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ADT-The Secret Thief of Academic Productivity

(and How to Banish It) | Issue 197

Editor's Note: Take Back Your Focus


What's stealing your productivity and focus? It's probably not ADD. Discover proven strategies to propel you out of your rut in this month's feature article on how to identify and recover from an insidious syndrome that is notorious for hitting highly talented people. Need more personalized attention? Then consider getting your very own dissertation coach.


Wishing you focus and a finished dissertation,


Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC
Editor, ABD Survival Guide




Feature Article: ADT—The Secret Thief of Academic Productivity (and How to Banish It)


By Nora Misiolek, Ph.D. and Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D.


A rising academic star, Travis earned his master's in a year then catapulted through doctoral coursework. Faculty deemed him brilliant. Peers admired and envied this young scholar zooming down the fast track to a solid career. But when he hit the dissertation stage, everything began to unravel. Sans structure, Travis drifted through two semesters. Despite hours each day on the computer, he failed to make much headway on his proposal. He managed to teach his two undergraduate classes but struggled to return exams on time. After he repeatedly postponed their monthly meetings, his advisor finally insisted on receiving a draft of the proposal before making further appointments.


Despite being "crazy busy," Travis now worries that he will never finish the proposal, much less the entire dissertation. Despite his commitment to a scholarly career, he can't catch up with his ever-growing to-do list. His focus is shot, and managing his time and priorities have become a huge challenge.


What's going on here? Travis (actually a composite of some our ABD coaching clients) represents an increasingly common problem among high performers. Some of them wonder if they have ADD. That's not usually the case, however.


The problem is nearly always Attention Deficit Trait, or ADT.


ADT was identified by Dr. Ed Hallowell, former Harvard professor and top ADD expert, to refer to a flood cases that do not fit ADD criteria. However, unlike ADD—a neurological disorder that has a genetic component and can be aggravated by environmental and physical factors—ADT springs entirely from the environment. "Like the traffic jam, ADT is an artifact of modern life," he observes.


"While perhaps 5% of the population has ADHD, I'd guess from 50% to 75% of us feel as if we have true attention deficit disorder as we struggle to focus every day and master our own ADT." ~ Edward Hallowell

The impaired focusing ability is especially rampant among those who must manage multiple high-level goals while working alone—e.g., executives and academics. Their productivity plummets even as they are working long hours.


If you were a fly on the wall, you'd have seen Travis clearly engaged with his laptop over most of the day, flitting between online literature searches, teaching chores, email exchanges, while attending to popup notices and the intermittent pinging and ringing of his smart phone.


Yet at the end of the day, Travis had little to show for all that effort. Why? He had unwittingly created a working environment that compromised his ability to focus.


The rocketing pace of modern life means that our brains get hit with too much input from too many sources—far more than our gray cells can process, says Hallowell. Given this constant overload, the brain can lose its ability to focus well on anything.


Forget trying to cope with overload by multitasking. It can bring on a case of ADT, which in Hallowell's parlance is "a high anxiety response to the hyper connected environment."


Of the various form of ADT Hallowell discusses, addiction to electronic devices tops the list. For "screen-suckers," as he calls them, device use has morphed from a habit to an obsession. They surrender control to their computers, tablets, and smart phones. In turn, their mental energy is drained. Emotions deaden. They disengage from work, people, and ideas.





Find out if you have ADT with the self-assessment here. You can also get a good idea by asking yourself these questions. These are all little ways that screen sucking begins to suck you and your productivity dry.


Do you...


  • spend hours in front of your computer with nothing to show for it?


  • instantly check your phone for messages and texts when you hear a ping?


  • interrupt your current task on to check the latest email when you get an alert?


  • check your phone or tablet when eating dinner or in a meeting (perhaps under the table so no one notices)?


  • rush out of class to see what you might have missed?


  • feel mentally drained and unable to work because the first thing that you did when you got up was check email or Facebook?


  • take your cell to the gym?





We've combed through the recommendations by Hallowell and other experts on how to combat screen addiction. Experiment with these and watch for the signs that things are getting better in focusing, managing time, and setting priorities.


1. Monitor your device use. You may be kidding yourself about how bad your habit is, just as alcoholics do. An app like RescueTime will track how much time you spend with productive programs and sites versus entertainment (Think Word vs. Facebook.) Simply becoming more aware can help mild cases, we've found.


2. Go on a screen diet. Wean yourself gradually from your devices and track your progress just as you would when trying to lose weight.


3. Remove the triggers from view. You are more apt to engage with things that you can see or hear. So turn devices off and put them out of sight. Set times (e.g., work breaks, dinner) or zones (e.g., the bathroom and bedroom) that are device-free. Remember, "out of sight, out of mind."


4. Have Plan A and B for coping with anxiety: Do not use any of your screen devices for this purpose—it will only worsen the habit. If you are stuck, bored, afraid, or anxious, substitute another self-care activity, e.g., then do something else. Play catch with the dog, stretch, or get a cup of tea.


5. Do something else—and make it enjoyable. Make more time in your schedule to enjoy real life. Socialize, read, dance, bike, and play pinochle— whatever makes you happy. Savor the positive emotions—and recall this memory the next time your phone pings.


6. Get the support you need. Changing a habit can be challenging. Ask for help from a family member, friend, coach, or therapist to help you devise a plan and hold you accountable for limiting your device use.

You can regain control of your time and your life. You can finish that dissertation. We are rooting for you.





Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains


Hallowell, Edward. Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform (free pdf)


Hallowell, Edward. Driven to Distraction at Work: How to Focus and Be More Productive


Davis, Josh. Two Awesome Hours: Science-Based Strategies to Harness Your Best Time and Get Your Most Important Work Done





"I had a life once. Now I have a computer." ~ Unknown


"The greatest task before civilization at present is to make machines what they ought to be, the slaves, instead of the masters of men." ~ Havelock Ellis


"I like my new telephone, my computer works just fine, my calculator is perfect, but Lord, I miss my mind!" ~ Unknown


"What I need is a search engine that, no matter what I type in, comes back with GO BACK TO WORK." ~ Dave Barry




About the Authors


Nora Misiolek, Ph.D., M.B.A. is an Executive, Life, and ABD Coach who divides her time between Rhode Island and upstate New York. She is deeply passionate and committed to helping organizations and individuals develop their full potential through coaching. She particularly enjoys working with students who are returning to academia to continue their studies, having done so herself. Her teaching and research interests include managing innovation, virtual collaboration, leadership and teamwork, organizational change and development, and the psychology of work. Her website is, and you can reach her at

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources at She also speaks fluent Spanish and delights in new exotic Scrabble words as she savors life in the Chesapeake Bay area, California, and Argentina.

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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