook pages, some of which had tens of millions of followers. And we knew that if we wanted a ton of views, which would result in a ton of followers, we had to post very, very short, highly engaging, short videos. Facebook that year changed the timeline. They killed that bit, that part of our business model, where these like super addictive viral videos would no longer work. And in their little statement, they said the things that will now work are any content that gets people to basically just have conversation with each other. So we then tested that, and BuzzFeed tested that as well. BuzzFeed posted some things and discovered that if your post is discussion worthy, it will now do better. And so his Facebook were apparently trying to do the right thing, which cost them that year, their revenues. I believe went down that year, their stock price definitely did. And they pointed to, listen, we made these changes to our timeline, our newsfeed to try and make it more healthy, something else emerged. And that thing, which is now the dominant force, is called TikTok. And TikTok took the place of short, addictive as fuck. You don't even know your scrolling videos. And the way that I know it from my social media background, that TikTok have fully owned that space is simple. On my TikTok now, say I have 100,000 followers, a video can get 1,000 views or a million views. The variance of viewership is extreme. What that means is, the algorithm is just taking the most addictive things and saying, fuck everything else. It's like, I'm not going to show your followers, or the discovery feed, the thing you posted, that wasn't addictive. I'm just going to grab the viral stuff that's super short and put that in the feed. So now, I was talking to some of my colleagues today. Fortunately, I don't actually use TikTok. Like, I don't use it myself. I have a TikTok, but I don't use it myself to engage with friends. And every single one of my friends, some of them are sat in this room now, some of them are downstairs. They describe their relationship with TikTok as like, as if it's heroin. Like, I've never heard a social network described in such a way. My friend, Ash, who's like 35, he goes, I'll just touch the app and he goes, and I was gone. And it's like, I've never seen anything like it. So if Facebook changed, what my point here is that, I've seen how someone else who just doesn't give a fuck will come and occupy that space, make a billion dollars and run off. And so I'm like, you know, but this is why we need, you're totally right. This is why we need to look at the business model for social media and whether we allow it or not. Of course, think about lead paint again, right? So presumably there was a market leader in lead paint in the 70s. And let's say the responsible of paint, just go, you, this individual company, needs to stop manufacturing lead paint. Of course, someone else would have just come along and made me lead paint. That's not the solution, right? Solution is to say, no, no one can put lead in paint, right? Which is not to say they can't be social media. They absolutely can. Social media has lots of great things about it. But it's about saying, do you have a business model that is designed about maximally invading people's attention? Or do you have a business model that's about giving people what they want? Most people do not want, like you're saying, your friends, they push the button and it's gone for an hour. Most people don't want that, right? Most TikTok users, I'm gonna think about my niece, who's using TikTok all the time. She doesn't want that either. So at the moment we have a model that's about hacking people and giving them what they don't want to sell them to advertisers. When you get rid of that business model, which they won't do spontaneously, we have to make them do it, right? Yeah. That produces a completely different dynamic.
Flow States (32:41)
So I'm keen. So you put your, I read in the book, you basically put your phone in a box and then escaped to the phone. You must have been more productive than ever because of this thing that people describe called being in the flow state, right? I imagine if I'm distraction free, then I'll be in that flow state longer. I heard about this concept of a flow state, maybe about a year or two ago. And then I could relate to it because I've had those moments in my work or when I'm doing certain activities, specifically more like monotonous activities or repetitive activities, where you get into that state of flow where you're almost doing it without thinking. What is flow and how do you find it and what is the power of being in one's flow state? So a flow state is when you're, and everyone listening will have experienced at some point in their life. A flow state is when you're doing something that's really meaningful to you and you really get into it and your sense of time falls away, your sense of ego falls away and your attention to it just feels effortless, right? So one rock climber put it, it's like you get into flow and rock climbing when you feel like you are the rock you're climbing, right? So we all will have moments of flow in our lives. What's really important about flowing relation to attention is this is a power, this is a capacity that all human beings have. And it's a capacity where you can pay attention to something deeply, but it doesn't feel like an effort, right? It's not like studying for an exam where you're like, okay, so Napoleon was born there, okay, you know, you can pay attention that way, but that's an effort. Flow is like a gusher of attention that is inside all of us that we can pay. So obviously, Mahali spent, Professor Cheek sent me high, he sent, spent 40 years of his life, more than actually 50 years of his life, studying flow states. How do they happen? How do we maintain them? What ruins them? And he discovered lots of amazing things about it. He discovered that actually flow states are really essential for having a good life, for feeling competent, for good mental health. And he discovered, I mean, he made lots of discoveries, but for me, there were three really important things he discovered about how to get into a flow state. Firstly, you have to choose one goal. If you're trying to do lots of things at the same time, you will not get into flow. I can explain why later. That's really important. You have to choose one thing, right? The second thing you have to do is you have to choose a goal that is meaningful to you. If it's not meaningful, you'll never get into flow on it. For me, it would be writing, right? Everyone will have something. And thirdly, you need to choose something that is ideally at the edge of your abilities. So let's say you're a rock climber. Let's say you're a medium talent rock climber, right? If you just climb over Garden Wall, you're not going to get into a state of flow. Equally, if you suddenly try and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, it's going to be overwhelming. You're also not going to get into a state of flow. What you want to do is choose something that's a little bit harder than the time you did last time, right? So flow begins at the edge of your abilities. So you want those three things. One clear goal is going to be meaningful to you. And it's going to be the edge of your abilities. If you do that, you just don't guarantee, but you massively increase your chance of getting into flow, which is this form of deep, meaningful attention. But Mahali also made a discovery. He discovered this in the late 80s. There's something that absolutely consistently ruins flow, which is being interrupted, being distracted, right? Just kills flow dead, which kills the deepest form of attention. And I think we're really living. And Mahali thought that we're really living with a crisis of flow states now.
What is the harm of interruption? (36:19)
What is the harm of interruption? I read in your book about the decaying creativity and the time it takes to get back into the task once you've done it. But is there a more sort of consequential? So if you want to understand, and this might sound when I first describe it like a small effect, I'm going to explain how big it is afterwards because it doesn't feel big when you're doing it. So I went to interview one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, a man named Professor Earl Miller, who's MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And Professor Miller said to me, "You have to understand one crucial thing about your brain, my brain, everyone's brains. You can only think consciously about one thing at a time. This is just a fundamental limitation of the human brain. Human brain hasn't changed in 40,000 years. It ain't going to change any time soon. You can only think about one thing at a time. But we have fallen for a mass delusion. So the average teenager, according to a study by Professor Larry Rosen, believes they can now follow seven forms of media at the same time. So what happens when you believe you're doing lots of things at once? So they get people into labs, they get them to think they're doing lots of things at once, and see what happens. And it turns out there are four really big costs that happen. So the first is what's called the switch cost effect. So let's say my phone is outside this room, but let's say I have my phone in my pocket, right? Let's say you were just talking, you spoke for a minute or two, what you said was really interesting. Let's imagine that I had just taken out my phone and glanced at my text messages for a few seconds while you were doing that, right? The kind of thing that happens all the time. You think, "Oh, I've just taken two seconds." And in that moment, I have to refocus my brain, "Oh, Jess texted me. Oh, right. So that must mean that mom needs... Oh, right. I got it." And then I have to refocus on you. Wait, what was Stephen just saying again? Seems like a small effect. It's not. I'll talk about how much it is in a minute. The second cost it brings in is you start to make mistakes when you're switching between things. It massively increases your error rate. So say that I'm, I don't know, doing my text return, and I look at my text and I go back to my text return. I'm much more likely to make mistakes, and that means I have to go back and correct my mistakes. The third effect is on your memory. So to translate your experiences into memories, text mental effort, right? Texts a certain amount of brain power. If your brain is instead just jammed up with all this switching, the evidence shows you're significantly less likely to just remember what happened. You're less likely to remember any of it. And the third effect is on your creativity. So when you just have time to think, your brain naturally wonders, and it will roam over, you know, things people have said to you in your life, moments you've had, things you've read, a whole range of things. And it will start to make connections between those things. That's actually what creativity is. It's when two ideas that have never been put together go together and pop, right? You know, it's much better than me. But when your brain is jammed up with switching, it just doesn't get the space to do that, right? And I've heard that. I'm not thinking, speaking to Preston Miller, who's an amazing man, and just thinking, all right, I get that. But that's quite small, right? When I looked at the studies, I was quite struck. Hewlett Packard, you know, the people who make printers, although fucking printers always jam in my experience. But anyway, Hewlett Packard did a quite small experiment with their workers. So they split them into two groups. And the first group was told, just do whatever task you've got to do today, and you're not going to be interrupted. And the second group was told, just do your task today. And they were interrupted with emails and texts, right? What was described as a heavy amount of emails and texts? And then they just tested their IQ after either not being distracted or being distracted. What they found is the people who had been distracted tested at having 10 IQ points lower than the people who had not been distracted, right? Because it makes you less intelligent. Constantly switching the strain of that makes you less intelligent. And to give you a sense of what 10 IQ points means, if you or me smoked a spliff now together, our IQ would drop by about five points. So it's double, just being heavily interrupted, has double the effect on your intelligence and attention as getting stoned. So you would be better off sitting at your desk, doing one thing and smoking a spliff, than sitting at your desk, not smoking a spliff and being interrupted all the time. There's a guy called Professor Michael Posner at the University of Oregon who found that if you are distracted and pulled away, it takes you 20 and go back to the task you were doing originally. It takes you 23 minutes to get back to the same level of focus as you had before, right? So we're all, our focus is being stolen, the book is called stolen focus for this reason. Our focus is being stolen by these forces. That's just one of the 12. There's loads of them, but we've got to understand this. And the other point, I guess, so you write about in this book, which is I was surprised you linked to attention because it wasn't an obvious link to me.
The lack of sleep we all seem to be getting (41:02)
It was about sleep and the decay in our sleeping health over decades. And you write that we're sleeping less than ever before, and we're having worse sleep than ever before. My sleep is fairly good, but I think it's decaying. I'd say it's decaying. I sleep with my phone in my bed. First thing I do want to make up in the morning. I'm actually, as I'm opening my eyes, I'm thinking about where I need to put my hand to get the phone. Like I'm visualizing where I think I left it, and my brain always knows. My brain's like, it's over by your right. You're right here. It always knows where it is. And then I wake up, I look at WhatsApp, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, 100 notifications, 100 things. What's the cost of this type of behavior, which I think a lot of people will resonate for? And what is the macro trend in sleep health? Yeah, this is one of the 12 causes I write about in Stolen Focus that really, the evidence was quite shocking, actually. So I interviewed lots of experts, but I interviewed arguably the leading expert in the world on sleep. My name is Dr. Charles Sizler, who's at Harvard Medical School. He's taught everyone from the Boston Red Sox to the Secret Service about sleep. And he started to make this breakthrough in 1981. So when Charles was at medical school, he was taught that basically, when you're asleep, your brain is just inert. It's not doing much. So he starts doing this research, nothing to do with sleep. It's not really doesn't really matter what it's about, but it was about the time of day that the body releases a particular hormone. And to study that, he had to keep people awake in a lab for quite long periods of time. So he's working with them, and he's got all sorts of techniques for keeping them awake, like attention techniques. And he was just immediately struck when he's doing this. How quickly and how dramatically people's attention and ability to think deteriorated as they stayed awake longer. If you're awake for 19 hours, you don't feel like very long, your attention and ability to think is the same as if you were legally drunk. Right? So your attention, things that would take a fraction of a second when you're refreshed and alert, he was discovering if you were awake for just a day, were taking 12 seconds, a staggering increase in your ability to think. So he started to think, "Oh, I should study sleep. I should look into this." And he began to do a series of hugely groundbreaking research on sleep. What he did is he pioneered putting together two bits of technology. There's a kind of technology that can scan your eyes to see what you're looking at. And obviously there's pet scans and things that can scan your brain and see what's happening in your brain. So he put this together and he looked at people who were tired, not that tired, but tired, to see what they were looking at and what was happening in their brain as they looked at it. And what he discovered is that when you're tired, you could appear to be awake. As awake as you and me seem now, you can be looking at people, you can be talking, but parts of your brain have literally gone to sleep. It's called local sleep because it's local to one part of the brain. Right? Which is kind of mind-blowing. This is hard to explain why attention degrades so rapidly when you're asleep. And I was trying to think, "Oh, why is that? What's going on there?" I mean, it's also what important to bear in mind. This is one of the ways we know attention has got worse. There's good evidence that sleep has dramatically deteriorated. We sleep on average an hour less than people did in 1942. And children sleep 80 minutes a night less than they did a century ago. So it's a staggering, it's been a 20% decline in adult sleep in the last century. Incredible figures. And when you look at them, they're kind of mind-blowing. Only 15% of people wake up feeling refreshed. So I wanted to understand why is this right? Why does sleep affect our attention so much? What do people interviewed about this and looked at research very carefully? It's an amazing woman called Professor Roxanne Prashart, who's at the University of Minneapolis, where I interviewed her. She explained to me, "When you don't sleep, your body interprets it as an emergency. It says something's really wrong here, right? He's not sleeping. Why isn't he sleeping?" So it has all sorts of physiological and psychological effects. It raises your heart rate. It makes you crave more sugar and fast food, because it will release glucose quickly. It makes your heart beat faster. And it shuts down a lot of the creative parts of your brain, a lot of the more fertile parts of your brain. It's like, it's an emergency. You haven't got time to worry about that. You know, but what's happening is lots of us effectively live in a bodily emergency. 23% of British people sleep for five hours a night on average, staggering figures. And the reason this is so important, it's partly the bodily emergency. And it's partly that what Dr. Seizler had been taught at medical school much earlier, was wrong. Sleep is not a passive process. Sleep is an incredibly active process. The way Roxanne put it to me, Professor Prashart, is when you're sleeping, you're repairing. Your brain is rinsed with a watery fluid that carries away metabolic waste, takes it down to your liver and gets rid of it. Your brain repairs itself in sleep. The longer you sleep, the better and deeper the repairs are. I mean, there are lots of other things that happen in sleep that I talk about in the book as well. And we're not giving ourselves time to repair. We're not giving ourselves time to rest. And as a result, we're going around groggy. Our brain isn't functioning to its full potential. So I'm ever saying to Dr. Seizler, you know, "Okay, so we know that sleep's got worse. We know that sleep is crucial for attention. Does that mean it is true to say that we have got an attention crisis?" And he said, "Even if nothing else to change in society, and this is only one of the 12 changes, even if nothing else to change in society, that alone would be a guarantee that we had an attention crisis." So what do we do about it? I'm that person. I'm the pathetic sleeping habits for sure, for sure. So what can I do about it? Removing my phone from the bedroom aside, the government or society collectively deciding that they should impose better professional laws so that people aren't as interrupted when they could be sleeping, etc. What else can I do on a real practical level? So yeah, at a personal level, there's plenty of pre-commitment you can do. So I would recommend that you get a case safe. Do you know about them? Oh, is that like a safe that my phone goes in? Yeah, so basically it's a plastic safe with a lid at the top. You take the lid off, you put your phone in it, you turn the dial at the top, and it'll lock away your phone for anything you set it to between five minutes and a week. And if there's like a fire or something, you could easily smash it, but then you're just buying another case safe, right? So I would say, and out before you go to bed, put your phone in the case safe, and then you can't, again, it's pre-commitment. You're binding yourself so that when you're lying there in bed and your mind's racing, like, "Oh shit, I forgot that email." Too late. You can't check it. That's what I do, massively improve my sleep. So it's partly that. That's one of the individual changes. There's also big tips, and this is one thing I recommend to you. So I went to New Zealand to meet a guy called Andrew Barnes. So Andrew grew up here in London, and in the 80s, in 1987, he worked in the city of London, the financial district, just as the whole thing was deregulated. So the whole thing blows up. You know, you've probably seen on the news, these images of men in suits and lots of hairspray, like shouting at each other, "Bye, by, sell, sell." He was one of those guys, right? And in that world, he was a young guy then. In that world, you, you know, this is the word language, they would have used, it's not my language. You were a fool if you came to work later than 7/30 in the morning, and you were a pussy if you left before 7/30 at night, right? So for half the year, Andrew never saw the sun, because he would leave at 6 o'clock in the morning in the dark, and he would get home at 9 o'clock in the morning, at 9 o'clock at night in the dark. He didn't have a good relationship with his children, he had to build that as an adult. This thing just consumed him, and he didn't like it. And wisely, he quit, and he went to live in Australia and then New Zealand, and he became a very successful businessman there. And one day in 2018, Andrew was on a plane, and he was reading a business magazine, and he saw these quite shocking figures, which are accurate, that basically they had done productivity research, and they discovered the average worker sits at their desk for eight hours a day, this is pre-COVID, obviously, sits at their desk for eight hours a day, but they are actually only concentrating on their work for three hours a day, which are amazing figures, right? Bad for everyone, bad for the worker, their life is passing them by, bad for the employer, you know, they're not getting good value out of their employees. And Andrew did this, Andrew remembered these moments when he was working in the city, and he was exhausted and run down, and he wasn't having a life, and he thought, "Maybe my workers are just really tired, maybe that's part of what's going on." So he had this idea, just came to him, he said, "If I said the company's going to move to a four-day week instead of a five-day week, for exactly the same amount of money, and in return, let's say my workers match this three hours a day, in return, if my workers just did 45 minutes more every day of actually concentrating, because they were better rested and so on, that would make up that then we'd be in the same place for four days a week versus five." So Andrew organized a conference call, he had everyone on it, and he said, "From now on, I'm going to pay you all the same, but we're going to move to four days a week, we're going to try it for three months and see if it works, if it works, we'll carry on doing it." And Andrew's head of HR literally fell over, like, "What is this?" Right? And people, even the people who were going to be the beneficiaries, and they were all the beneficiaries, but even the kind of lower level staff, were like, "Is this a trick? What's going on? How is this going to work?" So they spent a few months preparing, it actually made them all think about productivity more, how are we going to make ourselves more productive? They came up with all sorts of strategies, some of them really simple things like, you know, everyone has a little pot on their desk, you can put a white flag in it when you've got the white flag, that means you don't want to be interrupted, things like that. And they tried it, and I spent, I interviewed everyone who worked in their office in Rotorua, and this experiment was studied by Dr. Helen Delaney, who's at the University of Auckland Business School. And what they found is, the company achieved more in four days than they had in five. Right? Productivity massively went up, stress massively went down, social media use at work massively went down. And it was fascinating talking to the staff there, about what they did. One of the things they did is they just slept more. Some of them didn't take five days, they didn't take four days, what they did is they did five days, but they did six hours a day instead of eight hours a day. They slept more, they rested more, they were able to switch their brains off from work, which if you're going and going and going, it's very, very hard to do. And I remember interviewing them, I think, can this be true? Actually, lots of places have done these experiments with four day weeks. And a lot of tech companies offering it now as an inducement, but a lot of places did these experiments. So Microsoft in Japan went to a four day week, their productivity went up by 40%. Toyota in Gothenburg moved all their mechanics to a six hour day, and they produced 114% more in six hours than they had in eight. Profits went up by 25%. In a way, it sounded too good to be true, right? And I went to interview this guy, Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, who's at the University of Stanford, who's an expert, one of the leading experts in the world, on organizational behavior. They're saying, well, how can that be? And he said that it's not a difficult. Ask any sports team, do you want your team to go onto the pitch, exhausted, worn out? No. Every sports fan wants their team to go onto the pitch, well rested, well slept. You know, so that experiment, again, we want always think about it at these two levels. What can individuals do? There's a lot. And there's the collective level where we can make it possible for people to make more personal changes. Quick one. I can't talk about fuel enough in my life, especially right now. And it's really interesting, because what we tend to see at this time of year is the first thing that goes is our diet quickly followed by our fitness. And we see that in the data across multiple surveys. People in the fourth quarter of the year start indulging a little bit more, which is totally fine. And they start exercising a little bit less, which is totally fine. However, a really useful crutch during this period where the seasons have changed and we're starting to behave a little bit differently, is making sure your fridge is stocked with things that are nutritionally complete, healthy, and that are going to be convenient for you to consume without compromising your health. And that is where, ladies and gentlemen, fuel comes in. And they now have four brand new flavors. They have the salted caramel flavor, absolutely love. They have the cinnamon swale flavor, the number one new flavor in my opinion, which is really surprising. Iced coffee caramel, and they have the strawberries and cream flavor. If you're going to try any of the new flavors, please do try the cinnamon swale and let me know what you think. It's an absolutely unexpected champion of the new flavors. Writers, you're a writer.
The importance of reading physical books (53:54)
That's one thing you talk about. You talk about why reading is important, and there's been a macro decay in our reading. And as I read that, I thought, why is reading so important? What role does a reading play? We all consume information digitally. Now, why do we need to go back to reading stuff? There's a few reasons. And it's not, again, not a snooty thing at all. So you're absolutely right. The reading is mass reading books is massively declined. 57% of Americans now never read a book in any given year. It's the first time in the history of the American Republic. That's the case. We're still a bit better than that in Britain, but not by much. And there's several people who really help me to understand this, and what that's doing to us. That's partly a symptom of our declining attention and partly a cause of it. And I talk a bit about how. Same to be a woman called Professor Anne Mangan is at Stavanga University in Norway, who's a professor of literacy and probably the leading expert in the world on these questions. I should explain lots of things, but there's one very simple one. You can do studies. There's been loads of studies showing this now. So you get group people, you split them randomly into two. The first group, let's see, you could do it with my book. You give one group of people my book on the iPad, like your iPad there, and the other group you give the physical book, right? And then you go back to them a week a month, a year later, and you just ask them questions about the book. And it turns out, invariably, the people who've read it on the screen remember significantly less and understand significantly less of what they read. This is a very well proven effect. It's called Screen Inferiority. It's such a big effect. If you take a 10-year-old child, it's the equivalent of two-thirds of their progress in reading in a year is lost when they're reading on a screen. That's how much it diminishes our ability to think. And it seems to be, there's a big debate about why. But when you read, let's say we opened the BBC News site now and you read the same story. When we read on a screen, what we tend to do is read in a sort of skimming z pattern. You sort of skim in key words, right? When you read a book, generally, we read linearly. We read from left to right, you know, and you keep going. But part of the problem is, if you spend too much time reading on screens, when you read a book, you start doing that when you read books, and it screws with your ability to read books. But the truth is, I think it's something more subtle, right? So there's this Marshall McLuhan, was this kind of professor in the 60s, who said this famous thing that I never understood for years. He said the medium is the message, right? And what he meant was, when a new medium comes along, he was talking about television. So a new way of telling stories and thinking about the world comes along. You know, you can tell him your television and you can watch the wire or wheel of fortune or anything in between, right? The medium of television itself has a message in it, right? Irrespective of the show you're watching on the television. So the medium of television, the message is the world is very fast. It's all happening at the same time. We can all think about things you get from watching TV, the way you feel if you want, and I love TV, things you feel when you watch TV. But I think there's a medium in the message of social media, right? So let's think about Twitter. When you open Twitter, doesn't matter if you're Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or I know, Baba the Love's buttons, right? There is a message you're absorbing about how the world should be. I would say the message is, firstly, the world should be interpreted and thought about very quickly, right? Quick, quick, quick. It should be interpreted very briefly. Anything worth saying can be said in very short little bursts. It's binary. And exactly. And what matters, the thing that is most important is whether people immediately agree with this very fast, very short thing you've said, right? That is the message hidden in the medium of Twitter, right? Think about Instagram. What's the message hidden in the medium of Instagram? It's what really matters is whether you look good, and whether people like how you look, right? That's it. That's the message. What's the message in Facebook? The message is, okay, friendship, which is the most precious human thing, friendship is looking at other people's photographs of their life, that you should narrate your life to your friends through images and crave their likes, and that that's what friendship is, mutually watching each other's carefully collected paparazzi images of each other, and liking them. Now, I think all those messages are wrong. That is a terrible way to live your life, right? It is not true that life should be interpreted quickly, the one. Actually, if people immediately agree with what you're saying, what you're saying probably didn't need to be said at all, right? Yeah, I like pretty people, Instagram, fine, okay? But if that's the thing that you overweight your life towards, something's really gone wrong, and friendship, a true friendship is nothing like a Facebook friendship. But think about the message, the reason I say this in relation to reading is, think about the message in the book, right? The printed book, what is a printed book say to you? Firstly, the world is complicated, and you might want to take a good bit of time to think about one thing. Secondly, it says, you should slow down, slow down. Look at this thing that will be saying the same thing a hundred years from now, as it says right now, right? And thirdly, it says, you might want to spend time thinking about the inner lives of other people, because the inner lives of other people are really interesting, and you'll find that they're like you in some ways and unlike you in others, right? So I would say take care what technologies you absorb, because over time, your consciousness will come to resemble those technologies. You know, you want to have had a life of meaning and purpose, where you engage with complex things, where you showed empathy, where you showed love. These are not, these are things that the current model of social media absolutely militates against, and the books help with, they're not the solution, there's lots of things going on. But I deeply believe in the medium of the book. I completely agree. One of the, when I started writing my book, I thought it was insanity, the concept of a book, because I'd grown up in that social media area, where you get instant feedback, etc, etc. And one of the like really profound things I discovered with a book is, because there's no comment section.
Negativity bias (01:00:17)
No, like really, I think about a book, if it had a comment section below it, the comment section for a book exists on some, a website, a million miles away, maybe in reviews, and that really never looked at them. So when someone's consuming it, they don't get to develop their opinion, based on consensus below. And I've noticed this so many times on Instagram, if I post something and the top comment takes on a certain narrative, everyone below will follow. So for the top, so I do a post, people see it as it, take it as it is. You can then see the behavior of them like going into the comment section, and the minute a certain narrative emerges, which people find interesting, everyone follows that narrative. And then if you've done it before, like many years ago, just remove that comment or hide it, the narrative below changes. And you can see people actually deciding what they think of what you're saying, or whether it's right or wrong, based on the consensus below. But I think you're absolutely right, Stephen. I don't know enough about comment sections, but I think in terms of commentary online, it's actually even worse than what you just said in a lot of cases. And this is an effect of all the effects I learned about in the book. This is one of the one that I think is most harmful. Remember what we were saying before, which I know you know very well, that thing about the business model is to keep people scrolling, right? The minute you stop scrolling, they lose money. All their algorithms are designed with literally one goal, what will keep you scrolling? That's it. That's the goal, right? So as the algorithms and the AI were figuring out what keeps people scrolling, they bumped into, they uncovered a human quirk, which is not the intention of anyone at Facebook or YouTube or any of these places, which is called, it's a very well documented psychological phenomenon called negativity bias, which basically means we will stare at something negative longer than we will stare at something positive. Anyone who's ever been driving down the motorway and passed a car crash knows exactly what I'm talking about. You stare at the car crash longer than you stare at the pretty flowers on the other side of the road, right? And this is, and this is negative bias, goes very deep. A 10 week old baby will stare longer at an angry face than a smiling face. But when this meets algorithms designed to maximize the harvesting of attention, this produces a catastrophic effect. And this was, this is not my view, this is what Facebook itself found in its own internal research, which we've now had leaked. So imagine, imagine this at both a personal level and a political level. So imagine a teenager, a group of teenagers go to a party, one of them goes home and on the bus on the way home, they say, that was a really lovely party. I enjoyed it. Everyone looked great and they were so nice. Another teenager from the same party posts, God, Karen looked like a right slag tonight. Her boyfriend, Jim is a twat. What does the algorithm do? The second one is more like the car crash. People will stare at it longer. The algorithm will promote it in the feed. It will put it much higher. The nice one, that's going to be way down if anyone sees it, right? Now that's disastrous enough that the level of teenagers who've gone to a party. Now imagine at a political level, we don't have to imagine it. Everyone listening remembers who Donald Trump was. So what happened in the 2016 election, what happened in, what's happening all over the world every day, all the time on politics, is we are being stoked to be more angry all the time. The algorithm selects for anger because anger will keep you scrolling, right? And that is destroying our ability to solve problems. And this is not just my view. In the wake of the victory of Brexit and Donald Trump, Facebook internally set up a group of its own data scientists called Common Ground. And we now know what they found because it was leaked. And what their own data scientists said is the Facebook model and the wider business model of social media inevitably causes division and polarization. That this was having catastrophic effects. It's partly what fueled the genocide in Myanmar at Burma. And this was in a, it was actually very striking the way they put it. This was inherent to the Facebook business model. And the only alternative was for Facebook to abandon its business model and adopt what they called an anti-growth model where they said, "We won't grow as a company, but we won't set the world on fire." Right? And there was a very dry, the Wall Street Journal who got leaked to it. They said, their news story said, "After he received this report, Mark Zuckerberg asked that he never be brought any reports like this ever again." Right? So, you know, they know what they're doing. The business model, they're tied to their business model. They're only going to stop doing it when we make them. But this machinery that is amping us up into anger is just at a personal, firstly, destroys attention. When you're angry, it's much harder to pay attention. We all, we've all had that experience, but there's good science for it as well. But also it's, it's devastating for the society. And we've got to deal with that.
Angry humans in an angry machine (01:05:07)
I remember doing a study in, I think, 2017, I remember the year when Trump got elected, which I presented to CoCoA, where I looked at Hilary Clinton's online reach on Crimson Hexagon versus Trump's. And it was like 12, he was reaching 12 times, 12 to 15 times more people with his message because it was centered in really polarizing inflammatory stuff. And the algorithm is just sending that, whereas indifference just doesn't move on social media. It's like a tree falling in the forest with no one there. Well, not even indifference, reasonable arguments. So, CoCoA who cares, you know, like, who's that going to bang with? It doesn't resonate with anybody. So the tribe can't pick it up and move it for you. So you're right, like the fear and anything sort of polarizing moves really, really well. But I would say, I think it's a really important point. And I thought a lot about it when I was working on Stolen Focus. I think there are obvious, and I know you know this much better than I do, there are huge other human motivators than fear and anger that we can build algorithms around, right? So more compelling than fear though? Oh, well, at the moment, precisely because this rage can be drilled into and monetized, that's why we need regulations to stop that hacking of the worst aspect of our characters, which not to say there are legitimate things to be angry about there are, and building algorithms around better things, right? And that's why, you know, people in favor of progressive change, like ending racism in policing, which is an urgent cause, actually the emotion we appeal to most is not rage. The emotion we appeal to most, those of us who believe in that cause, is hope and love and empathy, right? The very, why, why, if you look at, even if you think about left-wing anger versus right-wing anger, why do these algorithms boost right-wing anger much more than left-wing anger? And there's, again, this is leaked by Facebook, we know this. It's because ultimately, when you're in favor of progressive change, you can't just be angry, you have to have a hopeful vision of the future. Do you see what I mean? Yeah. And we can build this machinery around encouraging and rewarding hope. At the moment, we have it, we're all plugged in to what Maggie Haberman, the New York Times Journalist, called an anger-based video game, right? That's basically what Twitter is. And Facebook, there's an amazing study by the Pew Research Institute that found that for every word of moral outrage you add to a Facebook status update, you double the likes and shares, right? The words that most supercharged sharing and views on YouTube are hates, destroys, and obliterates, right? Now, that is a machinery. If you plug people into that anger-based machinery for large parts of the day, the anger doesn't go away when they put the phone down, right? It's not like a release valve, it's like taking a drug that amps you up, right? And you're seeing that. And that is degrading our individual attention, because angry people pay attention much less well. It's draining our ability to think, but it's also degrading our collective attention, right? You see this how we're tribalizing around COVID. You can see it's in all sorts of ways, the ways we're tribalizing and turning on each other, about things that actually we have perfectly sensible solutions to. Do you think that it's anger-based machinery? Or do you think it's plugging angry humans into machinery? Because I think if you just created an algorithm which had no bias at all, and you said, you know, our objective as YouTube is to show you things that you click on more, it would only take a couple of days for everyone's algorithm to be programmed to show them fearful things, because as you said about the fear bias we have, and the prehistoric evolutionary reasons why we would want to know that there was a line behind the rock versus one caring if there was an ant behind the rock, that eventually, because we are fear-avoiding humans, we basically would train in any algorithm eventually just to show us the scary shit. So there are definitely interesting interests on Harris. I talked to him a lot about this, the former Google engineer. There are lots of alternative ways you can structure these apps, right? So to give an obvious one, you could just turn off the YouTube recommendations. It's not like before they existed, we were all going, "What will I watch next? What will I do?" We weren't suddenly at a lot. Just, as Tristan says, just turn it off. If the only way it can work is that it fucks people up, turn it off, we don't need it. It's not that important. Or an alternative is, and there are all sorts of other ways the other ones could be structured. So Twitter, and we don't have to think hypothetically, Twitter used to be chronological, right? If you follow 200 people, you open Twitter, the first thing you would see is the most recent thing that one of the 200 people you follow posted, right? You'll notice Twitter doesn't do that anymore. It now has an algorithm that selects precisely for the things we're talking about. It means Twitter has become even more toxic, and even more hateful, and it wasn't that good at the start, right? So again, just go back to the chronological algorithm. You need a lot more changes than that. That in itself would be better. So there's all sorts of algorithms. You'd have to do it to every technology company, though, because... No, you don't. This is the thing. You have to change the incentives, and then they will do it, right? At the moment, all of their incentives, you've got all these smart engineers, and they've got one incentive. How do I take Stephen's attention the absolute most I can, right? Now, you change the incentive. They don't work for you. Remember, they work for the advertisers who... When the incentives change, then obviously their behavior changes, right? Any business when they're incentive changes. If they want to please you rather than pleasing the advertiser, then of course the market will then provide all sorts of ways. The market, the competition... At the moment, the competition is how do I maximally invade your attention? If we move to a new business model, the competition is, what does Stephen actually want? I Stephen wants to know where his friends are, so we can have a drink with them. I can't give him that button. What's does Stephen want? Stephen wants to meditate. Oh, we're giving that button. You can see how once they're figuring out what you want, not what the advertisers want. Then of course the market begins to experiment and there'll be a thousand innovations and maybe some of those innovations will go awry and have other negative effects and we'll have to stop them doing that. Just like, there might be a new form of paint that's even worse than lead paint. All right, we'll ban that and we'll stick with the one that doesn't screw people up. It feels like running around with a fire extinguisher like spring fight. It absolutely will be if we don't change the incentives, right? Is that a government decision? And what would the legal intervention be? It's very straightforward. You ban the specific mechanism of surveilling people in order to harvest their information and sell that to them. It's not that's not complicated. It's not a legally difficult thing to do. It's a politically difficult thing to do, right? We have to take on these companies. Paul Graham, one of the leading Silicon Valley investors, said the world will be far more addictive in the next 40 years than it was in the last 40. Think about something as simple, a couple of simple things. Facebook has already patented a technology that could read your emotions through your camera on your phone and your laptop, right? You can see how that adds an extra layer of how they can invade your attention. Think about something called, and I learned about this from a Zoraskin, think about something called a style transfer, a really simple concept. Some people might have seen it in like, there's like machines that do it in arcades in the US. So you can take a photo, any photo, and you can run it through a style transfer program that will remake that image in the style of Vincent van Gogh for Monet, or you can name a painter, right? So it'll just redo that picture in that style, the style transfer. But style transfer can be used in a very different way. Gmail, totally legally now, could scan all of your Gmail, the AI would, of course, the human being doesn't read it, scan all of your Gmail and figure out the patterns of words and the ways of talking that you reply to, you respond to most, right? And then it can sell that to advertisers. So advertisers know to approach you using the kind of words that are uniquely persuasive to you, right? Now that's going to happen if we don't regulate that technology exists. Imagine a thousand things like that are going to be happening. So it's not even like we'll stay at the current level of technological invasion. There's essentially a race on this aspect of the attention crisis between the increasingly invasive forces of technology, which will get more and more potent and are more potent this year than they were last year and will definitely be more potent a year from now. There's that and then there's the movement of people who are trying to restrain this and to deal with the other causes of the attention crisis. And to me, it's a race, right? And it might seem like a really big thing, a movement. What does that mean? When I think about that, I think about... Can I ask you that? Are you optimistic?
Is there hope? (01:13:41)
Because I am absolutely not. And one of the most compelling reasons that I am not optimistic about there being any practical, effective changes, because I watched the Senate hearing when they brought in Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and the CEO of all of these big companies, Jeff Bezos, etc. And the people who are making the laws didn't have a fucking clue about any social platform at all. And it was like parody. In fact, the videos went viral on all social networks of these plus 60 year old senators trying to get their head around what WhatsApp was. Well, they were basically saying things like, "I can't find the password for my phone. How do I get it?" And they just... They were trying to get the tech guy at Apple. And you could see Zuckerberg and Dorsey just like... If you look close enough, you'd see the smirk in the corner of their mouth because they were just like mentally bullying them. They have no idea about these technologies. And I'll be honest, as someone that's worked in this industry for a very long time, since probably one of the few people that's been like all deep in this since it began, sometimes when I hear people speaking about the risks of technology and the data conversation and all of these things, I think, "Oh, you've literally just got your opinion from like reading the newspaper and it's so much deeper." And if you just flick that switch, then the cascading impact, which you don't understand because you can't see the full picture, is actually, "This will just happen." And so when I think about the people making the laws, this is kind of my conclusive point, they have no idea what they're talking about. Like, so you bait... And then the conclusion is, so you have to go and get people from the industry to make the laws. There is no way Boris Johnson or anyone around Boris Johnson, and I've met some of these people, could make any real effective change to legislation, as you say when you're talking about a race, in time for that industry not to develop and change. They're probably still trying to figure out the newsfeed, whereas these big corporations are now talking about machine learning and AI, and they just will never keep up and they've never been able to. And now we've got the metaverse coming. And they're still trying to figure out if Snapchat is filters are okay, and now we're racing off into the metaverse. There's, for my opinion, there is no possible chance that technology and the pace of change will be slower than the pace of effective legislation. When I have that thought, and that thought obviously crosses my mind fairly often, I think about something very specific that happened in my family, will have happened in your family, will have happened in the families of everyone listening, it's to some degree. So I'm 42. When my grandmothers were 42 years old, I think about what the world was like, right? So one of my grandmothers was a working class Scottish woman, and one of my grandmothers was a Swiss woman living on a mountain, it's what would be called sort of a peasant then, right? It was legal for them to be raped by their husbands. They were not allowed to have bank accounts because they were married women in their own names. My Swiss grandmother didn't even have the vote. She needed written permission to work outside the home, which her husband would not give her. At that time, nowhere in the world was there a woman who ran a company, was there a woman who ran a country, it was one country, was there a woman who ran a police force? In fact, there were almost no women police officers, senior women police officers. In Britain, 4% of members of parliament were women. Every institution in the whole world was run by men, and had been since they were created, right? And because ordinary people changed the culture, that created pressure on the politicians to change the society. So now, no politician would propose anything like going back to 1962, 1963 for women's rights. It would be unthinkable that even the most far out UKIP candidate, if they suggested that would have to stand down, right? So it's cultural change, and just like the feminist movement reclaimed women's right to their bodies and still has work to do as we know, we need an attention movement to reclaim our minds, right? We can do some of it individually, but a lot of it we can do together at the moment. It's like someone is pouring itching powder over us all day, and then the person pouring itching powder on us is going, mate, you might want to learn to meditate, it'll stop you scratching so much, right? I mean, I'm in favor of meditation, it's a good thing, but someone's going to have to take on the fuckers who are pouring the itching powder on us, right? We've got to do both. So interesting, because if you take on the fuckers that are pouring the itching powder, there's like some knock on effects. And I can see I was thinking then about why Boris Johnson wouldn't want to impose. I was thinking as well about recommendation algorithms, which you discussed. Netflix has one, YouTube has one, TikTok has one, everything. Everything on my phone seems to have a recommendation algorithm to get me to buy something, hang around longer, whatever, trying to serve me better, under the guise of trying to serve me better. Netflix wants to serve you better because you are the customer. So Netflix doesn't feed you in raging things. Netflix doesn't show you the film that will wind you up the most, right? Because you are the customer for Netflix. On Facebook, TikTok and the others, you're not the customer. That's why it feeds you the stuff that angers you, maximally invades your attention. So there's an important distinction between those two, right? And they're both have the same incentive, which is they say they are, I mean, Netflix famously said our only competitor is sleep. Yeah, Rex Hastings, the head of Netflix said that, yeah. Yeah. So if like Boris was to turn around today and says I'm going to ban recommendation algorithms or whatever, the issue he has is it sounds like that would hurt our chance of innovation in a global landscape where other countries haven't got those bands. And so that would just mean that UK tech companies were worse. Yeah, we got to have bigger movements, but I actually get to exact opposite. A society of people who can't focus, can't pay attention, are thinking in 65 second bursts is not going to be an innovative society, right? There's a reason why China, although I strongly opposed the communist tyranny in China, don't get me wrong, why China has just banned the amount of kids or very tightly restricted, the amount of time kids can spend on video games each week and don't allow any of these algorithms on way by way by way by the other things or tightly regulate them would be more accurate way of putting it, right? So if our goal is as a country to be a country that's innovative, my God, country people who can think is going to be innovative, country of adult people flicking between WhatsApp, Snapchat and TikTok ain't going to be a place full of innovation, right? So I think, of course, it's a job of explaining to people if it was done out of the blue now, people would be baffled, right? So in the same way that in, you know, 1962, what you think about even just gay people in 1962, literally nobody including gay people suggested gay marriage, it wasn't saying anyone even thought of, right? Because it'd be like, it'd be so bizarre, you know, at that point, well, a little bit before that, being gay was a crime, right? So as you build, would you start to become more sophisticated and have more ambitious goals? So at the moment, we're starting from a very basic level. There's a really interesting study that was done by a guy called Mahateri Eslami at the University of Illinois, where he just got a load of Facebook users and just explained the algorithm to them. And 62% of them didn't know what an algorithm was before he taught them through it. One of them compared it to the moment when Keanu Reeves and the Matrix finds out he's living in a simulation, right? It blew their minds. So we're obviously at a very basic level, but in terms of education, because we haven't been explained, I didn't know most of this stuff before I did the research for style and focus, and I didn't know about all the other causes of things that are invading our attention, including some that are much bigger actually than even this. So we have to do the work of education, we have to understand the advantage I think we've got is this isn't like explaining quantum physics to someone, right? We could stop anyone in the street here in East London and explain this to them and they are going to get it, right? They can feel this happening, they can see it happening around them. So it's not that there's in a sense, the dissatisfaction and unhappiness with all this is at the surface. All we need to do is help people to understand what they can do with that dissatisfaction. That this isn't just, it's not a personal failing on your parts, really important people to understand that. If your response to this is going, "Oh, I'm just shit, I'm weak, I'm, you know, A, that's, they would love you to think that," right? They look, there's a constant process of trying to transfer the blame down to you, right? So it's partly to understand it's not your fault, it's partly to understand it's not even the fault of technology, it's the fault of specific aspects about how our technology works that we can change in practical ways. That's, those are the two things I think it's really important people to understand about the current, I mean, there's many other things and other ways we can protect ourselves by having more knowledge. But I think it's essential for us to understand that because it's, you're right, it's very easy to get into a disempowered, "Oh, this is so big." But I'll tell you what, my grandmother's in 1962 would have a lot more reason to be to think things could never change than we do about tech, right? I mean, if you had shown my grandmother's mind, it's life, it would have been unthinkable. These things can totally change. James Williams, the Google engineer, I quoted before said to me once, you know, the axe existed for 1.4 million years before anyone thought to put a handle on it. The entire web has only existed for less than 10,000 days. We can change this thing if we want to, right? We're humans and it's also about a different disposition to this. We're not broken people and we are not like medieval peasants begging at the court of Kings Zuckerberg for a few little crumbs of attention from his table. We are the free citizens of democracies. We own our minds, we own our societies and we can take them back if we want to. We have to decide, do we value attention? People who've got children and there's about a quarter of the book is about how we're fucking up our kids' attention and there's loads of really important things we need to know about that that are very different from how our schools work, what our kids eat, to the deprivation of children being able to play. But people who've got children, do you want your child to be able to focus? Do you want your child to be able to read books? Do you want your child to be able to think deeply? Do you want your life to have a your child to have a life full of flow states? Of course you do. Okay, we've got to fix the society and culture to give them those things. I feel like everyone listening to that will agree and they'll all say that's a problem. I agree, I want to make that change. But I think movements need a really specific objective for people to rally around and that objective is ultimately what they're kind of taking to their legislators, all their politicians to say this is the thing we want to change. So I would suggest three very specific, if we're going to have an attention, a movement, an attention movement and there's already lots of elements of this fight going on and I go through in the book who they are and how people can join them. I would say initially three goals. Ban this is called surveillance capitalism. Ban the surveillance capitalism business model just they cannot track you, invade you, profile you, and sell your attention to advertisers and ban it. Very easy to do. You can write the legislation in a day, right? That's number one. Number two, I would say a four day working week. The evidence is very clear. We are exhausted. We are overworked. We are underslept. Give people back time, right? COVID was the first time our society has slowed down. We've been accelerating for a long time. Now we slowed down because of a tragedy and of course, none of us would have wished for it to happen this way. But of course, there were many people who were not able to slow down like health workers. But a lot of people found a real relief in the slowness that came from COVID, right? We've got to slow the society down. Speed destroys attention. There's really good evidence for this. And the third thing is we need to restore childhood. Only 10% of children play outside their home without adult supervision ever. Play is how children learn to pay attention. It's how they learn to learn a whole body of skills come from play, also just exercise, massively boost your attention. And we've deprived our children of exercise. That's even before COVID. Obviously, COVID made it even worse for all the obvious reasons. So I would say there's three very straightforward goals. Two of them can be done with legislation in a day, right? Now, of course, it takes a big fight to prepare the ground for people to want those things, but they are achievable. They'll make our lives better, not just in terms of attention, but in so many ways. So I'm optimistic in the sense that there have been bigger challenges than this. And human beings met those challenges. Also, I think we have to be optimistic because if we don't deal with this, I don't think we can deal with the bigger crises, right? Think about the climate crises. A group of people, a species that cannot pay attention, that cannot focus, and that interacts primarily through mediums that promote false claims and lies. So an MIT study found that 19 of the 20 most shared stories on Facebook in the 2016 election were untrue, like a false claim that the pope had endorsed Donald Trump. 19 out of 20, just not true, right? If we can't get our focus and our ability to distinguish truth from falsehood back, how are we ever going to deal with the climate crisis? How are we ever going to deal with any of the problems that faces? How are we going to deal with our own personal problems, right? We can't do that. So this is the necessary step we have to take. I think as an individual, if you're facing problems, the first step is if you can't pay attention to the things that matter, you're fucked. What can you do? You can't do anything. You're just like a flailing animal on a beach, right? Which is what I always look like on a beach anyway. But so attention is the prerequisite to any achievement, I think. The last thing I was actually really surprised to find in Stolen Focus was you talking about food.
Food is messing up our focus (01:27:35)
In Lost Connections, you talk about junk values, but in Stolen Focus, you actually talk about junk food. And there's the quote installed in Focus where you say we should endeavor to eat what our grandparents would have eaten, what they would have considered real food. I loved that, it really resonates with me. And I've been on a bit of a crusade to try and live a little bit more human and unless 2020 may be a little bit more, I don't know, 9,000 BC or whatever that was. So why did you feel the need to talk about junk food and food in a book about attention? This is one of the causes that I learned about that I did not see coming. And it was only when I was reading a lot of the science, I was saying, "Oh wait." So there's three ways in which the current diet we eat, which is completely different to what all humans before I was ate. I mean, it's been an extraordinary transformation in a very short period of time is damaging our attention. So Dale Pinock, who's one of Britain's leading nutritionists, you should have him on actually, he's a really interesting guy, Dale. So Dale explained to me that the and other scientists have shown that the diet we eat causes very rapid release of energy and very rapid crashes in energy, which causes brain fog, which ruins your focus. So say, for example, you have, and by the way, I wanted to say I'm completely hypocrite saying this, I literally had a McDonald's on the way here. So any sense of superiority, let's say you have frosties and white bread for breakfast. Well, that releases a huge amount of glucose, gives you a massive rush of energy, feels great for about 20 minutes. And then you're sitting at your desk, or you're kids sitting at a desk, and the glucose crashes and you're just in brain fog. So one way is it, the way Dale puts it is, if you put rocket fuel into a mini, it would go really fast for a minute, and then it would just putter out. And we're basically doing that. And as he put it to me, if you're eating sort of shitty carbohydrates every meal, you're doing that yourself again, and again, and again, all throughout the day. The second way in which it harms our attention, our current diet deprives us of nutrients that are necessary for your brain to develop, right? There's an interesting study by Dutch scientists, where they got a bunch of kids, they did the several times and it replicated well, they got a bunch of kids, and they put one of them on what they called an eliminationist diet, where they basically didn't eat any processed food, and the other group of kids just ate normally. And the kids that were put on a, with a cut out all the processed food and all of that, that 70% of them had significant improvements in their attention, and their average improvement in attention was 50%. So really big improvement. The third cause is that it's not just that our food lacks things we need, is that it contains things that act on us like drugs. There's a really shocking study on this. It's done in Southampton here in Britain in 2007. They got nearly 300 kids, they were seven-year-olds and 12-year-olds, and they split them into two groups. And the first group was given a drink that just contained dyes that exist in normal food like M&M's, you know, synthetic dyes. And the other group, I think, I can't remember if it was just water or it was some kind of flavoring that doesn't contain these dyes. And then they were monitored. And the kids that drank the dyes, that kids are eating every day and I'm eating every day, were significantly more likely to have attention problems, struggle focusing. So you've got these three ways, and you mentioned, you know, this big change about how our ancestors ate. I mean, when I was a, as I said, my dad's from Switzerland, he grew up in this little hut in a mountain in Switzerland. And when I was a kid, starting when I was nine, my dad that bastard sent me, his very nice man in many ways, sent me every summer to go and stay on this farm where he'd grown up. He's like, "God was a farm, you're a bit of a come-a-man," he said. And I would arrive there. And to me, this was like, I grew up in Edgware, right? Suddenly we're on a Swiss mountain. It's like, what's happening, right? And I remember my grandparents ate how almost all humans, in all almost all of our history of eating, they would grow their own food and they would kill their own animals, right? And eat them. And remember my grandmother used to just put food in front of me. I remember the, I remember very clearly the first day I was there looking at it because I grew up, you know, I was raised mostly by my Scottish grandmother, working class Scottish woman, I grew up eating microwave chips and fried food and, you know, and I remember looking at the food my Swiss grandmother gave me and literally saying, "Where is the food? This isn't food." And then just being completely puzzled. So for like two weeks, I ate almost nothing and then finally she cracked and took me to the McDonald's in Zurich, which threw far away. And I remember I was sitting at McDonald's and her looking at it and her saying, "But this isn't food. What are you talking about? She just couldn't understand why I would want to eat it." And so in two generations, there was a huge change. We went from eating mostly fresh nutritious food to mostly most British and American people, most of their diet now consists of processed or ultra-processed food, which is just really different. It's just very different. I mean, the food writer Michael Pollan, who I know, said, "We shouldn't call it food. We should call it food-like substances because it doesn't resemble food." Now, again, this is one of the other causes a bit like the four-day week. I can tell you all the facts. Can I do it? No. You know, I mean, I'm a bit better than I was, but only a bit. So to end, we're going to continue with our new tradition, which is asking you the question that our previous guest left for you.
Our last guests question (01:33:02)
And the previous guest that sat here wrote in the diary, "What was the best conversation you ever had and why?" Oh, that's a very good question. I'm not meant to talk about this, but I'll talk a little bit about it. I am going to get emotional, but most of the most I try not to. The last 10 years, I've been researching a book about a series of crimes that have been happening in Las Vegas, and I'm not meant to talk about it too much. And there's a couple who lived beneath Caesar's palace in the drainage tunnel beneath Caesar's palace called Tommy and Shay, who I got to know incredibly well, who are two of the people I've most loved in my life. I remember standing above where their tunnel is and Shay just saying, "All these people, they're so much closer to where we are than they think, not just physically, but a few things go wrong, and in that society, you're in a fucking tunnel." And I remember that night with Tommy and Shay, and I must have worried that I think I was with them for like 12 hours that day. I think that's one of the best conversations I ever had there. Shay is so wise. Tommy was so funny, and they taught me so much about, in all the years I knew them, for how to be a person. And Tommy was murdered last year. It's one of the reasons why I spent a lot of the plague in Vegas, because I've been trying to help Shay and figure out what's going on, what happened. And I think that's one of the best conversations in my life. I think they are they taught me to think about life differently. And every day I integrate some lesson that Tommy taught me. And I think that's one night. I mean, there's so many nights we spent together, but that's one night that really stands out for me. I'm not going to get lots of others, but that's the one that, you know. It's amazing. The remarkable thing about your writing, which makes it so engaging and compelling, is it isn't a sign to shouting facts and figures at you, which I just, as someone that struggles to read anyway, I have to have a captivating emotional journey to take me through these subjects for me to be able to ingrain them in my conscious. So your books all do that, especially this one, especially Lost Connections, which is one of my all time favorite books, by the way. But Stolen Focus is an amazing, somewhat linked sequel in many respects and on many topics to that book. And that was my favorite ever. And this is now one of my favorite books as well, because it's one of the books that I managed to actually read in the last year, because of the way you write. And that's a huge credit to you. There's a reason I always bring you back on this podcast. I love these conversations. And you've been an off camera. You probably should be a comedian because you're so hilarious, but on camera, you're such an intelligent human being. Off camera, you're funny. Off camera, you're not so off camera, you're not so smart. But you're an incredible human being. And I love, I love having you here. So thanks again for giving me this time. And I'm so glad that we're able to have this conversation because it's such an important one. And one that I need, I needed in my life. So I really appreciate you, how deeply you pay attention to the book. And I'm meant to say, or my publishers will tell me that anyone who wants to know where to get the audio book, the e-book or the physical book can go to stolumfocusbook.com. And on the website, you can listen for free to loads of the experts. We talked about like the guy who discovered flow states, all these Google experts, a ton of people. And I'm meant to read something where I say like, read it. Also, I can't bring myself to it. It makes me sound like a twat. Something like, you can find out what Stephen Fry, Hillary Clinton, and many other leading experts thought about the book. Something like that. Hillary Clinton's read the book. She has, she's something of a very nice thing about it. She's, yeah. And lots, I mean, so sad, there's an alternate universe where Hillary Clinton is in her second term as president. And unfortunately, instead she's in a world where she has to read my book instead. But the, I would rather live in the, I'd rather live in a bit where we got to skip Trump button and mind. And the, yeah. So, and you can get the book in all good book shops. You can even get it in ship book shops. And it's out right now. It's available. It's just come out. So go and read it. Thank you so much, Stephen. I really enjoyed this. Thank you. Honestly, it's a ton to me that you can do this again and now. Oh, totally my pleasure. I'm going to love this.