Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Work Induced Attention Deficit Disorder

When you're in meetings or on phone calls, are you focused in the moment or are you distracted by emails, text messages, or social networking traffic?

When you're reading a 20 page whitepaper, RFP, or article, can you finish it?

When you're writing a presentation or article, can you keep your thoughts flowing or are they interrupted by the urge to check your email or mobile device?

Part of the problem is the expectation that we're all connected 24x7 and should respond in near real time.

Part of the problem is an addiction-like behavior caused by a need to feel connected to other people.

Part of the problem is the pace of change that makes us work two days for every workday - one with scheduled meetings and one with unscheduled electronic messaging.

Do you find that your ability to explore issues in depth has diminished over time because of the need to react to the constant flow of input?

When I write, I close my email client and put away my mobile devices.    I often do this between 2a-4a when the tide of incoming messages is low.

I collect my thoughts and write in a single stream, weaving together ideas from my previous compositions when possible.   I have been able to keep my 1000+ posts integrated in my mind by writing in the early morning darkness.

However,  my reading has suffered.   When I was younger, I could sit in my old Morris Chair  underneath a Pendelton blanket and finish a book cover to cover.    Today, my reading is more web like - I cover a topic and then jump to a different topic until I've rapidly covered the important messages from a book instead of reading it at a relaxed pace cover to cover.  

The nature of our work has induced a kind of attention deficit disorder.

To explore this idea further, I looked at my calendar for this week.  Across my jobs and volunteer efforts there are few dozen critical projects with due dates in January.  Ideally my schedule should block out time to focus in depth on each of these major efforts.

Instead, my calendar demonstrates that I've delegated the "depth" to others in order to achieve a "breadth" of oversight which includes only a few minutes per critical project per day.   The rest of the time is spent on urgent problem solving, unplanned work, and reducing the tension of change caused by the modern pace of activity, which is challenging for many people to process.

My blog posts taken collectively often paint themes for the year.  In 2012, I'm hoping that I can restore depth, reduce breath, and begin to reform my brain into the linear path of an expert instead of the hyperlinked random walk of a dilettante.

In a world when a 5 minute You Tube video is too long for the average audience and a 140 character message has replaced a thoughtful paragraph, we all need to ask if living each day with continuous partial attention is an improvement.

I for one, am willing to say that the our modern work style is an emperor with no clothes, and we need to recapture our focus in order to solve the complex problems ahead.


e-Patient Dave said...

John, I've never agreed more completely with anything you've posted, and perhaps ANY blog post anywhere.

For the past year I've been using Lumosity and the daily Kenken puzzles in the Globe to teach my mind to quiet, and increasingly deflect the sparkly new things that show up in the consciousness with increasing frequency - the amplified stimulus stream of increasing connectedness.

Like you, I've been seeking to retrieve the ability to focus longer and deeper.

You gotta admit, though, the extent of your knowledge and awareness is pretty massive, from mushrooms to Charles River kayak rescue methods to oh yeah managing global change in health IT. :-)

Keep it up, leader... as you surely already know, having cancer in the family increases one's sense of the value of every moment and how it's spent. Depth is good.

Chris Howe said...

I agree completely. Furthermore I suggest WIADD is even more threatening to someone who already has ADD, as is the case in, I would venture, the majority of younger IT professionals. When you have difficulty focusing on any one thing to start with add WIADD to it then you have a person who is at best ineffective.

Remember the good old days when every communication was face-to-face or on paper? We have been sacrificing quality for quantity for so long, it's going to be difficult to define quality at all.

My goal to address this in my line of work is to find something I can focus on for 30-minutes straight on work time.

Kevin Groff said...

Well said. I suffer from the same "disease"...
As you implied, it is a cultural change that has taken place. And public corporations, squeezed for earnings each quarter, demand more and more productivity. Individuals can control their own work behavior...to a point. But I have yet to see anyone with the courage to toss someone out of a meeting for constantly looking at their phone which violates basic business courtesy in my opinion. If the expectation is coming from your leader, it is more challenging. (e.g. Sorry I didn't make that last minute meeting or get you an answer, I was working on these other tasks/deliverables for you and had email closed so I could focus.)

I have also been wondering when, or if, you ever sleep...

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post and have a question: When do you SLEEP, Dr. Halamka!?

David said...

Yes, John, I too agree. I've wondered myself about "ADD" and a seeming increasing difficulty in focusing for a long stretch. Though I've never had any medical diagnosis to that effect, it just feels that way. There are times when completely outside the work sphere, e.g., learning new piano pieces, I finally get to do something with "depth" and intensity rather than short snippets of multitasking. But in the work environment, it is truly challenging and I haven't figured out the answer yet. Thanks for calling attention to this very important topic!

HighDef said...

Excellent post. What gets me is the little envelope that shows up on the task bar when a new message is there. I cannot ignore it. I have to see it. It is ADD. The brain doesn't multitask very well...I think it only adds stress.

pjmachado said...

Thanks John for a great post that is right on the mark!
One of the side effects of the digitization of society... Wondering how it will turn out...
-WIADD becomes the norm and no one can tell the difference
-Massive cultural revolution that establishes appropriate 'norms' to tame the DIGITAL beast that we have unleashed
What do you think?

Medical Quack said...

As always, well said. We live in a world today to where distraction seems to rule and are surrounded by those who say disruption is good? Well maybe a little bit but I think we are over the limit today with the way technology is moving so fast.

I do what you do shut it all off for a period of time as that seems to be the only escape and when the "off" buttons disappear, we are i trouble. Best of luck to you and your wife with her treatments and cancer battle and shut devices off as needed to temporarily choke off the work induced ADD as often as you need.

Manav said...

At a much more junior level I too had felt the lack of commitment to specific topics - always flitting from one to another. Till I attended a meditation class. It wasn't the meditation as such that struck a chord but a statement the instructor made at the beginning of the class. She said "give your mind the permission to focus on this class for an hour. Your other activities are still going to be there when you leave here.". She made us say that statement to ourselves before we started the class.

That statement is what I use when I feel I feel the need to skim across a topic due to work induced attention deficit disorder. And it has helped me immensely.

Unknown said...

I can so relate to your post. I've made a commitment this year to try to re-develop a deeper focus. I've blocked off 8-10 AM on Mondays and 3-5 PM on Fridays, and I'm trying to pay attention to just one item during those two hour blocks. I close email and all the other distractions. I've also started writing my own blog, not so much because I have something to say, but because I want to write to focus, think, organize and re-think my thoughts. Thanks for putting this all into words.

Jacob said...


Take a look at Harvard psychiatrist Ned Hallowell's paper in HBR on this topic. He calls it ADT - Attention Deficit Trait. link here (sorry - it costs money - but with some googling - you can find PDfs of this elsewhere) ..

Joneser said...

I absolutely LOVED this post. I actually minimized e-mail and all of the other distractions to read it again. The best part of my day is still sitting down and reading chapters of the latest book--and not the electronic version either, a good old-fashioned book.

ER doc said...

Why do you think it is so difficult to simplify your life?