Friday, February 08, 2008

ADDing

The other day I sat next to someone with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) for several hours, and it was a fascinating experience. I mean that in a respectful way -- it was kind of startling to observe at first, but mostly I was impressed with the coping mechanisms that this person, who is an adult and a successful scientist, has developed.

We were each working on something different, each on our own laptop. At first, I wasn't really paying attention to my companion, as I was deep into editing a manuscript. Although there are times when I skip around from project to project, there are many times when I focus intensely on writing or editing or reading or thinking for a long period of time without interruption.

After I was finished editing, I glanced over to see what my companion was doing. He had said that he was going to work on a manuscript, but when I glanced at his laptop, he was reading a political blog. Seconds later he went back to his manuscript, wrote a sentence, then checked some news headlines -- then he went back to the manuscript to write another sentence or two, then he checked the weather online, then he went to some journal websites to scan the tables of contents, then he wrote a sentence, then he jumped up to get something to drink, came back and wrote a sentence, and so on. It was amazing. In the course of a few hours, he made progress on the manuscript, and entertained me with pieces of information gleaned from his internet expeditions.

Having ADD has long been a source of frustration for this person. There are times when it has made him extremely upset and angry with himself. The medications that he has tried over the years worked in that they helped him focus, but they also kept him awake for days on end and had other side effects that scared him. So now he just lives with it and, although he hates his inability to focus, if he keeps going back to his original activity, even if he can't sustain that activity for more than a few minutes, he gets things done. In fact, he gets a lot done. He published 10 papers last year and wrote at least 2 successful grant proposals. And he is very well informed about the news and weather.

17 comments:

Jonah said...

Is this ADD, or internet addiction? I am quite convinced I don't have ADD, but find myself struggling to get away from the endless pages and links of the 'net. Particularly when Facebook is involved.

Cherish said...

It makes me feel better knowing that highly distractable people can still accomplish things.

Did you know that your blog also makes a good diversion when someone is unfocused? :-D

Anonymous said...

Your colleague and I are very similar. I might not be quite so affected, but I'm also not so great at coping with it. It is extremely frustrating to ask a question to a colleague, seriously want to understand their response, but not be able to focus on what they are saying. They will say something that sparks my interest and I will shut them out so I can think about it... then when I return to them, they have moved on to a point where I'm lost. Very frustrating, especially when I know it will happen as I'm asking the question. If I can, I ask questions by email, so that I can parse the response in a way that works for my brain. The more monotone the voice, the harder it is to listen. My favorite professors all had interesting accents. I believe that I couldn't shut them out while they were talking. So, I learned more in their classes and had very positive feelings toward their teaching skills.

Lorie said...

I can also relate to this behaviour, although I've never been diagnosed with ADD. And I too am quite productive despite not being able to sit and work on something uninterrupted for long periods.

I think a lot of people function this way. Maybe it's a sign of genius? =P

Ms.PhD said...

I do this too, but not to such an extreme, and not all the time. I'm not sure I have always done it, but in recent years I've become more aware of it since Mr.PhD is more like you- can be extremely focused for long periods of time without ever looking up. I think maybe it has gotten worse as I've gotten older. Where I used to be able to work for an hour without a break, now it's more like 30 minutes.

Then again, it could be a learned behavior from having to live at the beck and call of an impatient bench timer.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm.
Post was too long for me to read it all at once ;-)

writing tricky papers said...

Yikes. Am with Jonah and the others who said they do this normally. It's inversely correlated to my confidence and/or knowledge about the topic at hand--e.g. writing the methods section of a paper, where I know every detail, I'm quite focused; but writing the discussion, especially in papers where I'm straying afield from home turf, I feel that the NYTimes just can't put up new stories fast enough.

So go ahead, ask me a delegate distribution, any state....

sylvanstrom said...

One of my nieces has ADD, and had a very challenging time getting established in a full-time job, for that and other reasons. As she and my sister have come to terms with her ADD, they've started to think of it as a condition of having too *much* attention, rather than too little - so much, that she can't focus on only one thing at a time. She's working at WalMart now, and her usual assignment is as the cashier watching over four self check-out stations. She does a fantastic job at this because paying attention to four registers at once comes naturally to her. Multitasking actually increases her productivity, whereas I'm not convinced it does so for most people.

lurker, MD said...

You could suggest to your friend that a lot of bigger medical centers (Cleveland Clinic, UCSF, etc) have occupational therapists who specialize in ADD. They can be as (or more) helpful than meds and tend not to have side effects.

ScienceGirl said...

My husband does this, and I have no idea how he ever gets anything done. But you are right, it is crazy to watch!

Anonymous said...

A very famous scientist I know has ADD. He has found coping mechanisms that work wonder for him, although they require self discipline. He uses timers, allotting a short amount of time for each task, and rewards himself with a (timed) distraction. He sets up continuous deadlines for himself, so that everything is very urgent (it would drive me crazy, but works for him). Other things include control of diet and caffeine intake. I think he has been professionally coached, and your colleague should think about it.
I've been at "important" meeting with this guy, and watched in amazement as he wiggled in his chair like a four year old, and then came up with very insightful comments.... ADD didn't stop him from getting to the NAS at a very young age.
My former roommate, an MD, also has ADD. He chose ER medicine because of that, and he's an excellent doctor. He can be very intense, but for a short time only, then he moves n to the next patient.

Sounds like most of us have some level of distraction disorder. A good time management coach/book can help!

Vicki Solomon said...

You get some very intelligent comments. Any chance I could subscribe to a feed of ALL the comments? I don't want just the comments for a particular post, I want all of them. Checking the Blogger help, it looks like you can just click to enable that for me.

P.S. I really like your blog.

Count Iblis said...

I'm also pretty sure I have ADD, or some related hyperactivity disorder. When I was a child I had the typical symptoms. I don't really remember a lot about that myself, but my parents remember this all too well :)

I do remember not being able to sleep well when I was just four years old. I was too busy in my head and I just couldn't fall asleep fast. These symptoms did improve gradually.

Other symptoms are talking while asleep, sleep paralyses, i.e. waking up but still being paralyzed as you are when you are in REM sleep (this is very scary, I had this quite frequently when I was young).

I think that my hyperactivity has moved into my head when I grew older. I.e. I don't need to run around; I can sit still for long times. Perhaps the fact that I work out a lot also helps.

I also need a lot of time time to fall asleep and I actually won't fall asleep at all unless I go to bed at the right time. This is great when travelling for a few days ad odd times, but it will break me up if it lasts for too long. I cannot count on catching up on sleep while sitting in a plane or train.

When I went to Australia a few years ago, I dind't sleep at all for 4 days due to the jet lag. This caused me to have hallucinations for a while. When I was lying in bed and my eyes were closed, I was just seeing images but I was awake.

The only thing that people notice about me today is that I am chaotic and that I work on many things at the same time. I'm unable to give an improvised talk, because then I will give a very unstructured chaotic talk that no one exept myself can understand.

The reason is, I think, that most people's thoughts are already pretty much organized. If you talk about something, you tend to just say what you think, unless you have prepared what you are going to say in advance.

I don't like to listen to talks, visit seminars and conferences. Unless I'm very interested in listening to some talk, I will just not listen at all and do something else instead in my head. Even in case of interesting talks, I'll get stuck at some points as the third poster pointed out.

Another thing is anomalously low scores at intelligence tests. I just don't have the patience to complete the test or I'll get stuck on some interesting questions. So, when moving to the next question, the previous question that I answered is still in my head...

I think that my IQ is about 70 or so, even though I'm about to get my Ph.D. in theoretical physics and have published 14 peer reviewed papers :)

EcoGeoFemme said...

I sat next to someone like this during a whole day of talks today. I felt bad thinking it, but his figeting drove me crazy!

Emily said...

I'm taking a break from a fellowship application to read your blog. Thanks for the reminder to get back to work!

steppen wolf said...

I do not have ADD, but that guy really sounded like me. And I am also one who cannot stand to work on something for hour and hours without frequent interruptions.

I guess...whatever works!

--elf-- said...

Hmm, I'm a bit late to the game here, but I am *exactly* like your colleague when I'm working on something I don't like. Such as writing papers for peer review, or programming. When doing something I enjoy, I can be engrossed for hours--teaching or otherwise talking to people and my hobbies, of course (knitting, reading). So I'm starting to try to let that fidgety stuff be a guide as to what I might rather spend my time on rather than fighting the fidget.