This summer, I was approached by several college students seeking medication for self-diagnosed ADD (attention deficit disorder). I resisted their heavy-handed, detail laden pitches – “difficulties concentrating, etc.” – knowing that both high school and college students are experimenting with stimulants prescribed for ADD. Adderal may sell on the black market for as much as ten dollars a pill during exam periods.
I rarely prescribe medication to a student who has not been evaluated or diagnosed.
To help understand why I am getting so many requests I spoke with some psychiatrist colleagues. Some try to weed out students really looking for a “study aid” rather than treatment for a chronic problem which may or may not be ADD. Dr Amy Silverman, a psychiatrist in Harrison summed up students’ thinking: “If we can’t do all of these things at once, and do them all well earning straight A’s or job promotions, then isn’t there a pill to help us with that?”
Students, like many of us, may be suffering “Death by Information Overload” – as Paul Hemp described in September’s Harvard Business Review. Could the modern study environment — constantly interrupted by phone, text, Twitter, email, IM, and RSS – be inducing an ADD-like mindset?
Students will tell you they are masters of “multi-tasking.” But are they multi-tasking or rather floating in “continuous partial attention” – as noted by Linda Stone, Huffington Post columnist.
“Continuous partial attention is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” The brain is monopolized by instinct and impulse – leaving little energy for much else.
Recent neuroscience research has shown that the brain’s frontal lobes are responsible for managing impulse control and working memory. These two tasks are linked such that memory is impaired if impulses are not managed properly. In her wonderful book The Primal Teen, Barbara Strauch says: ”In other words, if you can’t inhibit your brain from responding to every urgent email from your friends, you’ll forget your homework again.”
According to a Microsoft study, the average worker requires 24 minutes to return to a “suspended task” when interrupted by an email alert or a Facebook “poke.” Not only does it take time to read the message and respond to it, but then it also requires time to refocus attention. In the mean time, a student would be tempted to check other unanswered messages (and respond), to scroll through other work in process or previously opened windows on the screen, and finally to re-establish the state of mind necessary to finish the essay on Hamlet.
So how can students manage – without Adderal – in an age of information overload?–
Here are some techniques to try:
- Be more Zen-like. Let go of the need to know everything. Every message and tweet, every pop-up does not need to be addressed.
- Remember to breathe when you open your email. Stone has described what she coins “email apnea,” the act of actually holding one’s breath as the email box is opened, creating tension, muscle spasm, anxiety and stress from the mere act of anticipating the messages.
- Set aside a specific hour and amount of time for email. A fifteen minute break can include a stretch, a snack, and a message check.
- Shut off the cell phone’s audible and tactile alerts to incoming messages, especially during study periods.
- Keep email answers to a minimum, maybe two sentences. Acknowledge receipt and reply later in more detail.
- Minimize group mailings and “Reply all” answers. Studies show each email sent generates on average two return responses.
- Consider periodic “email bankruptcy”– the rash act of deleting all unanswered email!
- Categorize emails by “friend, family, work, school, etc.”
- Keep an eye out for intelligent software, now in the works, that will sense when you are busy (for example, by detecting the speed of typing).
While we wait for clever technological advances to help us manage time, controlling information overload will require a personal change in mindset and willingness to discipline ourselves. Just as the corporate workplace will demand a change in culture, so the family will also need to evolve its own rules in order to stay ahead of the deluge.
Medication has its place for those who have ADD. But we need to be sure we are not mis-diagnosing a modern affliction and instead try some very simple practical remedies first.