Multitasking, ADD and the Workplace

real life: Dana Knight
Attention, please. Distracted workers often fail to produce

April 8, 2005

I was just about to get down to the nitty-gritty of writing when an evil little temporary tattoo I received in the mail peeked from beneath my towering stack of files.

Wonder what that would look like on my ankle?

I rushed to the restroom. One damp cloth and 30-second rub later, the funky, mustard-colored sun tattoo looked pretty darned good.

The work I was trying to do at my desk? Not so good.

But I’m back. Settled down in my chair with the Diet Pepsi I picked up on the way back from the tattoo task and ready to admit: ADD is a problem for me.

ADD as in Always Doubly Distracted at work. With e-mails, phone calls, life. With the boss, the touch-ups to makeup, the alluring infohole called the Internet, sometimes I feel like staying focused on one task is impossible.

My American co-workers are with me on this one and more distracted than ever, according to a recent Harvard University study.

The average employee’s attention span is, at most, 12 minutes. The average worker switches to a different task every three minutes and gets interrupted every two minutes, says Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California-Irvine who studies the effects of multitasking on workers. She reported her findings to Ergonomics Today.

With technology overload (experts estimate workers respond to at least 200 e-mails daily) and the multitasking culture, employees’ brains are about to fizzle out.

“We’re inundated with information, and we don’t really know what to do with it all or how to process it,” says Peter Freer, founder and chief executive officer of Play Attention, a funky new piece of technology that can retrain a brain to focus (I’ll explain later). “It comes in cell phones, PDAs, faxes, e-mails, regular phones, radio and TV. Many of us have attention problems.”

I just noticed a book on my desk called “Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results.” It says to always walk on stage as if you belong there and to be unpredictable. Interesting. Now what was I doing? Oh yeah.

Overworked employees are triply distracted and unproductive, says Paul Riley, a psychiatrist with St. Vincent Stress Center.

“You are not focused,” says Riley. “You make a lot of mistakes.”

It’s a problem, a big one for employers, who lose valuable hours in productivity and attention to detail, as well as other distraction downfalls.

Experts say distracted workers have more unscheduled absences and higher medical expenses.

Often, the mere mention of a sick co-worker can cause a distracted worker to . . .

OK, I’ll admit it. I need new return address labels, and I’m sick of the same old ones. So I just Googled it. There were 2.57 million hits.

And the bosses wonder why work isn’t getting done.

An estimated 8 million adult Americans struggle with the inattention disorders like attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School. But, they say, only 20 percent realize it.

It shouldn’t take your boss long to figure it out.

“It is very difficult for a person with an attention problem to survive in the workplace without being discovered,” says Freer. “They’ll start 20 or 30 projects and finish none of them.”

Freer’s technology, called Play Attention, has been a big hit among major corporations that realize the problems with unfocused workers.

The way it works is simple. The employee wears a helmet lined with sensors that monitor brain activity. The software is popped into the computer and the worker is instructed to focus on the computer screen and the tasks at hand.

For example, if a fax shows up on the computer screen, the user is to move it using only brainpower to the in box. Same for a piece of junk mail that shows up; the user should concentrate until the mail lands in the trash can.

The more the user practices, the more the brain improves and gets used to being focused.

Nikko Smith just got booted off “American Idol.” Bummer.

I haven’t used the Play Attention yet. Can you tell?

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