Edward (Ned) Hallowell, MD, on Stress in the Workplace: A second interview by Bob Morris

HallowellEdward (Ned) Hallowell, MD, a child and adult psychiatrist, is a New York Times bestselling author, world-renowned speaker and leading authority in the field of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He is a graduate of Harvard College and Tulane Medical School, and the founder of The Hallowell Centers in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and New York City. He was a member of the Harvard Medical School faculty from 1983 until he retired from academics in 2004 to devote his full professional attention to his clinical practice, lectures, and the writing of books.

Dr. Hallowell’s recent book, Shine: Using Brain Science to Bring out the Best in Your People was published by Harvard Business School Press in January 2011, as was his latest, Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive (January 6, 2015). His other published works include Married to Distraction: Restoring Intimacy and Strengthening Your Marriage in an Age of Interruption, with his wife, Sue George Hallowell, a couples’ therapist; Superparenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach to Raising Your Distracted Child, with Dr. Peter Jensen; Delivered From Distraction (Pantheon), with Dr. John Ratey (Pantheon) and the accompanying Answers to Distraction (Pantheon, 1995); and Delivered From Distraction (Ballantine) in 2005. He published his first children’s book in 2004, A Walk in the Rain with a Brain (Regan Books/Harper Collins). It conveys the message, “No brain is the same. No brain is the best. Each brain finds its own special way.”

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Morris: Before discussing your latest book, Driven to Distraction at Work, a few general questions. First, for decades I have heard people suggest something to the effect, “If you want to get something done, give the work to a busy person.” Does that tend to be true?

Hallowell: Yes and no. Obviously, if the person is too busy, he can’t invent more hours in the day and so the work won’t get done. However, the wisdom in the quip refers to the fact that most people who are very busy are also very industrious, and so likely to complete whatever work they agree to take on.

Morris: In your opinion, are there more, fewer, or about the same number of distractions today as there were (let’s say) ten years ago? Please explain.

Hallowell: A gazillion more. Is a gazillion a word? I just looked it up, and it actually is! The reason that there are so many more distractions today than ever before is that our electronics have offered us exponentially more inputs than ever have been possible in history. The great news about modern life is that we can do so much. But that’s also the bad news! To thrive in today’s world a person must be able to prioritize and to create boundaries.

Morris: Based on your own experience as well as what you have observed, which seem to be the most difficult distractions to ignore? How best to avoid or overcome them?

Hallowell: Electronics. The most difficult electronic distractions to ignore are the ones that interest you the most! This is obvious, but often overlooked. If you are an avid sports fan, then ESPN will grab your eyeballs most easily. If you are an inveterate gossip or newshound, then Twitter is your Achilles heel. If you love to play the market, then your Bloomberg can own you. The point is that in today’s world you can have instant access to whatever you love the most. So you have to learn the difficult skill of moderating your consumption of electronics of all kinds. The most basic and useful intervention of all is the hardest one to implement: T.I.O. Turn It Off.

Morris: During the ten years since you retired from Harvard Medical School faculty, what have been the most significant improvements in the identification and treatment of ADD and ADHD?

Hallowell: The great need today was the great need 10 years ago: education, both of the public and of the professionals…. Stigma reigns, still. Perhaps the most exciting advance in educating the public is a website aimed at parents called Understood.org. Created by 15 non-profits, understood.org brings together in one place all the expert knowledge and latest information anyone could need to identify and deal with all manner of attention and learning problem. Funded to the tune of $75 million, Understood.org could be a real game-changer, at last bringing these issues out of the dark realm of ignorance and misunderstanding into the light of knowledge and enlightened practice.

Morris: In your opinion, what are the most significant – and troublesome – misconceptions that remain about ADD? What in fact is true?

Hallowell: The most significant and troublesome misconceptions include:

1. Having ADD means you are stupid. Not true! Many of the most gifted and creative people in the world have ADD or dyslexia or both.

2. You cannot achieve at a high level if you have ADD. Not true. In my own private practice, I have brain surgeons, self-made billionaires, Pulitzer Prize winners, hugely successful entrepreneurs, inventors, professors, acclaimed writers, successful artists, gifted teachers, decorated military personnel, and on and on.

3. ADD is a curse. Not true. Managed properly, ADD can lead to a life of the highest levels of achievement and personal joy. However, if not managed properly, it may indeed become a curse.

4. ADD is due to bad parenting. Not true! The vast majority of cases are inherited. ADD is one of the most highly heritable conditions in all of the behavioral sciences.

5. The only effective treatment for ADD is medication. Not true! There are many treatments for ADD–or methods of managing it, as I prefer to say–that do not include medication. I, myself, have ADD and dyslexia and do not take medication (other than coffee!). The mainstays of the non-medication methods include coaching and structure; physical exercise; meditation; nutritional supplements; and creative activities (having a creative outlet is essential for people who have ADD).

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Shine, you explain how “the best managers bring out the best from their people. This is true of football coaches, orchestra conductors, big-company executives, and small-business owners. They are like alchemists who turn lead into gold. Put more accurately, they find and mine the gold that resides in everyone.” What are the defining characteristics of the mindset of the best managers?

Hallowell: First, an ability to get along with a wide variety of people. Second, an ability and a desire to locate the talent in every person. Third, an ability and a desire to help other people shine, even if it means surpassing their manager. Fourth, the ability to change one’s mind, see a different point of view, and admit when one is wrong. Fifth, the ability to give criticism in such a way that it can stimulate growth rather than induce shame.

Morris: How specifically do the best managers “bring out the best” in those whom they supervise?

Hallowell: Most of all by setting them up to work in their “sweet spot”: what they do really well, what they really like to do, and what advances the mission of the organization.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which those efforts are most likely to be successful?

Hallowell: High trust, low fear. High levels of frank and candid conversation. Plentiful connection, in which members of the group know each other in some depth.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Driven to Distraction at Work. When and why did you decide to write it?

Hallowell: I decided to write it because the people at Harvard Business Review Press told me the Number One request they received from executives was for advice on focus. Since I am a “focus doctor,” it was a natural book for me to write.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Hallowell: The major one was how prevalent and pernicious the problem of distraction is in today’s world, costing many billions of dollars and millions of hours of lost productivity.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Hallowell: Rather dramatically. I ended up writing a lot more about individual psychology than I had originally envisioned, and a lot less about the science of attention. That’s because I wanted to write a useful book, a book that readers could really apply in their everyday lives.

Morris: To what extent (if any) did you learn something especially interesting or significant about yourself while writing the book that you did not realize before?

Hallowell: What a lovely question. Let me think. I learned than I am not as dumb as I feared. I was not sure I could write this book, but, when I did complete it and knew that it was good, I felt the same way I did when, as a kid, I did something I didn’t think I could.

Morris: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has much of value to say about what he characterizes as “flow”: that is, the mental state during which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Athletes call it being in a “zone.” In essence, flow is almost total complete absorption in what one does. In your opinion, how best to reach such a state? How best to sustain it?

Hallowell: Do something that is both challenging and deeply interesting to you.

Morris: Here’s a follow-up question: To what extent (if any) is being in this mental state counter-productive?

Hallowell: It’s only counter-productive if the building is burning down and you are so engrossed you don’t notice it.

For those who have not as yet read Driven to Distraction at Work, you offer a wealth of practical advice, including several sets of “10 tips” that will help your reader avoid or cope with the most upsetting problems in the workplace. First, what is “screen sucking” and what problems does it create?

Morris: Based on what you have observed and learned from your extensive research, which of the 10 tips for reducing screen sucking (37-38) seems to be most difficult?

Hallowell: Screen-sucking is the ubiquitous practice, these days, of attaching to screen and not letting go. Best antidote: turn it off.

Morris: Which of the 10 tips for multitaskers and people who can’t say no (53-55)

Hallowell: Learn how to say no politely, without guilt.

Morris: For the despair of infinite possibility (61-64)?

Hallowell: Accept that you cannot do everything and that to do anything you must eliminate everything else for that time.

Morris: For idea hoppers (75-77)

Hallowell: Create structures that compel you to focus.

Morris: For dealing with toxic worry (95-96)?

Hallowell: Never worry alone.

Morris: For altruism and the curse of the toxic handler (101-107)?

Hallowell: Learn that it is not selfish to take care of yourself. Indeed, that altruism begins in self-care.

Morris: For helping people to take care of themselves, not just everyone else (115-117)?

Hallowell: I think several of my comments earlier address that.

Morris: For adults who have ADHD (131-133)?

Hallowell: Read my book, Delivered from Distraction.

Morris: Of all that a C-level executive can learn from this book, what in your opinion will be most valuable? Please explain.

Hallowell: How I detest sound-bytes, which is what you are asking for, what the world is asking for. Everyone wants everything in a sound-byte, thus eradicating depth anywhere. Hence, I respectfully refuse to answer that question. Instead, I urge the interested C-level executive to read the book.

Morris: What about line managers who have several direct reports for whom they are responsible?

Hallowell: Same advice.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which distractions are kept to a minimum?

Hallowell: People are working in their sweet spot. I’ve devoted my entire career to helping them find it.

Morris: A few years ago, I worked with members of a senior management team to help them accelerate development of leaders at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. During a discussion one day of how to solve the problem of disruptive distractions, one executive about one of his “Door Policy”: If it’s open. come in; if it’s half closed, you better have a solid reason to come in; if it’s closed (“and unless the building is on fire”), do not disturb. What do you think of that policy?

Hallowell: Excellent!

Morris: How do you and your associates manage in your own organization?

Hallowell: We treat each other with respect.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO of a Fortune 100 company has read and then (hopefully) re-read Driven to Distraction at Work and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. Where to begin?

Hallowell: Invite me to consult.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Driven to Distraction at Work, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Hallowell: Truly, and I am not being cheeky, read the book. Managers differ, organizations differ, needs differ, assets differ, challenges differ. I made the book short, very short. The only way it will have maximum impact is if you enter into the world it creates and take it in. What you need will stick. The rest will provide context, which you also will benefit from. Reading the book will affirm what you do well, and point you in directions you have not known you could use. Not knowing you, I can’t tell you in advance what they might be.

In answering this way, I am advocating what the entire book advocates: take your time, take enough time to go into depth, to probe, wrestle, and learn, to master, to grow, and in so doing to savor the experience.

We live short lives. But we should not take in what we take in short bits. We should go deep while we can.

How long can you look at a sunset to take in all that you can from it? How long can you gaze into your living room fire and learn what it wants to tell you? How long can you listen to the waves crash down upon the shore until you’ve got what they have to say?

I don’t mean to be difficult. I know that we are all in a hurry, and we want to take in as much practical information as we can. There’s no practical info in a sunset or in waves crashing on the beach.

But what of the brilliant idea that occurs to you while you are looking at the sunset? Can’t we say the sunset gave you that idea, or at least opened the door for it?

That’s the major lesson of my book: To help as many people as I can to create the circumstances under which their great ideas, deep feelings, and brilliant solutions to thorny problems will be able to reveal themselves.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Hallowell: You’ve asked all I could have hoped for, and more. But I will add one suggestion. Always search for the secret and hidden ways in which you, and the people you encounter, can give and receive what you and they need most. Do that, and you will always grow.

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Ned cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

The Hallowell Centers link

Meet Dr. Hallowell link

ADD and ADHD Briefing & Resources link

Amazon link

YouTube Videos link

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