As I See It: Disorderly Conduct
February 26, 2007 Victor Rozek
Can you focus? Can you read this article without bits of your attention splitting off like excess electrons? Is your concentration stronger than the pull of distractions? Mine isn’t. I wish I could write my articles in one sitting, but usually I can’t. My mind wanders and my body follows. The kitchen needs tidying; the mail waits to be retrieved; Bill Moyers is on the radio and I revel in the reminder that wisdom has not perished from public discourse.
And because I work at home, I can indulge myself. In the winter, the sun is the worst distraction of all. The day is not complete for me if I cannot spend part of it outside. When the sun shines I want to go for a run, or work in the yard, or hike up a nearby peak. How can I resist? The sun is a bright yellow magnet and I am made of metal shavings.
If I was a kid, they’d say I had Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and they’d pump me full of drugs. But I already have so many disorders for which there are no known cures–the Cherry Garcia Disorder, the Chips & Salsa Disorder, which itself is a side effect of the Beer Drinking Disorder, the Novel-Reading Disorder, and the Aversion-to-Wearing-a-Tie Disorder, just to name a few–that I inherently distrust the power of pills to do much more than enrich the pill maker.
People who estimate such things believe there may be over three million working adults who have difficulty concentrating for one reason or another. And since the people who estimate such things usually have a financial stake in doing so, they were quick to label my benign struggle with spring fever as ADD.
Adults don’t have ADD, we multitask. We’re not distracted, our attention–like our networks–is widely distributed. In spite of evidence to the contrary, we can concentrate, we just do it in twelve-minute increments. I’ll bet that ADD is an unintended side-effect of watching too many years of television. It’s emancipation by commercial proclamation. Every twelve minutes or so we are free not to pay attention. We can go make a sandwich, check that pimple on our forehead, or fold some laundry. Over time, the pattern becomes anchored in the psyche and we bring it to the workplace where there are no sandwiches to be made and no piles of laundry to fluff. So we stare intently at the computer screen, while our attention takes its customary break.
Good news for Eli Lilly, pill-pusher to the muddled masses. Several years ago, the pharmaceutical giant began an ad campaign to convince adults that ADD is not just for children anymore. Isn’t that just great. It’s not enough that we have to contend with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and ED (well, we all know what that is), now we can toss adult ADD into the disorder stew. On the bright side, if your attention wanders far enough, you might forget about being SAD and you’d stop worrying about you know what. Regardless, according to Eli Lilly, if you’re feeling “distracted,” “disorganized,” or have “trouble waiting in line, maybe you have adult ADD, and need to see a doctor.”
Have trouble waiting in line? Oh, no, I love lines, the longer the better. I particularly love it when people with a basket-full of groceries go to the 10-item-or-less line, then take their time writing a check. But I digress. See what happens when you can’t maintain focus.
No use fighting it. Hang on, I need to take a break. I’m going to the post office to pick up the mail, but I’ll be right back. . . .
. . . . OK, I’m back. Now, where were we? Oh yes, Eli Lilly assuring adults everywhere that their restlessness and impatience is an indication of grownup ADD and that they should rush to their nearest physician for confirmation and treatment. It will come as no surprise that Eli Lilly has a purchasable solution to the problem. “We’re very concerned that folks have a disorder that is impairing and limiting their life,” said an Eli Lilly researcher, “it affects many people and,” by golly, “it’s treatable.”
Youbetchem. So is something called Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) which, conveniently, is an idiopathic condition, meaning it has no known cause. That’s probably because some marketing genius made it up after his wife complained he kicked her in the shins while she was sleeping. But real or imagined, there are now Restless Leg foundations and even a national institute, no doubt funded by concerned drug manufacturers. For all of you whose legs behave like a dog scratching a stubborn flea, take a few pills, induce partial paralysis, and you’ll sleep like a kitten.
But again I digress.
We were talking about workplace ADD, weren’t we? Man, I need some coffee. Go do whatever you need to do and meet me back here in ten minutes. . . .
. . . .OK, where was I? Oh, yes. At least ADD has some scientific footing. It’s believed to be a neurological disorder marked by inattentiveness, difficulty getting work done, procrastination, or problems getting organized.
Wow! I suffer from all those things and, silly me, I thought it was just aging. Maybe I should take a chance on the pills, but what if the side-effects include something far worse–like kidney failure and rectal bleeding? Alternately, maybe I could apply for a partial disability? If only I could concentrate long enough to fill out the forms. I might even have a case because people labeled with these disorders are unfailingly referred to as “sufferers.”
But is the suffering the result of the condition or is the condition the result of the suffering? In the workplace, unless you’re fortunate enough to have passion for your job, suffering may have many sources. Perhaps the problem is boredom. Perhaps we were not made to find fulfillment in the endless repetition of yesterday’s experience. Or maybe highly kinesthetic people (the ones who need to move in order to think) become distracted because sitting in a cubicle day after day feels like prolonged punishment. Or maybe ADD symptoms are a rebellion against doing things that are unimportant and having to pretend they are; an unconscious flailing for the soul’s longing denied.
Or perhaps it’s just part of the human condition; some of us are organized and some are not, some procrastinate and others don’t. Of course there’s no profit in simply accepting human nature, and discipline is hard work, so whatever your makeup there is a label for your deficiency and a handy cure if you’re willing to swallow it. If you’re disorganized you must have ADD; if your ultra-organized you’re anal-retentive. If your legs move too much you have RLS, if they don’t move enough you have Bad Dancers Syndrome. If you long for Spring, you’re suffering from SAD; if you couldn’t care less, you’re suffering from depression. Either way, it’s going to cost you some dough to straighten yourself out.
A better approach to minimizing workplace inattention would be to augment the repetitive portions of the job with creative tasks, and to tailor the workload to maximize the skills and interests of each individual. And if your attention still wants to wander, take it for a walk.
Of course, the marketing arm of the pharmaceutical industry wants to convince viewers they have a life-long condition requiring perpetual treatment. So they manufacture disorders and syndromes by the score. Maybe they’re real and maybe not, but like cigarette advertising, the process targets increasingly younger children. This month, four-year old Rebecca Riley died from an overdose of medication given her for ADD and bi-polar disorder. She was first diagnosed at age two. Just how much concentration does a two-year old need?
I prefer to think of my ADD symptoms as an unapologetic preference for variety. No, it’s not always efficient. I’m nearly done with this article and it only took eleven days, six hours, and 43 minutes. That’s the worst thing about my inability to focus: it turns a decent salaried job into a lousy-paying hourly wage.
But in an over-scheduled, day-timer-carrying, I’m-forever-running-late world, who’s to say that efficiency is more valuable than spontaneity? And in the workplace, who can say that covert time-wasting is preferable to the occasional open and joyous avoidance of responsibility.
Certainly not distractable me.