Driven to Distraction at Work
Harvard Business Review Press, 247 pages, $29.00
In 1994 psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term “attention deficit trait” to describe a common problem he saw emerging in the workplace: The tendency to hop from task to task in a rush, without proper focus on what people were doing or should be doing. That was before most of us had even seen an email, let alone a smartphone and tablet. But the specialist in attention deficit disorder observed a multitasking frenzy worthy of note, and, of course, ever since the situation has intensified.
Unlike the better known attention deficit disorder or ADHD, which is genetic in origin, attention deficit trait (ADT, as he calls it) is caused by the context in which it occurs. Essentially, the trait emerges because we operate in highly-pressured workplaces, with the culture exhorting us to do more, faster. Multitasking seems to help us deal with the stresses of our life until it drives us to distraction and this specific syndrome. We work in a world of distractions, many of which we bring upon ourselves. And the pressures are likely to grow, exponentially, warns this focus doctor.
“This is why all the commonly offered advice – such as manage your time and to-do lists more efficiently, multitask better, be more organized – don’t and can’t work. They’re only Band-Aids. Instead, you have to retrain your attention,” he writes in Driven to Distraction at Work.
It’s a deceptive threat. We succumb over time rather than in one, big, noticeable moment. “Like dementia, the onset of ADT is far more subtle and insidious. The average worker suffers a series of minor annoyances, finds memory more of a problem than ever, notices the workday becoming ever more unpredictable but definitely longer, and finds it harder and harder to keep up,” he observes.
The reaction is to intensify the same bad habits that are causing the problem. And that doesn’t work. Distraction continues to escalate.
The many distractions bombarding us fit into six categories:
• Screen Sucking: We have become so addicted to our electronic devices we become jittery when denied wifi. Biologically speaking, he notes, the same dopamine circuitry that is activated in common addictions now is ignited by spending too much time online. And like other addictions, we deny this need is occurring within us and are always scanning for the next opportunity.
• Multitasking: Faced with an unrelenting load, we become harried, curt and unfocused, trying to pretend everything is under control. Indeed, we become so used to being interrupted we can’t pay attention to anything. This transcends work, of course; our life is one of constant multitasking, including time with family, friends, and pursuing other interests. Nothing gets proper focus.
• Idea Hopping: Many creative people never finish an idea they start thinking about or actually begin pursuing. Ideas come continually; action, however, never amounts to much because just as that becomes a possibility another idea arises which seems irresistible. Idea hoppers distract themselves with new notions.
• Worrying: An individual intent on success begins to worry excessively about anything that might prevent him from achieving that desired state. Great chunks of the day are wasted attending to issues that he shouldn’t and doesn’t want to be focused on, but because of anxiety is sucked into. “Toxic worry – the tendency to focus excessively on problems that aren’t all that important – is common in the millions of people today who perceive all the dangers of life but lose sight of the positive,” Hallowell says.
• Playing the hero: These individuals, wired to be altruistic, can’t get any work done because they are so busy dealing with the problems of colleagues. They never pay attention to their own needs because they are distracted by the problems others face (or create). The late Professor Peter Frost of the University of British Columbia, in his 2003 book Toxic Emotions, called such people “toxic handlers,” who hold the organization together while sacrificing themselves in the process. It can be draining work, unsatisfying and conducive to burnout…and certainly highly distracting.
• Dropping the ball: This is actual ADHD, people unable to get organized because their minds are so scattered. Planning, prioritizing and following through become impossible.
Hallowell offers 10 specific tips for battling back. Screen suckers, for example, should keep a record of their use of electronic devices. Study the log and gauge where you could cut back. “Don’t say you can’t cut back. You can. This is likely your largest or nearly largest waste of time, so don’t squander a good chance to reclaim the time you’ve surrendered,” he writes.
Create specific pockets of time during the day reserved for screen time, perhaps a half hour or hour in the morning and afternoon. Beyond that, turn it off. If you have an assistant, he or she can advise you when you are urgently needed. During social engagements – and that includes lunch and tea breaks – turn off electronic devices.
When you are bored, don’t use your electronic device as an antidote. Read an article or call somebody you have been meaning to contact. Plan ahead, keeping a “when bored” list, like a to-do list, of what you’ll try when bored. “Avoid addictive or habit-forming website and games,” he warns. “You know which ones they are for you. Once you get out of the habit of visiting them, they will fade into the oblivion they ought to occupy.”
He points out that multitasking is technically an inaccurate term since it is neurologically impossible to concentrate on two tasks at once. What we are doing, usually, is switching attention from one task to another in rapid succession. That’s actually not so bad if both are simple tasks, like talking to a friend on the cell phone while unloading the dishwasher. But when the task increases in importance and complexity, watch out: Talking to a smart person about a complex issue on your phone while trying to continue writing a report will lead both tasks to suffer.
You may have the illusion of saving time while multitasking – feel, as he puts it, like “a master of the universe”’– but the chances of missing critical information rises exponentially with each task you add. And heaping on too many tasks encourages multitasking, so a solution is to learn to say no better and more frequently. “Explain to yourself that it is right, good, and proper to say no. If you always say yes, you will soon burn out and be of little use to your organization, your family, or yourself,” he stresses.
A good way to say no is to respond to a request with: “I’d love to do that if I had the time, but as it is, I could not give it the attention it deserves, so I would not be able to perform as well as you and the task warrant.” He doesn’t deal with what happens when you reply in that fashion to a boss who disagrees and thinks you should just get on with the assignment, but the usual advice from experts is to try to get the boss to choose what other task should be curtailed. He does remind readers of the importance of delegating, and also that when you state you are not the best person for the task at this time you are actually doing the organization a favour.
More broadly, for all six situations, he says individuals must regain control by retraining themselves to pay attention. That doesn’t mean paying full attention continually, but finding what he calls “flexible focus” – periods of intense concentration followed by intervals in which the mind drifts, coming up with novel ideas.
He highlights five essential ingredients to flexible focus: energy, emotion, engagement, structure, and control. “You should monitor your brain’s energy supply at least as carefully as you monitor your car’s supply of gas or your bank account’s supply of money,” he says of the first item, urging you to pay attention to sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, cognitive stimulation, and positive human contract.
Distraction is an issue for most of us, and this is an intelligent, helpful guide, with lots of real-life stories to animate his discussion.