John Halamka: Work-induced attention deficit disorder

We need to recapture our focus if we are going to solve the complex problems ahead of us

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?

Can you read an entire 20-page whitepaper, RFP or article?

Do your thoughts flow unimpeded when you're writing a presentation or article, or are they interrupted by the urge to check your email or mobile device?

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?

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

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

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

Part of the problem is the feeling that we have to work two days for every workday -- one with scheduled meetings, and one with unscheduled electronic messaging.

Knowing how attention-grabbing devices can shred concentration, when I write, I close my email client and put away my mobile devices. I often do this between 2 and 4 a.m., 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. Setting aside this particular block of time to address this one task has been very helpful. I have been able to keep my thousand-plus articles 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 and finish a book cover to cover. Today, my reading is more Web-like: I dip into a topic and pull out the important bits, then jump to a different topic. My skimming is efficient and keeps me well informed, but I never read a book at a relaxed pace cover to cover anymore.

To see how severely afflicted I am with work-induced ADD, I looked at my calendar for this week. Across my jobs and volunteer efforts there are a few dozen critical projects with due dates in this month. Ideally, my schedule should have open blocks of 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 by setting aside only a few minutes per critical project per day. The rest of the time is devoted to tackling urgent problem-solving and unplanned work. Of course, even those activities speak to the tension of change caused by the modern pace of activity.

My writing, taken collectively, often paints themes for the year. In 2012, I hope I can restore depth, reduce breadth and begin to re-form my brain into the linear path of an expert instead of the hyperlinked random walk of a dilettante.

In a world where a five-minute YouTube video is too long of a time commitment for the average person and 140-character tweets have usurped thoughtful paragraphs, we all need to ask whether living each day with constant partial attention has brought us any improvements.

I for one am willing to say that 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 is CIO at CareGroup Healthcare System, CIO and associate dean for educational technology at Harvard Medical School, chairman of the New England Health Electronic Data Interchange Network, chairman of the national Healthcare Information Technology Standards Panel and a practicing emergency physician. You can contact him at jhalamka@caregroup.harvard.edu.

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