Please help! I’ve lost my brain. It was here 12 seconds ago, and now it’s gone.
Is this the work of Martians, or could this be the dreaded Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? (ADHD to its friends.)
Anyone who has seen me at work knows that I certainly don’t suffer from hyperactivity. I don’t mind that everyone knows that I am a slug, though I am getting tired of having colleagues getting out the paddles and trying to start my heart simply because I’ve been slumped over my keyboard for a couple of hours. But attention deficit — that I’ve got, and unless science has it all wrong (again), so do you.
I learned this interesting factoid from a Drake Baer article on FastCompany.com. Reporting on research done by psychologist Peter Killeen, Baer challenges us to “count your exhalations — 1,2,3 — all the way to 10. See if you can get to 10 without thinking about lunch or laundry or deadlines or dates.”
Go ahead. Give it a try. Personally, I can go for years without thinking of “laundry” or “deadlines” or “dates,” but when it comes to thinking about lunch, I get all the way to 1 before I drift off to a sublime day dream that centered around Katy Perry sitting on top of a meatball sandwich as big as a Greyhound bus, which leaves a trail of tomato sauce as it roars along the highway. Hey, you have your deficit disorder, I’ll have mine.
Not satisfied in proving that our lives are endless episodes of Short Attention Span Theater, researcher Killeen also figured out why we lose focus so quickly. As you might expect, it’s your neurons that are to blame. (They’re not evil. They’re just hungry.)
As Baer explains, “after those first dozen seconds, ever-hungry neurons order up stored-up energy. If they don’t get the glucose or lactate they need — two of their favorite foods — they’ll fire more slowly.” The result of slow-firing neurons? “You’ll experience a deficit in your attention.”
Considering your diet, you would think that a lack of lactate and a low dose of glucose are the last problems your personal neurons would ever have. After all, the very best sources for these two mental energy producers are two substances in which you frequently indulge — pizza and beer. So the reason you can’t remember where you parked your car after a night of boozing is not that you had too much beer, it’s because you had too little. Thank you, science.
Since you’re certainly not going to change the diet that has brought you to a state of physical perfection, you will have to find other ways to work around your inability to work. Fortunately, professor Killeen has some ideas on this subject, too. “One of the first keys,” he says, “is to recognize that you have a finite attentional window.”
No surprise there. Your supervisor has been pointing this out to you since your first day on the job.
Given your finite — or as scientists would put it, “itsy-bitsy” — attentional window, you must “structure your workflow to be congruent with that capacity.” In other words, focus your peak workload on the time when you are best able to concentrate on a project. For me, it would be the time right after my lunch and right before my afternoon nap. Really, you’d be surprised what a dynamo I am in those 12 seconds, which is a good thing, since the other 28,788 seconds in the day are pretty much a waste.
And you’ll be very happy to learn that “to be our most productive and most creative we need to unplug throughout our workdays.” I know you like to unplug — to detach yourself from the workday grid and surrender yourself to the arms of Morpheus. But this is not quite what the researchers have in mind. “As banker-neurologist John Coates notes in ‘The Hour Between Dog and Wolf,'” napping isn’t the only option: “Other research has shown that switching tasks can defray your mental fatigue.”
I like this idea. Next time you find your mind wandering while trying to resolve one gigantic, fouled-up screw-up, turn your attention to a different gigantic, fouled-up screw-up. Fortunately, at your company, there’s never a shortage.
Another way to cope with workplace ADHD, according to the scientists, is to “step away and start thinking in nontraditional ways. What if the project was a chipmunk?”
How did they know?
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.