Why smart people underperform

If you're a slave to your iPhone or BlackBerry, you may have ADT, or Attention Deficit Trait.

It's a lot like ADHD, but the difference is that ADT is purely environmental.

Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell wrote about the "new neurological phenomenon" in Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, for Harvard Business Review:

"Marked by distractibility, inner frenzy, and impatience, ADT prevents managers from clarifying priorities, making smart decisions and managing their time. This insidious condition turns otherwise talented performers into harried underachievers. And it's reaching epidemic proportions.

"The symptoms of ADT come upon gradually. The sufferer doesn't experience a single crisis but rather a series of minor emergencies while he or she tries harder and harder to keep up. Shouldering a responsibility to 'suck it up' and not complain as the workload increases, executives with ADT do whatever they can to handle a load they simply cannot manage as well as they'd like."

Performance Matters blog: How to reclaim your brain

Although this report was first published in 2005, it's never been more relevant, since the condition is triggered by information overload. ADT sufferers need to regularly step back from the stress of the workplace and their dependence on technology, otherwise their brains will constantly go into "survival mode," which distorts the ability to think clearly and intelligently, writes Hallowell.

If you're a perfectionist, you're more likely to suffer from ADT. In an interview with TIME magazine, Hallowell said that "anybody who is conscientious is subject to this because they will try to get everything done, no matter what. So are people who crave high stimulation."

The good news is, since the condition is environmental, it can be controlled. Hallowell suggests taking these measures to combat ADT:

  • Think positively. It seems simple, but if your mind is clouded by negative emotion and fear, you'll underperform.
  • Interact with a person you like every 4 to 6 hours. People who work in isolation are more likely to suffer from ADT. "By connecting comfortably with colleagues, you'll help your brain's 'executive centre' (responsible for decision-making, planning, and information prioritising) perform at its best."
  • When you feel overwhelmed, do easy tasks first. That way, you feel more competent to conquer bigger, more complex tasks. There's a reason why standardised tests like the SAT start with the easy questions first.
  • Know when you are most "on" during the day. Plan to accomplish your most difficult tasks then.
  • If you're a manager, have your employees focus on their strengths. This boosts morale and efficiency within an organisation. Delegating effectively will also improve your performance.
  • Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat healthfully, and exercise. This will keep your brain in its best condition.

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