ATD :: Attention Deficit Trait

By: Jim Bruce

I have it, and so do many of you to a more or lesser degree. 

Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) is a term used to describe the effects of a persistent state of information overload that can be generated in our digital world.  Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell first used this term in his 2005 Harvard Business Review essay, Overloaded Circuits:  Why Smart People Underperform. 

In the introduction to his recent book Driven to Distraction at Work, Hallowell writes:  “You know the problem – swarms of distractions, constant interruptions, various tones chiming all around, rampant ‘screen sucking’ [staring at your computer screen and getting nothing done], texting under the table during meetings, the overloading of mental circuits, and frequent feeling of frustration at trying to get everything done well and on time.  This is the modern context in which most of us work.  Whether the workplace itself or the numerous demands on your time drive you to distraction, the end result is the same.  You can’t focus on anything anymore at work, and it’s taking its toll on your performance and your sense of well-being.” 

A blogger and psychiatrist, who writes under the pseudonym SandySB, takes this further:  “This condition although similar to ADHD, is caused by the environment in which we live and work.  In other words it is something we are doing to ourselves.”

SandySB also notes “It’s not only managers in business who are showing signs of this condition.  It is increasingly seen, albeit in a slightly different form, in those who spend more than a couple of hours each day using electronic media.  Teachers in most schools would recognize this syndrome in their students.”  

ADT is the response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live.  As the number of activities calling for your attention increases, the frontal lobes of your brain, which are responsible for executive functioning (guiding decision making, planning, organization, and prioritization of information and ideas, time management, etc.), lose control.  When this occurs, your brain begins to panic and that next task is seen as a threat, the proverbial saber-toothed tiger, and your brain goes into survival mode.

If there is a real threat, you want to be in survival mode.  However, if you are trying to address an important, subtle issue, survival mode is not the place you want to be.  In survival mode, executive functioning reverts to simple-minded black-and-white thinking; your sense of perspective disappears, intelligence dims, and the brain paradoxically reduces its ability to think clearly.  I’ve been there and suspect that at least some of you have as well.  You know it isn’t pretty.

So, what might you do to reduce the pressures that your environment places on you?  Research suggests a number of things:

1.  Have close colleagues.  ADT occurs less in environments where people are in close physical contact and where they trust and respect one another.  People who work in physical isolation are more likely to suffer from ADT.  Hallowell says, “When you make time at least every four to six hours for a ‘human moment,’ a face-to-face exchange with a person you like, you are giving your brain what it needs. 

2.  Take physical care of your brain.  Get enough sleep; eat a good diet; and engage in regular exercise.  In addition, you can address the onslaught of ADT in the middle of your day by taking a few minutes for a short, brisk walk or to climb a few flights of stairs.  These simple actions will press your brain’s reset button.  Also, taking a short – one minute – break after every activity during your day for mindful breathing will reduce your stress level.

3.  Organize your day.  In the March 14, 2017 Tuesday Reading, Practice, Practice, Practice, I suggested that you develop a regular planning and calendaring process.  Put everything you plan to do on your calendar and give your plan preference over non-scheduled activities – drop-ins, email, phone calls, etc.  (This means that you will need to schedule specific times for processing email, for phone calls, etc.)   Identify the best times of your day and schedule your most important work for those hours.  And, when you are doing this important work, turn your devices off so that you won’t be interrupted and won’t be as tempted to just “check in.”  In addition, also keep some time during the day for yourself.  I suspect that you already know that you need this time. 

4.  Keep your documents under control.  Consider using the OHIO rule:  Only Handle It Once.  If you touch a document, act on it, file it, or throw it away.  (I fail here and it shows in my office.)

(For further detailed suggestions on mitigating ADT, see the table “Control Your ADT” near the end of Hallowell’s HBR essay Overloaded Circuits, listed in the References section.)

From my personal perspective, I’ve come to realize that it’s very easy to lose a sense of personal control given the onslaught of email, text messages, and phone calls, to say nothing of the drop-ins for the proverbial minute that actually takes 30 minutes.  My solution is to turn-off, silence, or otherwise ignore the call of my devices when I’m trying to get “my” work done.  Yes, this may create inconveniences for me and others.  However, no “lives” have been lost and I have made better progress on what I had committed to do.  And, that benefits me and those to whom I’ve made commitments.

So, do seriously consider what you should do to regain control over your work and your personal world so that overall, you make greater progress on your goals and reduce your personal information overload. 

Make it a great week.  .  .     jim


Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.




Edward Hallowell, Overloaded Circuits:  Why Smart People Underperform,  Harvard Business Review, January 2005.

Edward Hallowell, Attention Deficit Trait – The Growing Workplace Problem, introduction to Driven to Distraction at Work, Harvard Business Review Press, 2015.

SandySB, Mindfulness:  dealing with attention deficit trait…, FairaBlue blog.  (SandySB is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, parent, and blogger.)

Gina Trapani, Attention Deficit Trait, work-induced ADD, lifehacker blog.

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9:25 am
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