Q&A: Defining a New Deficit Disorder

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For the chronically busy worker or parent, there may be a new term to describe what ails you: Attention Deficit Trait (ADT). That’s Dr. Edward Hallowell’s term for the ailment brought about by excessive multitasking—and it’s a close cousin of Attention Deficit Disorder. Hallowell is a noted child and adult psychiatrist who has written about and studied ADD for more than a decade. In his upcoming book, Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About To Snap—Strategies For Coping In A World Gone ADD,” Hallowell describes ADT and what causes it. TIME’s Senior Correspondent Sonja Steptoe spoke with him to learn more about how the illness works and who’s at risk.

HOW IS ATTENTION DEFICIT TRAIT DIFFERENT FROM ADD?
True ADD occurs in all settings, regardless of the environment, whereas ADT is environmentally dependent. The person with ADD is the same everywhere, even on vacation. The person with ADT is able to relax away from the setting that induces it.

WHAT ARE THE CAUSES OF ADT?
The pace of most people's lives these days induces it. We've never seen in human history the technology that we have today. I think it's basically technology driven. Why are we doing it? The short answer is because we can—because we can transmit so much information, we do. Because we can access so much information, we do. Because we can sign up for so many tasks, we do. Throw in global competition, job insecurity and all the other fears driving people today and the next thing you know, you get the phenomenon of ADT.

WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF ADT?
Distractability, restlesseness, a sense of "gotta go, gotta rush, gotta run around" and impulsive decision-making, because you have so many things to do.

WHAT DISTINGUISHES ADT FROM EVERYDAY STRESS?

If it's not getting in your way, forget about it. But if you find that you're having an awful lot of conflicts and not liking life very much, and you're making quick decisions without giving them the thought they need, then you need to do something about it.

IS ADT MORE PREVALENT IN CERTAIN JOBS OR PERSONALITY TYPES?

It's so ubiquitous that I hate to pick out one group. Anybody who is conscientious is subject to this because they will try to get everything done, no matter what. So are people who crave high stimulation. I've seen it in writers , people in the arts and the creative fields; but you also find it in accountants and others who are taking on more than they can handle.

ARE THERE DRUGS FOR ADT, AS THERE ARE FOR ADD?
It's like a traffic jam in your mind. It's something that we have created and we need to learn to control, like a traffic jam. The treatment for ADT isn't medication. That would be like dealing with a traffic jam by taking a sedative.

WHAT'S THE CURE?
One the misconceptions is that people should be super-organized. But that's just not going to happen for most of us. It's a goal that just ends up making you feel guilty and think that you're a bad person. What I say to folks is: You don't have to be super-organized. Just be well-enough organized to reach your goals. The best treatment is to take time to slow down and think and connect with the outside world. And to stop being a total slave to your electronics.

THAT SOUNDS EASY, BUT THEY FEEL LIKE A NECESSITY.
Feels is the operative word. That's the trap. You set it up that you have to instant message, you have to e-mail and keep your cell phone on endlessly. I'm not saying don't do those things. Properly used, they are wonderful. Improperly used, they are destructive. So I think it's a matter of our learning how to use our technology properly, instead of letting it use us.

WHAT'S THE TRICK TO STRIKING THE PROPER BALANCE?
We need to develop a new set of protocol about answering messages and all the rest. I have a cell phone and fax machine and I check my email several times a day. But I don't answer the phone during family dinner, for instance. You can't make love by e-mail—yet. But you sure can court by e-mail and it can be wonderfully helpful to relationships. On the other hand, I have a patient who calls her husband's computer his plastic mistress because they hardly ever make love anymore because he's always on the computer. By the time he comes to bed, she's asleep. Prioritizing is more important than ever. We still need the human moment—the face to face communication.