Book review: An alphabet soup of maladies of the digital age

Attention Deficit Trait is like Attention Deficit Disorder but is caused by outside events

While reading "Driven to Distraction at Work," I was propped up in bed, with my phone recharging on the other side of the room. Every time it pinged, my attention skipped — wondering who was trying to reach me. After a bit, I gave up and got out of bed to reunite myself with my gadget.

This shameful sequence of events appears to be exactly what the book is about.

Author Edward Hallowell, a doctor who has spent decades working on attention disorders, coined a term — ADT, or Attention Deficit Trait — which seems to describe my symptoms precisely.

ADT is a bit like Attention Deficit Disorder but is caused by outside events. We don't need Ritalin for it. Instead, we need to read his book. "Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive" is published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Alternatively, my need to see messages on my phone could prove something else: that "Driven to Distraction at Work" is insufficiently gripping.

Hallowell quotes studies showing ADT costs the U.S. economy up to $997 billion a year. Such numbers are terrifying, though mainly for their lack of logic. Productivity is not a zero sum game: If I spend time doing Internet shopping at work, it does not cost my employer a bean. I still get my work done later on, often at home.

Hallowell has more bad news. As well as ADT, it turns out we all suffer from PUED, or problematic use of electronic devices. I admit to this one too, though rather wish the acronym didn't sound quite so unfortunate when said out loud.

So what is the answer to PUED? It turns out that part of the answer is RUED — to keep a record of use of electronic devices.

I hope the doctor won't think it rude if I point out that RUED is not likely to be an answer at all. Nor will his suggestion that we go online for only half an hour in the morning and evening.

Most of us need to be online at work pretty much constantly. And if switching off were as easy as that, we would not be in the mess we're in.

Hallowell thinks one answer is to spend more time seeing people: "Make judicious use of the human moment. While more expensive and cumbersome, human moments are infinitely richer and more powerful than electronic moments."

Now he has lost me altogether. Talking to people is not expensive. It's free. It can be rich and powerful to talk to someone, but it can also be a crashing bore. It surely depends on whom you are having that human moment with.

The underlying problem with PUED and ADT, says Hallowell, is that we find it hard to focus. Fortunately, this can be solved, but only with a lot of harnessing.

In five chapters, he urges us to harness the power of the body, of the mind, of the emotions, of structure, and of the human connection. Some of this makes sense, but he loses me again when he says one of the best ways of doing the latter is to get a pet.

Otherwise, Hallowell offers some sensible advice that you or I could have probably come up with on our own without the benefit of decades of medical experience. In order to focus well, he says, it helps to eat properly, take moderate exercise and get some sleep.

But Hallowell goes further: The bed, he decrees, is for sex and sleep — not work.

Which is yet another way in which I have been getting it wrong. The reason I have been so inclined to be rued about "Driven to Distraction" may simply be that I read the book in the wrong place.

Lucy Kellaway is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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