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"As our minds fill with noise - feckless synaptic events signifying nothing - the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and thoroughly to anything." Dr. Edward Hallowell

Email voice. It's that moment in a phone conversation when the other party becomes disengaged. Why? It's not because you suddenly got less interesting (or so you hope). It's because he or she is multitasking - checking email while "talking" to you. Maybe you've done it to others. No, you've definitely done it to others. This is one symptom of Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) - and it is undermining your ability to perform.

An ADHD Expert Weighs In at Work

We live and work in an environment in which there are endless sources of stimulation - and distraction. Dr. Edward Hallowell, who coined the term "email voice," has identified a neurological phenomenon that he calls Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT. As people struggle to keep up with all this stimuli, they exhibit symptoms including:

Dr. Hallowell is an expert in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Unlike ADHD, which has clear genetic and neurobiological components, "ADT springs entirely from the environment. Like the traffic jam, ADT is an artifact of modern life. It is brought on by the demands on our time and attention that have exploded over the past two decades."

Simply put: we're overloading ourselves. Smartphones, tablets, computers, work, obligations, meetings, decisions... We turn to multitasking to help us utilize time more efficiently. The reality is that multitasking only works if we're chewing gum and walking. Think you can, for example, check your email, send an IM, and talk on the phone - all at the same time? Think again.

Multitasking: Doing More, Getting Less Done

Stanford University researchers studied "media multitaskers." Professor Clifford Nass found that heavy multitaskers are "suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them." The study concluded that these people do not pay attention, control memory, or switch from one task to another, as well as those who tackle one task at a time. Not convinced? Stop and ask yourself this question: Would you let an 8-year old child email your boss? Present a major client pitch? No. It's absurd, no disrespect intended to 8-year olds. A study conducted at the University of London found that multitaskers who attempted to deal with cognitive tasks simultaneously experienced declines in their IQ.

These drops were equivalent to those expected if the participants had stayed up all night or smoked marijuana. A drop of just 15 points lowered the average man's score to that guessed 8-year old child. These changes may not be as temporary as we'd hope. Researchers at the University of Sussex, UK, found that high multitaskers (those who spend a great deal of time on multiple devices) actually had less brain density in the region of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control.

Stop. Step Away From The Tablet

Far from using time efficiently, multitasking inhibits our ability to concentrate and produce results - and it may impact our health. According to Dr. Hallowell, ADT decreases our ability to "solve problems flexibly and creatively" while the number of mistakes we make increases. We think we're doing more; we're thinking we're doing better. What we're really doing is running ourselves to the ragged edge.

Imagine a piece of machinery. If you run it at 100% capacity, nonstop, what happens? It breaks down. Despite our sophistication, that's exactly what happens to us. The reality is that, even if we do keep going, we're going to be a whole lot less effective. Eventually, burnout can cause a host of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, stroke....

We need a wakeup call: if we think we're infallible, that we can go on forever, we're going to end up like that overworked piece of machinery. If we don't gain control of our lives, we're going to lose them - literally or figuratively.

Smart, capable people underperform because they're trying to over-perform: they're trying to take in "dizzying" amounts of data, from multiple sources, while attending to various tasks. It does not work. So what's the first step in coping with ADT? Closing the email and giving your full attention to the person on the phone. Then, it's one step at a time.


Larry Hart

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