I’ve sent a copy of Crazy Busy to each of our three very busy middle-aged children, along with an email that begins: “With whatever influence that remains, I urge you to read this book slowly and thoughtfully…”

I urge you to do the same. But if you are too busy to read it, here are some highlights.

“Is it normal that my husband lays his BlackBerry down next to us when we make love?” asked a patient of psychiatrist Edward Hallowell. She thought she was entitled to her husband’s undivided attention.

A BlackBerry is a popular palm-sized communications device that offers cell phone, email, and Internet search capabilities. A long time instructor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Hallowell is an expert in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a genetic condition. Hallowell is, himself, both genetically ADD and dyslexic.

These are some symptoms of genetic ADD:
  • Difficulty focusing attention for more than a few moments.
  • Tendency to tune out in the middle of conversations, coupled with an ability to super focus attention in a crisis or when imaginatively engaged in a project, topic or conversation.
  • Tendency to be restless, constantly in motion, physically, mentally or both.
  • Tendency to have many projects going on at once, but trouble with follow-through, and even just keeping track of them all.
  • Moods that can change quickly from one state to another, as from agreeable to angry, confident to anxious.
  • Tendency always to feel in a rush; impatient, to want to get to the point, get to the bottom line immediately, even at the risk of premature closure of discussion or explanation.
  • A feeling of being overwhelmed by daily life, even when there isn’t much to do — sometimes a feeling of being defeated even before you start.
  • Difficulty in observing oneself, which leads to an inability to assess accurately how others perceive you.
  • Trouble getting organized. Tendency to organize by placing things in piles.
  • Trouble with time management. Tendency to procrastinate. Two time horizons: “now” and “not now”.
  • Tendency to worry easily, even if there is no danger at hand, coupled with a tendency not to worry enough when real danger threatens.
  • A chronic desire to alter your mental state, whether through fantasy, substances, gambling, sex, eating, spending or, other ways of scratching chronic itches.
  • A chronic feeling of underachievement, of not reaching your goals, even though achieving at a very high level.
  • A tendency to be easily bored, coupled with a visceral intolerance of boredom.
  • A constant search for high stimulation: action, noise, speed, breaking news, multitasking, bright colors, headlines, fame. Harmony and contentment are too bland.
  • A tendency to deal with difficulty by working harder rather than smarter.
  • Owing to personal disorganization, frustration and the feeling of being overloaded, the genetic ADD person tends to waste creativity, energy and talent by becoming increasingly buried under unmet obligations, unfinished projects, and piles of material waiting to be read.

Hallowell claims that hectic modern life — chained to computers, cell phones, and BlackBerries — can produce ADD-like symptoms in those of us who aren’t genetically afflicted with ADD. At the root of BlackBerry ADD, he says, is denial of “the abyss”:

“We keep busy to warm us with feelings of power, productivity and progress. We feed the illusion that we can defeat death, that ultimate confounder of our control. We stay busy to look away from loss, tragedy, and pain. We stay busy to control the whole shebang. Of course, death wins. All the activity in the world can’t bring back one person who has died. This is perhaps the hardest lesson any of us ever learns. Acceptance — not busyness — brings us to a peaceful place. By accepting that we do not have total control, by accepting death, by accepting our place in nature, we gain the fullest life and what control we are meant to have.”

As a consequence of electronically enabled excessive busyness, we may be lulled into spending hectic unfulfilled lives not doing what matters most to us.

Next time: Hallowell’s prescription for avoiding BlackBerry ADD.

—Gerald Le Van, October 2006

Source: Hallowell, Edward M, M.D. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap. Ballantine Books, 2006, 229pp.

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