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Mind Matters: Driven to Distraction

Did you ever try cataloging the distractions you encounter during a single morning? Technology is my biggest time-grabber. Modern technology was designed to enhance productivity, but it doesn't always work that way. Sitting anywhere near a computer, I succumb to the temptation to read every e-mail that pops into my inbox. Then there’s the seduction of the World Wide Web. While looking for a citation online, I always seem to find other information that I’m sure I’ll need someday; it only makes sense to stop and save it in a folder. And while I’m on the Internet, I need to check the latest news and gossip on a writers’ discussion forum.

I’m not alone. A recent article on the tech site noted that the average office worker is interrupted by an e-mail, an instant message, a phone call, or something else once every 3 minutes. Typically, when my office phone rings it's with questions from a supervisor or a colleague, and I’m likely to receive at least one personal call on my cell phone every day. Not to make excuses, but if you’re a working parent, it’s hard to disconnect from the other part of your life. I keep the conversations with family pretty brief, but not brief enough to stop me from losing my train of thought.

I also yield to social distractions. A colleague stops by my office to ask a quick question and lingers to tell me about her weekend fling or her ailing mother. There’s no nice way to extricate myself from a chat that I know deserves a lengthier discussion--or even one that doesn't.

Finally, intrusive thoughts are bound to crop up, especially about real problems like health, relationships, and money. "The most significant distraction for me is [thinking about] diving deeper and deeper into debt," says a postdoc from San Diego, California. "I’m realizing that we can’t fund the basic needs of our family on two scientist salaries and that career advancement is unlikely to move fast enough to keep us above water."

Some things that demand our attention--colleagues confessing personal problems, office gossip--are definitely distractions from the work we ought to be doing. But at any given moment, most of us have more than one iron in the fire. Few people these days have the luxury of focusing on a single task for very long, and even if they do, that might not be the most efficient use of limited time. Many tasks--especially in the lab and within a larger team--have their own inflexible schedules, and we have to get our own work done while accommodating the intrusions imposed on us. So while we do have to deal with out-and-out distractions, the real challenge is often in managing multiple tasks.

Is multitasking a myth?

Some people believe they can do two or more things at once without compromising efficiency. For example, my teenage son swears that he can study, send instant messages, and listen to music at the same time. The term "multitasking" was coined by the computing world to capture the idea that one central processing unit can simultaneously handle two or more tasks. But whether a person can do so effectively is still a matter of controversy.

A recent study by psychologists Jennifer Johnson and Robert Zatorre at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, recruited volunteers to determine how the brain manages multiple sources of incoming information. Volunteers were asked to pay attention to novel melodies, to geometric shapes, or to both stimuli simultaneously. When the researchers used MRIs to visualize the brain function of their subjects, they found that increased activity in the left frontal portion of the brain was associated with multitasking. Presenting at a recent conference of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping in Toronto, Canada, the researchers hypothesized that the frontal lobes may be a "mastermind" that directs brain activity and allows us to do two things at once.

"The well-known cocktail party phenomenon tells even the casual observer that we can split our attention into pieces and hear who John or Jane is dating while we smile politely listening to our department chair prattle on about lab budgets," says G. Andrew Mickley, Ph.D., professor of psychology and chair of the neuroscience program at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. "But for the most part, doing one task or attending to one stimulus interferes with another. Attention is our way of devoting a limited resource (our time and energy) to the most important information. By almost any measure, productivity hinges on this most basic of skills." Mickley adds that there is still much more to be learned about the architecture of the brain and how it relates to attention and distractibility.

Distraction to the extreme

"The extent to which we can attend to, or are distracted by, information varies greatly among individuals, with extreme cases sometimes being diagnosed with an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)," says Mickley. "But how distractible is too distractible?" he asks.

The answer isn’t simple. Symptoms of attention disorders in adults are typically manifest in three areas: inability to focus, disorganization, and restlessness. A diagnosis can only be made after a careful history and an interview with a trained clinician.

Attention disorders involve a complex interplay of genetic, biochemical, and environmental factors; there is also speculation that frontal lobe activity is reduced in these individuals. Often, these disorders go unnoticed or are mistaken for other problems. A recent cover story in U.S. News and World Report reported that as many as 9 million American adults (about five percent of the population) may have attention deficit disorder or ADHD. Even though symptoms generally emerge in childhood, only an estimated one in four individuals with ADD is ever diagnosed.

Low-tech strategies for keeping on task

"Often multitasking results in not really paying attention and giving 100 percent to anything," says Marcia Merrill, a career coach in Baltimore. "Veteran workers can mentor trainees to show them how to get things done and stay focused."

Megan Hall, a postdoc in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Buffalo, New York, disciplines herself by only checking e-mail twice a day--once when she arrives in the morning, and once again before she goes home in the evening. She also turns off her cell phone at work. "If it’s an emergency, people can call me at the lab number," she says. As for overly friendly "chatters," Hall feels it is her responsibility to interact with graduate and undergraduate students. "But I try to keep it on a science level and not a personal chat," she says.

"What helps me is to promise my boss that I’ll have the paper, experiment, or presentation ready by whatever date," says Laetitia Delmau, a researcher in the chemical sciences division of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "When you talk about doing something, the deadline gets looser and looser as other things tend to pile up. If you’ve made a verbal commitment, you tend to honor it," she says.

Ian Henderson, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology at University of California Los Angeles, California, says that his work demands multitasking. "Not all experiments work all of the time, so to generate data and not become demoralized, it’s important to do several simultaneously," he says. "How many you can manage depends on the person," he adds. Henderson uses three lists as tools to "reboot" his brain after he’s been distracted: one with long-term research goals, another with daily goals, and a third with tasks/reminders for complicated experiments.

"Perhaps the best advice is too-hard a pill for attention and techno-junkies to swallow. Turn off the cell phone. Silence the e-mail alert beep, and schedule your time around the goals you have set for the day," says Mickley. "By closing some of the gateways to your brain, you may be able to open some others."


Frequently Asked Questions about AD/HD (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder)

ADHD in Adults: Fact Sheet (also available in Spanish)

Seeking your thoughts and anecdotes for an upcoming column for Mind Matters -- Secret Passions

Even those of us who love our work often have a secret passion that fills our off-hours. Is there something you like to do in your spare time---something totally discrete from your job--- that kindles your spirit and warms your soul? An interest? A hobby? Another type of work? Nothing too raunchy for this site, please. Tell me about your "other life" for an upcoming column in Mind Matters. Write to me at:

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

Irene S. Levine

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

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