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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.

Alorie Gilbert Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Alorie Gilbert
writes about software, spy chips and the high-tech workplace.
Alorie Gilbert
8 min read
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

executives in corporations as opposed to people working at Burger King or something, then I think you're talking 30, 35, 40 percent.

You say technology in the form of e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging and so on is fueling this phenomenon. It's ironic that the information age is making a lot of us dimmer, isn't it?
Hallowell: Absolutely. Technology is a great blessing. It is behind much of our progress. But if we're not careful with it, it can start running us ragged. This is the person who spends the day responding to e-mail and voice mail; the person who allows himself to be interrupted by the cell phone during an important meeting; the person who stays up late at night because he can't log off the Internet. We need to take charge of it. Right now, it's taking charge of us. We need to preserve time to stop and think.

If you don't allow yourself to stop and think, you're not getting the best of your brain. What your brain is best equipped to do is to think, to analyze, to dissect and create. And if you're simply responding to bits of stimulation, you won't ever go deep.

Technology is a great blessing. It is behind much of our progress. But if we're not careful with it, it can start running us ragged.
Are some people just better at multitasking than others?
Hallowell: No one really multitasks. You just spend less time on any one thing. When it looks like you're multitasking--you're looking at one TV screen and another TV screen and you're talking on the telephone--your attention has to shift from one to the other. You're brain literally can't multitask. You can't pay attention to two things simultaneously. You're switching back and forth between the two. So you're paying less concerted attention to either one.

I think in general, why some people can do well at what they call multitasking is because the effort to do it is so stimulating. You get adrenaline pumping that helps focus your mind. What you're really doing is focusing better at brief spurts on each stimulus. So you don't get bored with either one.

You have cited software maker SAS as an example of a company actively promoting a more connected, humane workplace, with perks like a seven-hour workday and on-site day care. The interesting thing is that it is a private company and doesn't have to answer to Wall Street. Aren't most publicly traded companies too paranoid and bottom-line-driven for such niceties?
Hallowell: And yet (SAS) is highly profitable. Its bottom line is robust. It's just that it doesn't have to meet quarterly numbers. It's almost a metaphor for the problem. If you're only working from quarter to quarter, then it's very hard to have a long-range strategy. Hard to weather when you take a dip. This quarter-to-quarter management succeeds in the short term but fails in the long term.

Do you see a broader corporate backlash against this type of work environment, or do you think it will be up to individuals to manage it?
Hallowell: I think the people in charge will catch on and will take steps. You reach a point of red alert, in which the brain starts to steam and bells go off and whistles go off and people start quitting and productivity declines. We're not quite there yet. I think the smart companies are catching on.

Any examples jump to mind?
Hallowell: I was talking to someone who runs a huge fund in New York, and he was saying he demands that his employees take several days a month just to think--to leave the office and just

go off and think. He wants them to not bring their e-mail, not bring their cell phone--make themselves unavailable. And I think it's a really smart management strategy.

You say fear can really rev up ADT? How so?
Hallowell: When you're in a state of high-level fear, your brain devotes much of its resources to surviving. You go into survival mode. The lower centers of the brain recruit the higher centers of the brain to make sure you're not going to get killed. And you get a big volt of adrenaline and cortisol, and you go into very much black-and-white thinking, on or off, up or down.

You lose the functions I was talking about earlier: flexibility; ability to see shades of gray, deal with uncertainty, have a sense of humor, entertain new ideas. All of that goes out the window, and you're just wanting to fix it, lest you be annihilated. That's good if you're being chased by a sabertooth tiger. It's not good if you're in your average daily work environment at IBM.

Is it possible for an organization, as an entity, to have ADT?
Hallowell: Sure it is. You can have a whole stock brokerage.

The ones who suffer the most from ADT in the tech field are the ones who don't have the creative powers of the techies, and they just kind of slog along.
Everybody's running around, looking at their Bloomberg, looking at the latest quotes, answering everything. They're pouncing on every bit of stimulation as if it's going to make a big difference. And they have no strategy, or their strategy changes every day.

They're all running around, working their tails off. But they're really at the whim of the market. They think they're working hard, and they think they're being productive, but they're not. They're busy, but they're not thoughtful.

Are certain professions more susceptible to ADT?
Hallowell: I think anything in the corporate world is, particularly these days, with the forces you just mentioned of global competition. Doctors are, in their own way, because we live in a sea of data and a sea of patients and sea of paperwork. Lawyers are, in their own way, for the same reasons.

Even moms are susceptible, but it comes in a different way. They're taking their kids from one activity to another, making all these play dates, supervising homework and supervising soccer, and doing laundry and shopping.

I assume that high-tech companies, which are themselves such avid consumers of tech gadgetry, are rife with ADT?
Yes, but they're also--and this is why I love those people so much--able to say no to it. They're playful. Play is one of the best antidotes to this. They're able to rise above it and get around it. The ones who suffer the most in that field are the ones who don't have the creative powers of the techies, and they just kind of slog along.

Do you think this is a generational thing? Kids now are growing up with e-mail, cell phones and so on. Maybe they'll be able to cope better than we do?
Hallowell: I think maybe they'll be more adept with these tools when they get to the workplace, but I think the same principles will apply. How you allocate your time and your attention is crucial. What you pay attention to and for how long really makes a difference. If you're just paying attention to trivial e-mails for the majority of your time, you're wasting time and mental energy. 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.