Attention Poverty (How to Focus)

Author Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence, Focus, etc.) taught that the wealth of information at our disposal has led to a poverty of attention.

You can research anything you want, distract yourself with the latest game, or scroll endlessly through YouTube. Access to unlimited information has made it almost impossible to think, let alone focus for any length of time, and we’re suffering from the effects of this attention poverty.

We’ve become mentally poor.

Attention Poverty and billboards

Last summer, I took my wife to Paris. We were there for ten blissful days. I rented a car so that we could admire Monet’s home and the beautiful countryside.

Do you want to know what’s fascinating about that trip? I drove four hours out of town, took a separate road back so that we could see different sites, and then spent ten full days in Paris. After all that driving, how many billboards do you think I saw?


It was a small sign in the heart of Paris advertising a movie. That’s it.

I’m used to seeing billboards everywhere in America. I’m also used to constant notifications, emails, and the ability to research anything I want – whenever I want. The possibilities are endless, and because of that, I find it hard to focus.

Reading is the antidote

I believe that reading is the best training tool for an unfocused mind. For the first ten minutes of every reading session, my brain wanders like Dory on Finding Nemo. I can’t seem to stay on the page and I often have to re-read passages. Those first ten minutes are almost always discouraging.

It’s like I’ve forgotten how to think.

But then, if I stick with it, my brain seems to give up on its neurotic behavior and accepts the words in front of me. If I’m studying a challenging text, the ideas start to clarify, and if it’s fiction, I can hear the character’s voices.

Why does this happen? A book is one of the few tools at your disposal encouraging you to focus. It does not ask you to do more than one thing at a time like your boss at work. A book doesn’t let you click on hyperlinks that lead down rabbit holes, ping you with notifications, or ring when your family needs something.

A book is quite the opposite. It pulls you in instead of sending you away. This takes practice. As I said, the first few minutes of every reading session is a challenge for me. My monkey brain is bouncing off the wall, but after a few pages, the monkey goes to sleep and the intellect dusts itself off.

Reading is one of the last tools we have to save ourselves from attention poverty. It takes work to be a reader, but the effort (and focus) are well worth it.

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