Last week’s blog article featured Part 1 of my interview about busyness and distraction with Dr. Edward Hallowell, the New York Times best-selling author of “Driven to Distraction,” “CrazyBusy,” “Shine” and several other books. This week is Part 2 of our conversation. The transcript of our conversation is edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to audio of the full 14-minute interview below.
Maura Thomas: What do you do for those people for whom crazy busyness and their ability to multitask is a badge of honor? I love that in “CrazyBusy” you said, “It’s fine to believe that multitasking is a skill necessary in the modern world, but to believe it’s an equivalent substitute for single-minded focus on one task is incorrect.” You use the term “frazzing,” which I love. Can you tell us more about that?
Dr. Edward Hallowell: It’s true. Creative, productive people do tend to be busy, but when they go over into crazy-busy land, then they’re frazzing. They’re just a whirling dervish. They’re just sending and receiving emails, making phone calls, barking out orders, purchasing, selling. It’s just a whole lot of, as Shakespeare said, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” It’s just a lot of noise. They console themselves or even pride themselves by saying, “Boy, at the end of the day, I’m so tired.” Well, what have you actually done? That’s the question they avoid. Until someone forces them to look at it and they get fired. They don’t get what they’re looking for.
MT: What about organizations where the boss is this way?
EH: Well, they’re in trouble, and there are a lot of them. I’m often asked can I speak to such a person and to try to get through — usually it’s a him — and have him understand that he may think his bullheadedness got him to where he is, but it’s not going to take him to the next level. He’s really got to learn to manage not only his own brain, but other people’s brains. He’s got to become more nuanced and less shoot-from-the-hip.
Jim Goodnight, who’s the head of SAS down in North Carolina, has been wise to this for a long time. He says brains are our most important asset. He goes to great lengths to take care of them. They have a huge gym. They’ll do your laundry overnight so you have fresh workout clothes. They have an enormous cafeteria. He encourages families to come to lunch together there.
People say, “How do you pay for all these perks?” He says, “Because we have the highest retention rate in the business. We pay hardly anything on new hires because nobody ever leaves. They don’t leave because we take good care. They’re incredibly productive because their brains are always in tip-top working condition.”
It’s the enlightened CEO who catches on to this and it’s really the dinosaur, the knuckle-dragger, who says, “Oh, that’s just nonsense. I want people to run through a brick wall everyday.” The enlightened CEO says, “Let’s learn to run around the brick wall.”
That’s the way of the future. Now the exception might be Amazon. The New York Times did a front-page story suggesting it’s a toxic place to work. The right kind of person loves that environment. There is the kind of person who loves intense competition, who loves an environment where people are really not cooperating. They’re competing all the time. As long as Amazon holds on to those people, that management style will work. That’s a minority though. Most people do not thrive in that kind of environment.
I worked with the Harvard chemistry department, which is about as high octane an organization as you can find. They have five Nobel Prize winners on the faculty there. About 15 years ago, a bunch of graduate students committed suicide. They did so because of the toxic environment in the chemistry department.
The head of the department brought me in and some other people. We worked on changing the culture, and it was all about moving from F-State to C-State. It was all about creating lines of connection, support. Productivity went up, and people weren’t killing themselves.
It’s a matter of taking emotional equilibrium seriously and realizing that it’s directly connected to productivity. I often say productivity is directly proportional to good suffering, but inversely proportional to bad suffering. Good suffering is working hard, thinking hard, persisting, lifting weights, if you will. Bad suffering is paranoia, depression, toxicity, just an environment that does not favor connection and cooperation and productivity.
MT: Even people who thrive in those environments, it can’t be sustainable, right?
EH: You see this in sports with the hard-ass coach, the coach who coaches by fear. You’ll get good results for one or two seasons, but then it teeters out. People tune him out. People say, “I’m done with this. I don’t want to live like this.” I think it’s almost a matter of the neurotransmitters just saying, “OK, enough. We’re not going to be afraid everyday anymore and if you want to fire me, fire me.” Like you say, I don’t think you can sustain a management culture of fear indefinitely.
‘I Wouldn’t Trade It For the World’
MT: You have talked about how clinical ADD in some way can also be a blessing. Can you talk a little bit about the upside?
EH: I have ADD and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s like you have a Ferrari engine for a brain — with bicycle brakes. People who have this Ferrari engine, we tend to be creative, original, entrepreneurial, imaginative, persistent, tenacious. These are the innovators. These are the game changers.
Like Tim Armstrong, he has ADD. David Neeleman, who founded JetBlue, has ADD. Most entrepreneurs have it. If you manage it right, it’s a tremendous asset, but if you don’t, that’s the prison population and the addicted population and the unemployed. It’s a trait that can really go both ways. It can be living hell, having ADD, or you can be the top of the game.
MT: How can someone with ADD harness that energy for good instead of allowing it to destroy them?
EH: That’s why I’m in business. You want to get diagnosed by someone who really understands it. Then you start managing it. Managing takes some special knowledge. That’s why I’ve written books. It’s not simple. It’s not just taking a pill. Medication can help, but there’s a whole lot more to it.
This is not one of those things you want to deal with on your own. It’s not a long, intensive treatment, but you do want to see an expert. That’s for sure.
‘A Special Energy’
MT: At the end of my engagements, I talk about what I call attention management: our ability to control our attention and how it not only makes us more productive, but more able to achieve the results that are significant to us. It improves our quality of life. You take, I think, a similar position in “CrazyBusy.” You wrote, “There’s an energy only partially understood that conscious human attention alone can convey.” You go on to say how you might consciously and deliberately preserve time to connect with what matters most to you. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
EH: Human attention really does carry with it a special energy that allows us to function at our very best. At our most creative, our most empathetic. We do our best work when we are highly focused.
You can’t be in that state all the time, but a lot of people just arrange their day so they’re never in that state. They’re always distracted. They’re always being interrupted. They’re always juggling and frustrated and little bit grumpy.
All I’m saying is create boundaries and structures so you can tap into that very special energy, that focus and concentration. It doesn’t have to be on a task; it can be on a person. I mean, that’s what love it all about. That’s one of my central messages: Create the circumstances in which you can tap into that energy.
Missed Part 1 of this interview with Dr. Edward Hallowell? Catch up here.
Dr. Edward Hallowell is the founder of The Hallowell Centers in New York, Boston MetroWest, San Francisco and Seattle, and the host of the Distraction Podcast, created to help everyone focus better. Learn more at www.drhallowell.com.