Work Induced Attention Deficit Disorder

When you’re in meetings or on phone calls, are you focused in the moment or are you distracted by emails, text messages, or social networking traffic?

When you’re reading a 20 page whitepaper, RFP, or article, can you finish it?

When you’re writing a presentation or article, can you keep your thoughts flowing or are they interrupted by the urge to check your email or mobile device?

Part of the problem is the expectation that we’re all connected 24×7 and should respond in near real time.

Part of the problem is an addiction-like behavior caused by a need to feel connected to other people.

Part of the problem is the pace of change that makes us work two days for every workday – one with scheduled meetings and one with unscheduled electronic messaging.

Do you find that your ability to explore issues in depth has diminished over time because of the need to react to the constant flow of input?

When I write, I close my email client and put away my mobile devices.    I often do this between 2a-4a when the tide of incoming messages is low.

I collect my thoughts and write in a single stream, weaving together ideas from my previous compositions when possible.   I have been able to keep my 1000+ posts integrated in my mind by writing in the early morning darkness.

However,  my reading has suffered.   When I was younger, I could sit in my old Morris Chair underneath a Pendelton blanket and finish a book cover to cover.    Today, my reading is more web like – I cover a topic and then jump to a different topic until I’ve rapidly covered the important messages from a book instead of reading it at a relaxed pace cover to cover.

The nature of our work has induced a kind of attention deficit disorder.

To explore this idea further, I looked at my calendar for this week.  Across my jobs and volunteer efforts there are few dozen critical projects with due dates in January.  Ideally my schedule should block out time to focus in depth on each of these major efforts.

Instead, my calendar demonstrates that I’ve delegated the “depth” to others in order to achieve a “breadth” of oversight which includes only a few minutes per critical project per day.   The rest of the time is spent on urgent problem solving, unplanned work, and reducing the tension of change caused by the modern pace of activity, which is challenging for many people to process.

My blog posts taken collectively often paint themes for the year.  In 2012, I’m hoping that I can restore depth, reduce breath, and begin to reform my brain into the linear path of an expert instead of the hyperlinked random walk of a dilettante.

In a world when a 5 minute You Tube video is too long for the average audience and a 140 character message has replaced a thoughtful paragraph, we all need to ask if living each day with continuous partial attention is an improvement.

I for one, am willing to say that the our modern work style is an emperor with no clothes, and we need to recapture our focus in order to solve the complex problems ahead.

John D. Halamka, MD, MS, is Chief Information Officer of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Chief Information Officer at Harvard Medical School, Chairman of the New England Healthcare Exchange Network (NEHEN), Co-Chair of the HIT Standards Committee, a full Professor at Harvard Medical School, and a practicing Emergency Physician. He’s also the author of the popular Life as a Healthcare CIO blog.

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8 replies »

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  4. One thing I recommend for reducing “work-induced ADD” is to pick a set of journals and periodicals that are most important to you and subscribe to them in print. If you really value reading them, then it will be neither a challenge nor a sacrifice to sit quietly in a chair and read them without distraction. I certainly enjoy them more this way; it feels like the olden days. I do this, for instance, with publications like The Objective Standard and National Affairs.

    As for the other sources of news and information–ones that you don’t read cover to cover but rather scan through for the occasional good tidbit–go digital as much as possible, so that they are handled once, right away, and then digitally disposed.

  5. I didn’t have patience to go through entire article as I know how the author (forgot his name by the time I finished) feels. I would doubt we are any faster these days. We just choose to things in small chunks.

  6. ” the expectation that we’re all connected 24×7 and should respond in near real time”

    People only have that expectation if you permit them to.

  7. Excellent, excellent observations. I have noticed this also – and I’m retired!!!
    There is definitely some addictive behavior involved.

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