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Brain overload: Too much to do, too little time

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

By Kathleen Melymuka
January 10, 2005 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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

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