Why can't you pay attention anymore?

Psychiatrist Ned Hallowell says it has to do with the relentless chatter from the high-tech devices used in the modern workplace.

It may be the greatest irony of the information age.

All of that data flying at you by e-mail, instant message, cell phone, voice mail and BlackBerry--it could actually be making you dumber.

Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who's studied attention deficit disorder for more than a decade, has identified a related disorder he calls attention deficit trait, and he says it's reaching epidemic proportions in the corporate world. Unlike attention deficit disorder, or ADD, people aren't born with ADT. It's the result, he contends, of the modern workplace, where the constant and relentless chatter coming from our computers, phones and other high-tech devices is diluting our mental powers.

No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing.

Hallowell, formerly a Harvard Medical School faculty member, recently sat down with CNET News.com to talk about ADT as well as when the right times to log off, hang up or take a time-out might be. We paid attention.

Q: What is ADT?
Hallowell: It's sort of like the normal version of attention deficit disorder. But it's a condition induced by modern life, in which you've become so busy attending to so many inputs and outputs that you become increasingly distracted, irritable, impulsive, restless and, over the long term, underachieving. In other words, it costs you efficiency because you're doing so much or trying to do so much, it's as if you're juggling one more ball than you possibly can.

What are some of the symptoms?
Hallowell: When people find that they're not working to their full potential; when they know that they could be producing more but in fact they're producing less; when they know they're smarter than their output shows; when they start answering questions in ways that are more superficial, more hurried than they usually would; when their reservoir of new ideas starts to run dry; when they find themselves working ever-longer hours and sleeping less, exercising less, spending free time with friends less and in general putting in more hours but getting less production overall.

When did you start to notice ADT as a disorder distinct from ADD?
Hallowell: So many people would come to me looking for a diagnosis of ADD, and I noticed some of them didn't really have the condition because it went away completely when they went on vacation, or it went away completely when they went off to a relaxed setting.

In ADD--the true ADD--it doesn't go away, wherever you go. So I realized that these people were having it induced by their work world. When they got to work, then symptoms would start to occur. So that meant that something was going on at work. That something is this overload.

Haven't people always had distractions at work? Is this really anything new?
Hallowell: It's new because never before have we been so able to overload the brain circuitry. We've been able to overload manual labor. But never before have we so routinely been able to overload brain labor.

It's the great seduction of the information age. You can create the illusion of doing work and of being productive and creative when you're not. You're just treading water.
What sort of toll does this disorder take on a person?
Hallowell: Aside from underachievement, you don't ever get the fulfillment of seeing yourself coming up with the ideas you ought to come up with. You don't get the fulfillment that comes from creative activity. You live at a much more surface level.

I imagine it takes a toll on the organization as well.
Hallowell: Absolutely. Organizations are sacrificing their most valuable asset, namely the imagination and creativity of the brains they employ, by allowing ADT to infest the organization. It's not that hard to deal with, once you identify it. You need to set limits and preserve time to think. Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking. And we are not giving ourselves that opportunity.

You say this condition is reaching epidemic proportions. What percentage of the working population suffers from ADT, in your estimation?
Hallowell: I'm guessing now, because I haven't done surveys. But I've done informal surveys at seminars I give. If we're talking about the working population as sort of managers and

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