Driven to Distraction at Work

"Multitasking, hopping from project to project, e-mailing while talking on the phone, rushing from meeting to meeting to get to the next appointment on time, ending the day with a frustrated feeling of neither fulfilling all of their goals nor performing at their best, let alone equanimity, when in fact, most of the time they do not. Instead, most of these people have a severe case of modern life – what I came to call attention deficit traits, or ADT."

- Driven to Distraction at Work, page 4

Does the opening quote include one of your regular actions? What about more than one?  In Driven to Distraction at Work, Ned Hallowell says that many feel “the overload of mental circuits, and frequent feelings of frustration”. We are losing our inability to focus, which may affect our performance and our sense of well-being.

The cost of distraction is not only an issue for individuals, but also for organizations. Hallowell cites a 2006 Inc. study that estimated “$282 million was lost annually” to Internet surfing at work. Another source, Information Overload Research Group, reported that information overload costs the U.S. $997 million annually.

What do you do? Hallowell offers that time-management tools, to-do lists, or multitasking techniques are “band-aids”. The solution is to “retrain your attention” to “recognize that underlying issues of mental distraction… is within your control”.

In part one Hallowell describes six of the most common distractions, the first five he labels as attention deficient traits (ADT): screen sucking, multitasking, idea hopping, worrying, playing the hero, and dropping the ball. For each distraction he provides a case study and suggestions on how to address the distraction. In part two Hallowell offers a basic plan on how to harness five elements (energy, emotion, engagement, structure, and control) to focus and be more productive.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Take back control

"Most people don’t see lack of focus as the root problem… [Most] simply blame themselves for their failure to being happier or more successful… If they even recognize how much their problem relates to impaired focus, they deal with it simply by trying to overpower it… They don’t need to work harder, just smarter."
- Driven to Distraction, page 10

Hallowell says that many people have developed ways to help them deal with the numerous distractions or their “ongoing mental traffic jam”. These behaviors help in the short term, but may become regular habits that are present when they are not necessary.

According to Hallowell, you can take control back by “developing habits to help you consistently find focus and achieve your goals”. The basics of the plan include:

  • Energy – Take steps to monitor your brain’s energy supply as diligently as you monitor your gas gage to ensure that your car does not run out of gas.
  • Emotion – “You need to learn how to regulate your emotional state… know your hot buttons and emotional foibles”.
  • Engagement – You must be connected or engaged to be at your best. Find your “sweet spot”: the place that overlaps what you love to do, what you are good at doing, and what someone will pay you to do.
  • Structure – “It allows you to focus rather than to constantly be off track”. “It refers to the world you create for yourself” and “depends upon planning”.
  • Control – Taking back control is critical for the plan to succeed. You must exercise your control instead of “allowing modern life to control you”.

Hallowell says that each of the elements involves the powers that we all possess: body, mind, human connection, emotion, and structure.

Now let’s look at two of the “common ways in which people surrender their attention at work”: screen sucking and multitasking.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Screen sucking

"The solution is simple, but extremely difficult to enact: turn it off. Of course, were it that easy, we wouldn’t need treatment programs."
- Driven to Distraction, page 34

The first ADT is screen sucking. According to Hallowell, people who are in this category agree with one of these or similar statements:

  • If my cellphone is out of reach, I feel distress.
  • I can waste an hour online without even knowing it.
  • I often retreat into the cyber work when stressed at work.

Simply being online or surfing the Internet is not an ADT. It becomes an addiction when it interferes with your performance or with your ability to complete tacks.

If one of the statements describes you or if your performance is compromised by your time online, then you may suffer from this ADT. Hallowell states that people underestimate how long they are online; monitoring your time would be a good start. He goes on to offer specific suggestions, which include the following:

  1. Create pockets in your day reserved for screen time. A half hour in the morning, a half hour in the afternoon—whatever works for you. Outside of those pockets, turn it off.
  2. Keep a list of things to do when bored other than surfing the web. (It would help if that list is not on your computer!)

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life


"It is neurologically impossible to concentrate on two tasks at once. What people really mean by ‘multitasking’ is switching attention from one task to another in rapid succession. If both tasks are boring… you can get away with it. But if either or both are complex… [both] will suffer, as will you."
- Driven to Distraction, page 54-55

The inability to say no when you do not have time or constant multitasking is another ADT.  There are benefits to multitasking in that you are “attentive to all that is going on” and you don’t miss anything. Conversely, he shows how it becomes problematic because “you are unable to pay full attention to anything”.

Hallowell states that people who are in this category agree with one of these or similar statements:

  • I can’t get my work done without multitasking.
  • Saying no is hard for me to do.

Occasionally saying yes when you’re overwhelmed or attempting to do more than two activities at once is not an ADT. It becomes one when it interferes with your performance.

If you are “overcommitted…chronically stressed…with no chance to slowdown”, then it’s a problem. Hallowell offers suggestions for those who may have this ADT:

  1. Accurately assess the attention and focus needed for a task (this is not the same as the amount of attention and focus you want to give). If one of the tasks requires attention and focus, it is better not to multitask.
  2. Practice how to politely decline requests. One way is to say, “I’d love to if I had the time to give it the attention it deserves.”

According to Hallowell, we are victims of our own creation. He says that “labor-saving devices [have] catalyzed the unplanned explosion within which we live today.” Yet, the distractions or lack of focus does not have to be permanent. If turning it off, saying no, using time management techniques, or any of the other processes have not worked, Hallowell’s plan is for you.

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Fonda Na'Desh

ABOUT Fonda Na'Desh

Dr. Fonda Na'Desh is a Consulting Principle who utilizes leading academic and industry practices to transform small business owners from workers to leaders...
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