Tag Archives: interruptions

A life of distraction

On a Sunday afternoon my wife and I did something rather rare for us. We dropped the kids off at my mom’s and drove down to the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton, FL to watch Distracted, a play by Lisa Loomer. We weren’t sure what to expect as we hadn’t seen a play in years. We had the sense that this play would have some personal meaning for us, but we did not know how it would manifest itself on stage.

Let’s just say that within the first 30 seconds of the play tears started welling up in our eyes. Why? Our oldest son who is nine has ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). He is a brilliant, creative, funny and generally happy kid. Happy go lucky is really a good way to describe him. His tennis coach has to remind him to “run” not “skip” when going after a ball. Not a care in the world and purely free is his normal mode.

These are the positive attributes of ADHD. The negative attributes include impulsivity, hyper-activity (mostly found in males), lack of focus, little respect for others “space”, challenged socially, etc. In our post-industrial world, where the foundation for structure and compliance is built into the fabric of our society, people possessing ADHD are labeled misfits, undisciplined or impulsive.

I happen to think that ADHD is a blessing and a gift. I have mild ADD (the “Hyperactive” part tends to fade away with age) and as a child I was simply labeled “hyperactive”. There wasn’t a widely known diagnosis for ADD or ADHD in the Seventies. I can relate to my son’s actions – most of the time! However the impulsive vocalization (e.g. yelling) and bouncing off the walls drives me as crazy as anyone else.

So there we are at the theater, the curtain opens to a modern living room filled with all of the distractions in our world today, including cell phones, Tevo, video games, etc. The mother of this nine-year old boy is trying to have some meditation time when she hears her son screaming in the background, along with phone ringing and other distractions. The emotion hit me when I heard the kids voice because he was stressing over going to school. Why? Because they were going to have a fire drill that day and the sound of the alarm freaks this kid out. My son doesn’t have a phobia about fire drills, but we are so often challenged my the smallest things that he seems to obsess over.

Small things become mountains for those with ADHD. This is one of the strange paradoxes of the condition. It is challenging for people with ADHD to focus on the task at hand, but they have bursts of hyper-focus on certain things. No one knows exactly why. In his book Delivered from Distraction, Dr. Edward M. Hallow discusses a number of the strange paradoxes of this condition. This book is a must read for anyone interested in learning about the wonderful and confusing world of ADHD/ADD.

As the play unfolds, my wife and I saw our lives flash before our eyes. The parallels to our reality and what was unfolding on the screen was uncanny. It starts with complaints to the parents from those of authority about this restless and undisciplined child. The parents spend a fair amount of time in denial until after a number of psychological evaluations the diagnosis comes back “ADHD”. Then you go through the treatments.

The first comment parents usually make is “I am not drugging my kid”. So the family on stage went through many of the same homeopathic steps that we did in an attempt to normalize their nine-year old boy. The teacher continues to send home reports saying that he is disruptive, doesn’t give kids there space and the universal zinger “he has some much potential but can’t seem to apply himself”. Growing up I heard those words over and over again!

They finally give in and try the medication (the same medication my son takes periodically) and it works great! At least for the teacher. She now has a compliant, focused and quiet student. The kid now “fits into the system created by our Industrial Age past”. The parents are happy to – at least initially until the side effects begin to set in. These include symptoms such as a lack of appetite, nervous impulses (e.g. teeth gnashing, nail biting), a withdrawn state, no desire for physical activities and radical mood swings. The boy rebels “I don’t want to take my medicine today!” My wife and I have heard the exact same objection from our little nine-year old many times and it’s the reason we are in an on again, off again cycle with medication.

The parents in an attempt to try anything begin to experiment with more radical holistic approaches which include a boarding school for children with ADHD. This also includes some radical diet modification. The list of things the boy can’t eat mirrors the diet my son is on: no wheat, no corn, no soy, no dairy, no fish, no turkey, no peanut butter. Do you know how hard it is to find something a kid will eat with all of those “NOs”? Every starch he consumes now is made of rice or potatoes. The only meat the kid can eat is chicken, beef and pork.

Dr. Hallowell and CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD) believe that effective treatment in children and teens requires a comprehensive approach. The best outcomes are achieved when multiple interventions work together as a comprehensive treatment. The play didn’t offer any answers because there is no cure. But the message was clear that love and attention are what children with ADHD really need, because its an attention deficit that their life lacks in our world of hyper-distraction.

The high cost of switching

I anxiously awaited the arrival of my new iPad. It was the first time I pre-ordered new technology, ever!  In anticipation of its arrival I was thinking about “focus” (one of my three words for 2010). The iPad can only do one thing at a time. You can’t surf the web while checking e-mail. It’s one or the other and there are advantages to this single threaded interface.

Those close to me know that “focus” can be a challenge as I have to work hard to stay focused. You can label it Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), remnants of preadolescence impulsivity or just the fact that we live in a world of “hyper-distraction”. But staying focused is harder for many of us today than it was for our ancestors. These days we find ourselves tethered to our iPhones and Blackberrys scanning e-mails, checking Facebook and texting friends and colleagues while at the kid’s soccer game. (Remember: “Wherever you are be there?” I forget it all the time).

Habits are hard to change, especially those we’ve done for years. For instance, most of us believe that we can effectively multitask. Sure we can chew gum and walk, but when it comes to intellectually challenging stuff I stand by the notion that multitasking doesn’t work. That’s because it is humanly impossible to simultaneously harbor two conscious thoughts in your brain at exactly the same time. Sure you can unload the dishwasher and talk on the phone. Because unloading the dishwasher is a relatively “mindless” function. But if you were to notice a crack in a dish, your mind would focus on that. How did it crack? Was it cracked before it went into the dishwasher or did it break during cleansing?

For things that require mental effort what we are really doing is time slicing. We are “switching” our thoughts from one thing to another rapidly – thus creating the illusion that we can multitask.

How many times have you picked up the phone to take a call in the middle of reading e-mail? At first you might be focused on the call, but as the conversation begins to wind down you start focusing on e-mail again. Guess what? The person on the other end of the phone can usually tell when you’ve mentally checked out. I do this to people when they call me from time to time and it is ineffective and inconsiderate.

The pie charts above show the effect that interruptions (represented in green) can have on your thought process. When you are taken off task it takes some time to mentally pull away, pay attention to something (or someone) else and then refocus back on that task. Depending on the level of complexity the “refocusing” stage can be time consuming, especially if you are in the midst of doing something creative or highly technical.

In his book, “The Myth of Multitasking“, David Crenshaw shows how to minimize interruptions by coworkers and how to deal with distracting electronic communications such as e-mail and phone messages. I am not advocating you lock yourself in a cave and accept food rations under the door. But I do recommend setting aside times in the day for concentrating on projects or tasks. These times should be periods in which you can’t be interrupted unless the building is on fire.

Threads of interruption: How to keep your day from spinning out of control

I will admit that I am easily distracted. Staying focused on the “task at hand” has always been a challenge for me. Some people call it ADD others call it a “creative mind” with a lack of “attention to detail”. I imagine if I grew up in the agrarian age I would have a better go of this. If it were my job to plant 10 acres on a given day, there probably wouldn’t be a lot of distractions (no e-mail, no cell phone). Assuming the neighboring tribe wasn’t on the warpath.

In today’s information age we are barraged with interruptions. Besides this blog, how many other interruptions are staring you in the face? You’ve got e-mail, instant messages, Skype calls, Twitter messages coming from tools like TweetDeck, Facebook alerts, LinkedIn requests, etc, etc. And that’s just your computer. We haven’t gotten to your “smartphone” that has apps for all of the above, your office phone and lastly the constant communication (interruptions) from employees and co-workers.

With this “hostile” environment as the backdrop, you must be armed with a plan each and every day. At DockMaster (Exuma Technologies) we developed a strategy called the EX-PROCESS. This process was inspired by two of the greatest writers on task management (note I didn’t say “time management”) that I’ve run across: Stephen Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) and Tim Ferris (The Four Hour Work Week). Here’s how it goes:

First a Covey-ism. You must begin each year, each quarter, each week and each day with the end in mind. If you do not have a plan when you walk into your office, you are already a target for interruptions. Covey developed a prioritization technique called the 4-Quadrants. This will give you a framework for deciding what is important. Take your “quadrant 2” tasks and assign them to various roles you play throughout the week (e.g. father, husband, manager, soccer coach, etc). Click here for an Excel 2003 version of my Weekly Worksheet. This process will give you a framework for deciding what is important. I like planning tasks by the week. Go through this exercise either on Sunday night or Monday morning and ask yourself: “What are the most important tasks I must accomplish this week” and commit them to writing. (one-page only).

Next, you must follow a set of rules to keep interruptions to a minimum. This is what our EX-PROCESS looks like.


The best tip I can give you is to NOT check e-mail when you first walk into the office in the morning. If you plan to be in the office all day, start the day by tackling a project. Stay heads down on the project for 1 to 2 hours before you start checking e-mail, talking to staff and taking phone calls. This one idea alone will change your life!

Quick Tips:

1. Turn OFF the “tray icon” notification each time you receive an e-mail
2. Do not schedule meetings too far in advance, keep your schedule open as much as possible so that you can evaluate how important a meeting is with a 24-48 hour window.
3. Don’t dwell on projects with deadlines far off in the future (this will be the subject of my next blog)