Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Environmentally induced ADD: Medicine in the Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business Online - Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform

I don't routinely read the HBR (though I'm going to start), but a colleague brought this article to my attention. The author, Edward Hallowell, claims that there's an epidemic of environmentally induced attention-deficit disorder, which he calls "ADT" (attention deficit trait). His thesis is that our hunter-gatherer prefrontal cortex is being increasingly overloaded by distractions and environmental stressors, inducing a failure of "executive" function and a set of behaviors resembing adult ADD. The difference between ADT and ADD is that when the environment changes, the ADT behaviors resolve. Hallowell has written a number of books on ADD/ADHD, and from an Amazon comment I gather he has ADD (not ADT) himself. So while he's not a researcher, he does have some street cred on the topic.

From my own experience in corporate America I'd say the premise has loads of "face validitity". Since this article was written for the HBR he focuses on senior executives with "ADT", but the thesis is just as true for a parent overloaded by the care of a child with a disease or cognitive/behavioral disorder.

Hallowell's recommendations are pretty reasonable. He doesn't favor buying a CrackBerry (BlackBerry). He favors regular personal connection and interaction with trusted colleagues (something that's becoming infrequent in many companies), sleep, exercise, healthy diet, limiting email times, avoiding carbohydrate loading, and a few basic techniques:
  1. Keep a section of one's desk clear at all times.
  2. Break down large tasks into small ones.
  3. Keep a portion of the day protected for thinking.
  4. Contain email to specific hours. (I've taken to disabling everything that might notify me of inbox activity)
  5. At the end of each day identify no more than five critical priorities for the next day.
  6. Begin each day by tackling at least one of the critical priorities -- before attending to email and messages.
  7. Follow the GTD methodology for articles and messages (He doesn't put it this way, but that's what he's talking about.)
  8. Schedule important work for the times of day you know you're most productive. (Unfortunately for me, one of my more productive intervals is between 4:30pm and 6:00pm. Weird!)
  9. Find ways to doodle, fidget, pace, or listen to music -- whatever it takes to settle down.
  10. Have a friendly face-to-face chat with someone you like every 4-6 hours.
  11. When the frontal lobes are in panic mode -- try these techniques to settle them down
    - do an easy rote task: reset watch, read a dictionary (wow!), do a crossword puzzle
    - move around, take the stairs down and up
    - brainstorm, talk with a colleague
Sometimes Hallowell seems to be talking about persons with true ADD rather than ADT, but I suspect those distinctions are artificial. Hallowell would probably say "Some people have ADD all the time, but there are some environments that will induce ADD in almost anyone".

You can read the article at your library or pay $7 to download a PDF. It will be interesting to see if this idea holds up over time and even gets some serious data behind it. I don't get the feeling that the world is getting less complex, or that email, the BlackBerry, instant messaging, mobile phones, voice mail(s) and ceaseless travel are going to go away.

Environmentally induced ADD is here to stay. Does anyone remember "Future Shock"? Nowadays the world of 1984, which Alvin Toffler described as so unstettling and distressing, seems quaint and tranquil. I can hardly wait for 2025 -- which is when I'm "supposed" to retire. Sooner or later, 99% of us may be on meds all the time just to cope with our ever more crazed world. (BTW, this last idea was nicely explored in at least one recent "high end" science fiction novel about 5 -8 years ago.)

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