What happens when you try to pour 12 ounces of water into an 8-ounce glass? No matter how expensive, efficient or elegant the glass, it simply will not be able to handle the capacity; it will go into overload.
Likewise, even the sharpest executives holding advanced degrees from the finest institutions can only process a finite amount of incoming information at any given time. Dr. Edward Hallowell, a mental and cognitive health expert, coined the term attention deficit trait (ADT) to describe a neurological phenomenon “marked by distractibility, inner frenzy and impatience.”
ADT is triggered by situational elements — excessive multitasking — which distinguishes it from its related cousins: attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which both have a genetic basis, and can be aggravated by environmental and physical factors.
Whereas a person with ADD will generally experience its symptoms anywhere, anytime, a person with ADT will feel its effects in situations that induce it — and not in situations that don’t. This distinction has powerful implications for leaders, both in terms of managing themselves and their teams.
Why It Pays to Keep ADT at Bay
Dr. Hallowell calls ADT an “artifact of modern life” resulting from excessive demands on our time and attention. “As our minds fill with noise … the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and thoroughly to anything.”
In outlining the risks of distracted driving, the National Safety Council calls multitasking “a myth.” “Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another.” In addition to switching between tasks, the brain is busy selecting, processing, encoding, storing and retrieving information in order to act on each task.
In short, multitasking makes us less efficient. Juggling our attention from one item to the next in an attempt to handle information overload may make us feel like we’re simultaneously getting more done. But we’re actually accomplishing less due to what the experts call a “cognitive cost.” Collectively, it makes our teams less productive as well.
Executive Coaching Strategies to Manage Attention Deficit Trait
Of course the best way to control ADT is to prevent it in the first place. Maintaining healthy habits, keeping an organized workspace, appropriately delegating tasks, working on your most important tasks during the time of day when you are at your sharpest and planning ahead can all help.
What can you do if you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of ADT? Dr. Hallowell offers several strategies for achieving focus, including:
- Take on a challenge — According to Dr. Hallowell, people tend to focus best when they work in an area in which they are skilled, but also where they are stretched. Find a task that is challenging enough to be engaging, but not so difficult as to be off-putting.
- Talk to yourself — If your work environment is conducive to it, talking yourself through a period of overload — out loud — can help clear the fog because it engages a different portion of your brain.
- Stretch — Any type of physical movement, whether walking around the office, stretching or simply standing and moving your arms up and down for 60 seconds can help break a frenetic thinking pattern.
- Tune out — Sometimes, willpower alone isn’t enough to ignore the incoming phone calls, emails and text messages. In the same way that you may need to close your office door to find uninterrupted time to focus, you may need to turn off electronic devices and/or notifications for a period of time.
Taking it a step further, leaders can help mitigate ADT among their team members by investing in amenities that contribute to a positive atmosphere, providing ample support staff, encouraging deep versus fast thinking and matching employees’ skills to tasks.
What strategies have you found most helpful to achieve focus amidst information overload?