Driven to Distraction at Work

By Edward Hallowell

(Harvard Business Review Press, 247 pages, $29)

We work in a world of distractions, many of which we bring upon ourselves. And they are likely to grow, exponentially, warns psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, who specializes in attention and productivity.

“This is why all the commonly offered advice – such as manage your time and to-do lists more efficiently, multitask better, be more organized – don’t and can’t work. They’re only Band-Aids. Instead, you have to retrain your attention,” he writes in Driven to Distraction at Work.

In 1994 he coined the term “attention-deficit trait” (ADT) to describe the common problem he saw emerging. It’s the tendency to hop from task to task, e-mail while talking on the phone, rush from meeting to meeting, and text covertly from under the tables at those meetings. Unlike the better known ADD (attention-deficit disorder) or ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), which are genetic in origin, attention-deficit trait is caused by the context in which it occurs. Essentially, the trait emerges because it seems to help us deal with the stresses of our life … until it doesn’t.

The symptoms eventually take over an individual, not after a single big incident, but over time. “Like dementia, the onset of ADT is far more subtle and insidious. The average worker suffers a series of minor annoyances, finds memory more of a problem than ever, notices the workday becoming ever more unpredictable but definitely longer, and finds it harder and harder to keep up,” he observes. The reaction is to intensify the bad habits that are causing the malaise. And that doesn’t work.

He delineates six distracting habits:

1. Screen sucking

We have become addicted to our electronic devices, jittery when denied WiFi. Biologically speaking, the same dopamine circuitry that is activated with common addictions is fired up by spending too much time online. As with other addictions, we deny that we have a problem as we seek our next fix.

2. Multitasking

Faced with an unrelenting load, we become harried, curt and unfocused, trying to pretend that everything is under control. We become so used to being interrupted, we can’t pay attention to anything. And the multitasking includes not just work assignments but family, friends, and other interests – nothing gets proper focus.

3. Idea hopping

This occurs with creative people who never finish an idea they start thinking about or pursuing. Ideas come continually; action, hardly ever, because just as one becomes a possibility, another idea arises that seems irresistible.

4. Worrying

The drive for success leads people to worry about anything that might prevent them from succeeding. Great chunks of the day are wasted attending to pointless exercises just because of anxiety. “Toxic worry – the tendency to focus excessively on problems that aren’t all that important – is common in the millions of people today who perceive all the dangers of life but lose sight of the positive,” he writes.

5. Playing the hero

These individuals can’t get any work done because they are so busy dealing with the problems of colleagues. Wired to be altruistic, they never pay attention to their own needs, distracted by the problems others face or create. The late professor Peter Frost of the University of British Columbia, in his 2003 book Toxic Emotions, called such people toxic handlers who hold the organization together while sacrificing themselves in the process.

6. Dropping the ball

This is actually true ADHD, when people are unable to become organized because their mind is so scattered. Planning, prioritizing and following through become impossible.

Dr. Hallowell offers some simple, practical suggestions for handling each habit. But more broadly, the individual must regain control by retraining themselves to pay attention. Not paying attention continuously, but finding what he calls “flexible focus” – periods of intense concentration followed by intervals in which the mind drifts, coming up with novel ideas.

He highlights five essential ingredients to developing flexible focus: Energy, emotion, engagement, structure, and control. “You should monitor your brain’s energy supply at least as carefully as you monitor your car’s supply of gas or your bank account’s supply of money,” he said of the first item, urging you to pay attention to sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, cognitive stimulation, and positive human contact.

Since passion drives achievement, you must learn to regulate your emotional state and also be deeply engaged in your work. Devising proper structures – whether appointment books or date nights with a spouse – can beat back the distractions that prey on you and make you more effective. Finally, you must exercise control, rather than be controlled by modern society.

This book deals with a topic of pressing concern for most of us, offering clarity, wisdom and plenty of ideas for getting out of the maelstrom. Each section is built around stories from Dr. Hallowell’s practice that seem taken from the people around us, making it all the more compelling.


Canadian musician and digital entrepreneur David Usher offers a creatively designed book on unlocking your creativity in Let the Elephants Run (Anansi, 227 pages, $29.95).

Kingsville, Ont.-based marketer Noah Fleming explains how to cultivate enduring customer loyalty in Evergreen (Amacom, 272 pages, $33.95).

Your Self-Sabotage Survival Guide (Career Press, 217 pages, $18.25) by communications strategist Karen Berg shows how to overcome negative behaviours that are preventing success.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail

Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Feb. 10 2015, 5:00 PM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Feb. 11 2015, 9:18 AM EST