Columns | Kane County Chronicle

Holinger: ‘Stolen Focus:’ Why our attention spans couldn’t bridge a creek

I was innocently washing the dishes while listening to a recorded book downloaded from the library to my phone when my wife, Tia, started scolding me.

“You’re always listening to something or watching TV or scrolling Facebook.”

When she finished castigating me, I instantly resented her accusation. After all, filling in time with novels, Al Franken podcasts and the new David Sedaris essay collection beat thinking about whether I’d polished the plates from dinner shiny enough to put them in the dishwasher, or, as I call it, the drying rack.

As soon as she left, I turned my book back on at a low volume so she couldn’t hear my trespass. This time I got an earful from the book’s author, Johann Hari, as I listened to “Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention – and How to Think Deeply Again.”

Oh, the irony! Here I’d been agreeing with Hari that screens and the internet (social media, emails, video games, Google, etc.) manipulate our vulnerable minds to their nefarious commercial ends, robbing us of our precious ability to concentrate for more than five minutes on books and stealing our ability to let our minds wander.

I was guilty of precisely the behavior Hari was warning me about.

So, I reflected, how had I become addicted to Wi-Fi’s Sunday buffet? Why did I stuff myself with information while starving my creativity?

Our parents allowed my brothers and I only half an hour of TV on weeknights and one hour on weekends. Inevitably, I’d miss the shows my elementary, then middle school, friends had seen and talked about. Later, at boarding school, I had study hall in my dorm room from after dinner to 9:50, lights out at 10 (no TV).

To be out of the loop, missing “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Rifleman,” meant exclusion, meant feeling like a pariah for not laughing along with Eddie Haskell’s hypocrisy or admiring Lucas McCain’s lethal quick-fire lever action.

Maybe that’s why today I try to keep up with all the Eddies and riflemen, so I won’t feel excluded from the cultural conversation. Maybe that explains the need to feed my brain with books, news, podcasts, cable series and more. Much more. Too much more.

I pay a high price for this obsession, rarely finishing a book because I’ve got 17 more piled waiting. I’m scrolling down Facebook posts like most users (as “Stolen Focus” reveals), drawn to the negative, the controversial, the angry.

My personal Facebook algorithm, designed to lull me into a hypnotic state, knows more about me than my mirror, its computerized list calculated to keep me entranced. The longer I scroll, the more Facebook’s enriched.

Hari predicts a dire future if social media companies and tech industries don’t self-regulate. The catastrophic effects of attention loss include a dramatic rise in ADHD and a decrease in empathy and creative problem-solving.

I’m trying to fight the urge to scroll through Facebook’s infinite posts, binge less and read more, stay informed but stay alert, let my mind play out ideas without being distracted by noise.

Oh, sorry, gotta go. Just heard a ding, meaning a text or email has arrived! Not that I’m like Pavlov’s dogs, salivating on dopamine when my phone or laptop offers a treat.

No. Not me. Never.

• Rick Holinger’s writing has appeared in more than a hundred literary journals. He holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from UIC. His poetry book “North of Crivitz” and essay collection “Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences” are available at local bookstores, Amazon or Contact him at