Harvard Medical school psychiatrist and Attention Deficit Disorder expert Edwin Hallowell has identified an epidemic of ADD-like symptoms among excessively busy people. Hallowell warns that frantic preoccupation with speed and stimulation – insidiously enabled by computers, cell phones, and BlackBerries – is stealing our attention away from what really matters most. Call this frenetic condition: BlackBerry ADD.

Why do we keep so frantically busy? According to Hallowell, it’s because: we can be, we want to be, we must be, we imagine we must be, busy is fun, we overcommit, others overcommit us, we let technology run us, we work hard but not smart, being busy is a status symbol, we’re afraid of being left out or missing something, we’re afraid of not maintaining our standard of living, we can avoid the pain of life, we can avoid everything difficult we don’t want to do, we don’t have time to feel guilty about doing nothing, the devil finds work for idle hands, everyone else is busy, we have an excuse not to do what we don’t want to do, we aren’t bored when we’re busy, we don’t have to think too much, it’s better than not knowing what to do, it’s the best way to get where we want to go, we’re creating time someday when we won’t have to busy, we don’t know how not to be busy. All of the above.

Most of Hallowell’s psychiatric patients suffer from some form of human disconnection. This social isolation exacerbates depression, substance abuse, anxiety, poor tolerance of frustration, tendencies towards violent behavior. Social isolation ranks right along with cigarette smoking, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure as risk factors for early death.

Paradoxically, the marvels of electronic connection are disconnecting us interpersonally. Connection by BlackBerry is illusory. We need a hearty handshake, honest eye contact, a soul-baring conversation. Real connections don’t just happen. We must plan and take the time for them — deliberately preserve and cultivate our most important human connections, nurture a few true and deep friendships. After all, where does hope come from when you’re fresh out of hope?

Socrates was dubious about the value of books because books that go on and on without the opportunity for dialogue. Dialogue accesses knowledge that’s otherwise inaccessible to individuals inquiring alone. Deep dialogue is the fundamental fabric of deepening relationships. Cautions Hallowell: books are linear, modern life is not. Books present a coherent picture. Modern life sprays itself at you and defies you to make the pictures cohere. Modern life is neither linear or circular. Life’s patterns are so difficult to decipher that more and more intelligent people to resort to simplistic, absolute conclusions just to feel the comfort of being certain, no matter if the certainty is a mirage.

“Paying attention has never been more apt, because the cost of attention has never been this high. Our collective attention has been trained surf, to dart off instantaneously like a hummingbird from a feeder. Our attention has become one of our most insecure assets and most sought-after possessions. We are seduced, tantalized, subliminally redirected, unintentionally engaged by some extraneous stimulus, or focused on some task because we are compelled to be. Attention theft runs rampant. Attention is like money: if we don’t watch how we spend it, we waste it.”

Thoughts and emotions come fast, but making sense of them takes time. These days it’s more convenient to have thoughts and feelings packaged for us by commentators. Life becomes instant replay. We don’t know what to think of what we saw until someone slows it down, replays it, tells us what it was really all about – tells us how to invest, to vote, what to eat, to watch, how to live, and ultimately how to feel and think. The efficient worker, like the efficient parent, the efficient homemaker, or even the efficient lover (with a bedside BlackBerry), does much better not to think or feel in depth. This simply slows things down.

There’s no correlation between the fast life and the happy life. Speed is fun, exciting, never boring. Slow can be boring, slippery, stupid. Speed has become the drug of choice; slowness has become poison. But the common association of fast with smart, and slow with stupid, is particularly misleading.

“We love speed not because it is deep, original, valuable, or important. We love it mainly because it is exciting. Going fast creates an adrenaline rush. Adrenaline is chemically similar to amphetamine, the street calls ‘speed’.”

“Please explain the problem to me slowly, as I do not understand things quickly”, pleaded Albert Einstein.

—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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