Brain overload

The stress of modern work life may be literally driving us to distraction. Here's what you can do about it.

Too much to do, too little time, too few resources. If you're feeling that the harder you work, the behinder you get, you're not alone. You and your distracted, impatient, irritable IT co-workers may be suffering from a previously unrecognized neurological phenomenon called attention deficit trait. In the January issue of the Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, renowned for his work on attention deficit disorder, describes the inner frenzy affecting so many in today's IT workplace. The author, founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass., talked with Computerworld's Kathleen Melymuka about what brings on ADT and how you can control it.

What is attention deficit trait? It's a severe case of modern life. It's my term for what happens to the brain when it becomes overloaded with information, obligations and more data points than it can keep up with. You start to resemble someone with actual attention deficit disorder -- distractibility, impulsivity, impatience, restlessness, irritability. In an attempt to get everything done, you become less and less efficient, and that leads to underachievement and deteriorating performance even as you're trying to improve.

How is this different from attention deficit disorder? True ADD is a genetically transmitted brain trait. This one is purely environmentally produced -- simply a function of overload.

Can you give me an example of what might bring on ADT in an IT environment? You start off the day looking at e-mail. One includes a crisis that you need to take care of. As you start to take care of it, your supervisor knocks on the door with another crisis. Just then, you get a call from home asking you to take care of three things. You bump into a colleague and she complains about how you treated her the day before, and there you go. You're dealing with more than the brain is equipped to handle.

Edward M. Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health
Edward M. Hallowell, founder of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health
What happens? Instead of operating efficiently, the brain goes into survival mode, and you try to bring closure to these things. You tell your colleague to grow up. You ask your spouse why she can't understand that you're trying to get some work done. You tell your supervisor -- curtly -- that you'll get back to him when you can. You shoot yourself in the foot because you're desperate and not thinking clearly. You're losing your flexibility, your sense of humor, your capacity to prioritize and organize. You become impulsive and much less effective interpersonally and cognitively than you would otherwise be.

Is this something that might happen one day but not the next? Absolutely. But it's like chronic stress: Once you have it many days in row, you do walk in with it, and you almost create it. In a funny way, you become addicted to it. You think, "This [ADT] is work, and if it's not happening, I'm not working." That way, it becomes self-perpetuating. You fall into the trap of not working smarter, just working harder.

You say fear is at the base of ADT. Can you explain? Basically, as you're having to do more and more, you come to be in a minipanic: You can't get it done; you'll put in a slipshod performance; you'll lose your job. Your brain is going into red alert. In a fear-governed state, as you try to do better, you actually do worse because fear shanghais the frontal lobe nerve cells you need to be effective and diverts them into the service of fear. You waste all this mental energy imagining all these fearful things.

As an IT manager, I have only a limited degree of control over my work environment. What can I do to lessen the chances of developing ADT? Nobody can control their work environment. We're all subject to fate. But identify what you can control and focus on that, even if it's just the space on your desk. Instead of entertaining scenes of doom and gloom, which you can't control, engage the problem-solving part of your brain and solve a problem. Try to rebuke the primitive side that keeps jumping up with a fantasy of terror and fear and doom.

You write about mind-clearing tricks that can help when you start feeling overwhelmed. Can you mention a few? A quick burst of exercise is a wonderful one. Instead of reaching for coffee or carbohydrates, do 25 jumping jacks. Another is to do a simple rote task that involves the frontal lobes. Write the beginning of a memo -- not the hard part. Just writing the beginning will recruit the frontal lobe neurons and trick you into not paying attention to the fear-based part of your brain. Also, never worry alone. Commiserate with a colleague. Social isolation is where toxic thinking flourishes.

What should my company do to keep ADT at bay? It's not about buying people more-powerful BlackBerries. Emotion is the key. The more you can create a trusting work environment, the less people have to deal with fear, the great disabler. Create conditions of mutual respect and trust, which cause the brain to solve problems instead of getting paranoid. Give people permission to say, "Enough!" instead of telling them to suck it up and try harder.

Some people will say you want to coddle workers who should just suck it up and do their jobs. How would you respond? If people could suck it up and it would work, I would advocate that. But sucking it up is counterproductive. You reach a point in the performance/anxiety curve where [work] starts to deteriorate. When you're operating on fumes, you go into fear/survival mode and you lose those qualities managers want. The bottom line is you can bring out a whip, but it doesn't work.

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