You might think you’re the only one whose attention span has shrunk in recent years. Yes, Facebook and Twitter in your pocket are part of the problem — with a beep or a vibration notification every few minutes to cue you to look at them again. But the problem is bigger than just you and your supposedly lagging willpower or focus. Let’s kick that around for a couple of paragraphs, then get to the Mo app.
You’re not just losing your focus. It has been stolen. That’s the argument of Johann Hari in Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention — and How to Think Deeply Again (Penguin Random House, 2022). It is an entertaining, informative, easy to read book. It starts with the author’s almost desperate commitment to a digital detox (he put his devices in storage and went to an isolated island for eight weeks) and then follows his many interviews with smart academic types who are researching the various aspects of the problem. It’s not just you, it’s almost everyone. And it’s not just an individual problem, it’s the whole digital system that we are all swallowed up in.
I’ll just list a few of the chapter titles by way of summary.
- Ch. 3: The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion (you don’t get much sleep and you don’t get real vacations anymore)
- Ch. 4: The Collapse of Sustained Reading (screen reading just isn’t the same)
- Ch. 6 and 7: The Rise of Technology That Can Track and Manipulate You (Facebook is not your friend, but neither is any other tech company)
In the second half of the book, Hari offers some solutions. On the individual level, get more rest, eat less junk food, get a lock box for your phone (with a timer, so you can escape your phone and its apps for a few hours), re-learn how to read books instead of screens, and so forth. On the systemic level, it is possible to give tech companies different incentives, so they become more interested in providing apps and services that make us better and more informed. Read the book for the full story. The good news is that you can regain some control over where your eyeballs go and what your brain thinks about. If you think you’ve got a problem, imagine the challenge facing the kids or grandkids. They are surrounded by screens and don’t remember any other way to live. So get the book and read it. Thank me later.
Losing Focus in Church
How does this affect church on Sunday and the church life of the average active Mormon? I’m just going to throw out some ideas and see if they resonate with you. What are potential problems and possible solutions?
First, paying attention in sacrament meeting. Am I the only one who listens to a speaker for two or three minutes, then reaches for the phone to find something more interesting? Or even just do it automatically, almost as a reflex, whether you are looking for something interesting or not? Yes, sixty minutes rather than seventy minutes is an improvement. But the recent practice of trying to make every sacrament meeting talk a rehash of a recent GA General Conference talk doesn’t help at all. Solutions? You could turn off your phone for an hour. You could try harder to listen to the speaker. If you are a speaker, cut out a couple personal stories and throw in a few more scriptures. Don’t regurgitate the talk you were given as a topic. Instead, write your own talk with a hat tip or two to the GA talk.
Second, what about class? A few years ago, there was hope that the new curriculum (which turned out to be Come Follow Me) would improve things. Oh well. Adult Sunday School can very from DOA to actually informative and enjoyable. It mostly depends on the teacher, with the best teachers ignoring the curriculum and just bringing their own good ideas, good research and sources, and positive discussion questions to the class. There are many good teachers in the Church, but not that many get called to teach Gospel Doctrine. So … possible solution: Call better teachers! Move “Gospel Doctrine Teacher” higher on the ward priority list.
Third, what about the youth? I’m thinking youth classes and Seminary. I worry that more and more LDS video snippets are displacing actual engagement with the scriptures. The problem with videos is they are like those TV movies with the “based on a real story” disclaimer. The LDS videos are based (sometimes in a very loose sense) on some scriptural text, but they add a lot of LDS interpretation and fill in a lot of gaps with (let’s be honest) convenient fictions well beyond what is actually said in a given scriptural text. Sometimes a video presents things that simply are not in the text or even that run completely contrary to what’s in the scriptural text. The correlated LDS youth curriculum is to the point that some young Mormons go to college, take a good Introduction to the New Testament class or simply read the New Testament carefully for the first time, and then have the predictable “hold it, say what?” reaction that might just lead them right out of the Church.
Solutions for the youth? Less curriculum management, fewer videos, more deep reading. Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. Maybe do two Seminary days in class (Tuesday and Thursday) and the other days online or just a log in and do a lesson or reading on your own time. Five days of early morning seminary is overkill and wears out a lot of the youth. See Chapter 3, The Rise of Physical and Mental Exhaustion.
So what is your experience? What has worked for you to regain control over your devices and apps? To get back your once-admirable ability to focus? What about church? Is there really a problem or am I on the wrong track? Do we just have less tolerance for boredom than in prior years? Here’s an honest question: Does anyone learn anything in church anymore? When was the last time you actually learned something, a fact or an idea, in church on Sunday? When was the last time your kid said, over Sunday dinner, “Hey, I learned something interesting in class today!”?