March 28, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Newsmaker: Why can't you pay attention anymore?

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Why can't you pay attention anymore?
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 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

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CNET causes ADT
CNET has so many items on their page template that this story is practicly unreadable if you dont read it from the "print" version.
Posted by yok (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
So what does abbreviation ADT mean ?
Either I am having ADT myself or there is actually no explanation in the article. What does T stand for ?
Posted by (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Attention Deficit Trait
It's in paragraph 2 on page 1. Unfortunately they didn't capitalize it or bold it, which would have made it easier to spot for those of us who are skimming through, trying to get the basic point before going back to something work-related...
Posted by Kelson (64 comments )
Link Flag
Ooh, ooh, this what I got.
I didn't really read the whole article, but it's what I got.

What were we talking about now?

Seriously, I actually went to the doctor for this thinking I had ADD. He didn't think I had ADD.

I did suspect that it was because there was too much static in my life from work tasks, e-mail, cell phones, cubicles, those stupid radio commercials, web popups...they all take brain cycles and at some point, your concentration gets perforated and you are just touching lightly on a great many things instead of focusing on just a few.

Well, I guess I just said what was the solution to my problem.

Now to finish that article and go back to work.
Posted by rhyssleary (35 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I'm writing an article on ADT
Have you seen an improvement in your condition after having been made aware of ADT by this article? What changes have you made? What has been successful and what hasn't?
Posted by Danielle63 (2 comments )
Link Flag
I'm reading this at one in the morning! Arrrrrgggghhh!
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
bitter irony
I started reading Dr. Hallowell's piece while I was in the middle
of preparing an invoice for a client. I heard the beep notifying
me that I had an email, so of course I left my initial task
midstream to find out what it was. Such a Pavlovian response!

For obvious reasons, I was intrigued by the CNet piece, got to
the end of the first page, and realized I hadn't finished writing
the letter! Bouncing between two computers, I wrapped up my
business communication, scrolled to the second page of the
CNet interview, got half way through and started laughing! I
can't even make it through an 3 page interview!
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
All work and no play makes Jack a neanderthal.
Too many things competing for our attention. But you've heard that before. But, when you think about it, it's mostly shallow and really un-important stuff. What we need is a way to filter the crap from things we need to pay attention to. Mentally muting the annoying car commercials on the radio, or using the mute button on the television remote control. Asking yourself also, if listening to the radio or watching the television is really worth your time.

Then there's memory...

How much do you remember of the television show(s) you watched yesterday? Last week? Are they a gray screen to you?


When you read, concentrate on it. If nothing else, say the words you're reading in your head as you read, and don't 'skim' an article, glancing at clumps of words. Most people aren't Renshaw trained, so they can't memorize pages at a glance, but if you allow yourself to concentrate, you'll retain a lot more, especially if you visualize it at the same time. Isn't that what you do when you read, say, a science-fiction book? Try doing that with other things, and see how much information you retain after you've read it. If you try the skimming method, you're going to miss things, like typos in what you wrote. Hint, hint, Alorie Gilbert. Re-read your article slowly.

Oh, Rhyss Leary: If you want to turn off those pop-up ads, just turn off JavaScript if you're using something like Netscape, Firefox, or the Mozilla Suite, or if you're one of those silly people who Web-surf with Internet Explorer, set your Internet security level to High. Trust somebody who's been making Web pages for ten years. ;-)

Details on how to do it, here, if you're interested:

Not a real commercial site, btw. I just hate ads, so I got my own domain name for my personal pages. LOL

- CyberWoLfman
Posted by CyberWoLfman (47 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Attention disorder observations
I really think my bosses are attained by the disorder. Efficiency seems related in the mind of management to the number of topics or decisions one can handle at the same time.
Multitasking is a kind fashionnable characteristic.
But not only bosses are like this. i can bet everyday life is going this way with people eating , surfing the web and viewing tv at the same time . Of course they go on speaking with others without understanding that the message doesn't get through.
Posted by Vincent Michon (1 comment )
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What's the remedy?
I've felt like this for the last few years. Part of it is due, I think, to
having a laptop and always feeling like I should be working and
doing something productive. My schedule doesn't help, but I too
fall into the trap of checking e-mail, surfing and so on. Plus with
the iPod, I've always got something to fill my head with.

I guess I'll try maybe talking walks at lunch, without the iPod, to
see if I can clear my head easier.

But it's ironic that I can across this article because I was just
complaining to my wife that I had similar affects. Hopefully cnet
will do a follow-up article with the guy to find out his
suggestions for managing the problem.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
another stupid article from CNET
some deadwood from Harvard seeking to enlighten us all about how since we ain't like him, we are dimwits.
Posted by (88 comments )
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Only SOME of us are dimwits!
I ain't saying who...
Posted by SlashSplat (1 comment )
Link Flag
can't concentrate?
It's probably from sitting all day staring at a computer screen. That would make anyone's mind numb and I've been doing it for 28 years now! Then because you hunch over you get back pain and then pain meds that kill your attention span even more. Don't make it into something it's not. Lack of concentration is simply boredom. At least Ford's first assembly line had power tools to play with, what do we have? A mouse? A USB powered disco ball? The Great Catalog we call the internet is just that--we sit down and thumb through websites like holiday catalogs at Thanksgiving.

No wonder coffee shops aren't going out of business like lemmings off a cliff. Caffine is the great equalizer to the internet.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Feature or a Bug?
I have been following Dr. Hallowell's work for some years now and find it to exceptionally enlightening. I do have one point of contention that may perhaps seem subtle but nonetheless significant.

After reading Driven in '96 as a full-fledged first-year academic, I have to admit that while the terminology is changing slightly, it still misses an important and perhaps crucial point, one that as a now full-fledged "tech-ademic" more of us may be aware of. That is, whether this "condition", this specific behavioral pattern, is really a feature or a bug?

Is it an asset or liability/disability?

Personally, I have posited that any of the following terms be considered to more accurately describe it and the people that possess it:

- Parallel Attention [Style] (PA) [http://vs. Serial Attention (SA); Hunter vs. Farmer|http://vs. Serial Attention (SA); Hunter vs. Farmer]
- Parallel Attention Ability (PAA)
- Parallel Processing Style (PPS)
- Wideband Attention Style (WAS)
- Broadband Attention Style (BAS)
- High Bandwidth Attention (HBA)
- Multi-Tasking Mindset (MTMS)
- Multi-Channeled Attention Style (MCAS)
- Multi-Focus Attention Style (MFAS)
- Attention Dilution Disorder (ADD) [where it is in fact a debilitating disorder]
- Over-Active Attention (OAA)
- etc.

As our knowledge and understanding and body of experimentation and research grows on this, we may actually come to understand it a personality and HR feature, instead of necessarily as a dis-ability or bug or problem. It may in fact turn up as a *requirement* or *skill* for certain job candidates, for positions where people possessing this/these trait(s) excel. At the least, I believe our conception of it will be a little more akin to other neutral "traits" much like our conception of a car can be that of an enabler for travel, sustenance like getting groceries, protection from the elements, and culture like carrying books to libraries for children or in other hands a machine of destruction to property and life and atmosphere as a polluter. The car itself is neither here nor there, but the driver makes it so as do the varying methods one powers it with i.e. fossil fuels, hydrogen, electric, solar, hybrid, et cetera. The same with this attention style or "trait", some can learn to use it for great benefit while others are reckless with it or at its mercy.


Jason M.W. Zawadzki
Posted by JMWZ (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Get Help!
This is not a lot of bunk. I've been trying to figure out for the longest time why things wern't getting done. It never used to be that way. In some cases, my plate was just too full. However, when productivity is consistently the issue, don't make the mistake of trying to fix it yourself. Get professional HELP before it's too late! Fixing this will take time. It's not going to be radical, but more like a process to change some habits. IT WILL TAKE TIME to fix along with practice. It may be helpful to seek guidance from a professional for therapy.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
There is something to this...
As evidenced by the fact that I started reading the story, stopped after 3 sentences, and clicked on a random site from my bookmark list for no apparent reason.

No, I'm not joking.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
This confirms it - I've got ADT.
For the past 5-6 years I have wondered if I am ADD. I am a software developer, but if my environment is not constantly changing around me, I go nuts and get this whole ADT thing - to the letter and spend days at a time just staring at the computer screen (basically frozen). This article is completely and totally accurate for my profession.

I believe the end result will be that people will simply freeze up and not be able to move from in front of the monitor. Only after a bunch of people die from starvation this way will corporations finally wake up and take action - not before.
Posted by morecheeze (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I'm writing an article on ADT
I'd be really interested in your perspective as a sufferer of this condition. What specific symptoms do you identify with? After having read this article, have you made changes to try and help alleviate this condition? Any success?
Posted by Danielle63 (2 comments )
Link Flag
Sleep Hacks
Many things, like not being able to concentrate come from poor sleep. I'm working on practical ways to hack sleep (in a good way) at and would like to hear from wanna be geek sleep-o-nauts.
Posted by comforteagle (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I have just admitted to myself that I'm suffering from ADT ( BIG TIME) When I read the article in Time Magazine about ADT and then Dr. Edward Hallowell's " Why can't you pay attention anymore " there was no doubt in my mind. I have been hearing from my wife the last three years : Why don't you listen to what I'm telling you ! - and Why have you forgotten ? Every single day I'll forget something. I have become more and more agressive, blaming others pointing out others mistakes (especially my wifes) being restless- not being able to be at home on weekends- had to go off to somewhere and certainly not what was suggested my my wife. Working late - listening to tunes while trying to finish some work- Always being critical and negative and opposed ( to my poor wife). Even when she had a minor operation I did not stay at home with her after she returned back.
I love travelling ( and does as often as possible) because then I don't feel any pressure - the same when I'm on holiday. I'll try with my wifes help (she is clever) I just told her yesterday about my ADT to help the condition by leaving my laptop behind when we're off for X-mas - on holiday or travelling. I guess there are only one cure and that's doing one thing at a time and not a dozen.

Bye from a newly recognised case of ADT
Posted by Sureshstrasbourg (3 comments )
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Here is Sureshstrasbourg's wife with the following comments:
He change subject if confronted - mostly to good things he did himself like buying sweets or helped someone to solve a problem due to his skills. He has difficulties looking at you when you speak to him ( eye-contact). Being bored if you try to tell him something which happend during the day - Will usually leave the room before I'll finish the small talk. Freezes and doing nothing if having a problem- like need him to slap my back, if I swallow wrong Becomes very angry with me, if doing things wrongly on the PC. Told me once : Don*t ever get better on the Internet than me !!!!!
He did not want me to return so soon from the Clinic after a hernia operation. He admitted to me that he did not know what to do - was scared and could not cope. Even though he left the next morning (Saturday to take a small trip - and returned late afternoon).
He never tells me a compliment , for example if the food is good - or the house is decorated nicely for X-mas or the like. But he surely will tell you if there is less sugar in his coffee. Or if an outfit he thinks looks bad on me. He loves to speak about himself - BUT only the positive things - never about him having a problem. His standard phrase is : I want to enjoy !!!
He is very intilligent and highly educated and a sort of lexicon. He knows a lot and can remember a lot except the daily" small "things. I can write dow on a pc of paper what he has to remember to do ( his personal things ), he forgets even to look at the list. An I could go on and on. This is nearly costing our marriage of 20 years - but for me it was a big step that he told me he thought he was having ADT. What can I do to HELP ? and how can he improve ??
Thank you
PS. He is very liked bycolleagues, friends and family . He has a very good heart and loves animals a lot. He acts also at times very childish and wants to be treated like a child at times.
Posted by Sureshstrasbourg (3 comments )
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Wife writes : I forgot to tell that he also has much difficulties in getting ready whenever we are going somewhere. I have to repeat over and over again please do hurry . Also mornings he takes a very long time to wake up and always wants 2-5 min more before very sour gets his coffe in bed - and all his clothes are laid out for him - as he always will ask : What shall I wear today ? I'm not allowed to disagree and whenever I say this is like that he will always reply NO - at first even et's so. Always contradicting me. I'm not having as much education as him - though rather educated. He at times says : You're not an Acedemic and I know better - even he does not, but he wants to be right and will not admit if he's wrong but excuses it with a lame excuse why he said so. Should I be wrong which of course I am at times- all humans are wrong at times and I have no problem admitting it - but he triumphs like it was a victory won - and likes to remind me that I was wrong.
When I read this it sound like he's not such a nice person - but he is- but this is really a problem which I'm not sure I can take much more.
He wont talk to the Doctor about it - it's not the time. It's always not the time. Other of his standards phrases are Not now - or wait or later.
The latter is also when doing work - he has difficulties finishing it - and gets upset if I mention it.
He has so many good intention to send a card/note if somebody celebartes or the like . He buys the card but will nearly never write it, so mostly I'll do it for him. Anything which has to be fixed in our house I have to do. He can't or are too lazy to do it. He is very good at making others to work for him. Called for example a collegue to clean the sink which was stopped.( I was away visiting my family). He's very fluent in Enlish and if I write he searh to see if I have made any mistakes. It's not my mother tongue
Well, that's a lot but surely not all.
Do comment on the above Please if you have any suggestions to help this huge problem.

Thank you !
Posted by Sureshstrasbourg (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I would like the option to print the article more easily than cutting & pasting parts of it at a time. I find it difficult to read anything this long on the computer and know that many other sites have a print option where the print option is shown so that it can be copied all at once and the font adjusted to large print.
Interesting article by the way.
Posted by dean.edmundson (1 comment )
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Posted by athome101 (2 comments )
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I am not sure whether I have ADT or not. I just start working on a query at work and think about how I am going to address it, when the phone rings and another query deserves my attention, I sort that one out and I try an go back to what I was doing and I am called to go and help out in the front, by the time a get back to my desk to attend to the query three quarters of an hour have passed by, only to find that my inbox is filling up with more orders and queries and so the day goes by with distractions and what have I achieved? Explained to the boss my situation and got fired for not been a multitasker, and for asking a collegue for help! Here I sit with much to offer and no one wants me!!!!!!!!!!!
Posted by athome101 (2 comments )
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