A Look at Living in the Age of Distraction

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, your survival guide to our crazy-busy, ever-connected modern world hosted by Dr. Edward Hallowell, ADHD expert. A discussion about the dangers of distracted driving, multi-tasking myths and living in the age of distraction.

Episode 1: An Exploration of Distraction

age of distraction

DR. HALLOWELL: What distracts you?

Female 1: All the crappy stories on the news.

Female 2: Do people count? My mom.

Male 1: Who I’m going to marry, stuff like that.

Female 3: The linen closet could use some organization.

Male 2: Your cellphone goes off, you have email.

Female 4: TV definitely sucks me in.

Male 3: The latest scores for any of the teams I really enjoy following.

Female 5: Food videos about cooking.

Female 6: I think that social media is the biggest distraction.

Female 7: You might scroll through Facebook.

Female 8: You start scrolling and like, “Ooh, this person’s getting married,” and, “Ooh, this person had a baby.”

Female 9: I go out with my girlfriends and it’s like we’ve got to get an InstaPic.

Female 10: Panda Pop, it’s a game that’s on my phone.

DR. HALLOWELL: Hello and welcome to Distraction. I’m your host Dr. Ned Hallowell and welcome to our podcast that is devoted to the crazy, busy life we all live, teeming with distraction. You just heard the voices of some of the people who work at Collisions Media, telling you about what distracts them. Today we’re exploring what really distracts us in life and why.

Let me give you a little background on the show in general. I’m a psychiatrist and I’ve been treating distraction in the form of attention deficit disorder for over 30 years. I have ADD myself. I’m 66 years old so I’ve sort of been an expert on it for 66 years. Our whole world has become distracted. It’s no longer a matter of ADD any longer. It’s a matter of everybody feeling that they have to struggle to focus.

This show will explore the many different ways in which you can become distracted, but also the tremendous rewards of connecting deeply, meaningfully with anything that you love. Each week we’ll come at this in a different way, no two shows will be alike. We want to surprise you and disrupt your world in a wonderful way. We want to bring you from your cloud of distraction and instead create a dialogue, and a community of people who are looking to combat the sandstorm of distraction in which we live.

To start with the science end of things I had the great opportunity to speak with Dr. Daniel Levitin, a world renowned neuroscientist and author of three New York Times bestselling books, including his latest, “The Organized Mind, Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

Living in the Age of Distraction


Dr. Levitin: Hello.

DR. HALLOWELL: Thank you for joining us. What tends to distract us?

Dr. Levitin: Obviously we’re distracted by actual, physical shiny objects or anything moving in the periphery and there are evolutionary reasons for that. If you’ve got something that’s capturing your peripheral vision, it can be very hard to concentrate on what’s in front of you because historically it might have meant there was a predator or something like that.

DR. HALLOWELL: If you’re way back in history and a saber tooth tiger walks up to you, you want to have some warnings. You want to hear the branch crack or the growl come at you so you can start to run away. In today’s world there aren’t many saber tooth tigers and yet we’re still reacting as if there were because our brains haven’t changed. We’re now, instead of being protected by our capacity to be distracted, we’re in fact being impaired.

Dr. Levitin: Nowadays what distracts most of us is the enticement of email and Twitter and Tumblr and Vine and Pinterest and Instagram and Snapchat and HipChat, and all the rest because they’re potentially providing some new information. Not always, and not always interesting information, but you never know what you’re going to get.

DR. HALLOWELL: I often say to people, “There’s something irresistible about an unopened message.”

Dr. Levitin: There absolutely is because you may have won the lottery, or it may be a new business opportunity, or a party that you’ve been invited to, or it could just be spam, or something routine, or something that you need to deal with but not for another month. You don’t know. It’s the mystery envelope with the big question mark on it.

DR. HALLOWELL: Right and when the mail used to come once or twice a day that was one thing, but now it comes once or twice a second.

Dr. Levitin: That’s the important distinction, right? Two things fall out of that. One is that because it took snail mail so long to get to you, it didn’t matter if you rushed out to the box and picked it up at the moment the mail person dropped it there. You had a sort of a time window, and the expectation on the part of the sender was that it might be awhile before they heard back from you. If they really needed to reach you right away they would have contacted you by some other means.

There was something very neat and orderly about the communication modes we had 30 years ago. Mail was for one set of things with a certain urgency, or lack of urgency. Telegrams were something different, phone calls were something different than those, a personal visit even something different than that. Now in your email inbox, and if you’re like most people you get email and Twitter and Facebook and everything in one place, either your computer or your phone, they mix all of this up. The medium itself doesn’t give you a clue as to its urgency.

The Real Dangers of Distraction to Ourselves and Others

distracted driving

DR. HALLOWELL: We’ll hear more from Dr. Levitin in a bit. First let’s delve into some of the real life dangers that distraction poses. To get a handle on this, Roxanne Drolet, one of our producers, spoke to a Connecticut State Police Trooper and Spokesperson Kelly Grant.

Kelly Grant: Distracted driving has been around for a long time. However, smartphones have made it completely different. There’s so much going on with your phone. It’s not just a phone anymore. You can text. You can look at media outlets. You can look at websites. You can get your email. Yes, there are a lot of distractions when you’re driving, even more so now that we have smartphones.

That second that you glance at your phone could be that second when traffic ahead of you has come to a stop, or a dog has run across the road or a person has run into the street. It’s that second when you miss what’s happening on the roadway in front of you.

Roxanne: Can you paint us a picture of just how bad it is?

Kelly Grant: We don’t check the numbers every single weekend, but we will do campaigns like Labor Day weekend, New Year’s Eve weekend, and we will check out what some of our troopers are writing tickets for. Obviously over the years the numbers for distracted driving have increased.

Roxanne: You’re still actively a state trooper in addition to being the spokesperson for the department?

Kelly Grant: That’s correct.

Roxanne: You’ve been on the front lines. Is there any particular story you’d like to share with us that really drives it home for people?

Texting While Driving

Kelly Grant: We had a couple on a farm tractor. They were getting ready to pull out of their driveway. They saw off in the distance a vehicle coming; however, they had plenty of space. They were able to pull out onto the street and eventually as they were driving, a vehicle came along and struck them and ejected them both from the tractor. They both suffered numerous injuries, fractures, broken bones, some internal injuries. Troopers were able to determine that the operator of the vehicle that struck them was actively texting and before he knew it, he was on top of the tractor and had no time to stop or swerve out of the way.

A couple of years back, we had a motor vehicle accident, that turned out to be a fatal motor vehicle accident, on I-95 in the New London area. We have our Naval Base up there. We had a sailor who was driving, speaking on his cell phone. He was distracted with his conversation. The person on the other end realized that the conversation suddenly ended. The sailor had driven into the back of a tractor trailer truck that was stopped for heavy traffic. Ultimately he lost his life; he was a fatality.

One of the very important lessons of talking on your phone and driving or texting and driving is that you’re so distracted that you are not aware of your surroundings. He didn’t realize that traffic ahead of him had come to a stop. It definitely could be a difference between life and death.

DR. HALLOWELL: Texting and driving, it’s amazing how dangerous it is. More than 3,000 teens die each year in crashes caused by texting while driving, and yet some states still don’t have a law against it. We have a list of states that do not yet have laws about texting that we’ll put on our website. We hope you’ll contact your elected officials because this is a no-brainer. Every state needs to ban it. We need to educate people about how dangerous it is. We need to blow up the myth that “Oh, I can do it, it’s no problem.”

Just imagine how tragic it would be if your teen or you killed someone or you were killed yourself because you were sending a text saying, “Honey, bring home some milk.” We really have to get the word out that this kind of distraction is potentially lethal.

Dr. Hallowell Discusses Multitasking Myths

Well, I don’t want to bring you down so let’s come back to Dr. Levitin and let’s blow up another myth: that multi-tasking is possible. Neurologically it’s not possible.

Dr. Levitin: Multi-tasking just doesn’t work. The brain doesn’t work that way and don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re getting a lot done if you’re multi-taking, because it’s very clear that you’re not.

DR. HALLOWELL: You cannot do two cognitively demanding tasks at once. You simply can’t. What people really mean by multi-tasking is shifting their attention back-and-forth between two tasks in rapid succession. If you’re watching two TV shows simultaneously and they’re boring shows, you can infer what you missed. But if they’re both very gripping shows, you’ll miss something important.

In the first half of the show, we’ve looked at what kinds of forces distract us and how incredibly dangerous they can be. I hope we haven’t upset you too much, but we do want to get your attention so that in the second half of the show we can explain to you exactly what to do about it. This is a topic that every single individual can and really should address because they can solve it. One of the few times in life that with a huge, major problem you have it in your own power to fix. Come back for the second half and we’ll go into the “How To” segment of the show.

Dr. Hallowell Recommends Resources for People with Attention Deficit Disorder

ADD/ADHD managing distraction

DR. HALLOWELL: I’d like to tell you about a podcast that a friend of mine is producing. His name is Peter Shankman. He’s an amazing man and he’s producing a podcast called “The Faster Than Normal Podcast.” As the name implies, it’s about people whose brains go faster than normal; like people with ADD/ADHD. In his podcast, Peter Shankman interviews people who have managed to turn their ADD into an asset and who are not disabled by it. Quite the contrary, they are enabled by it. They are propelled to the heights by it. People with ADD/ADHD who are colorful, successful, creative, entrepreneurial, game changers, world beaters, the kind of people that you love to meet.

Peter’s been going around the country interviewing these folks, and I’m honored to say he interviewed me for his podcast since I have ADD and I’d like to think I’ve turned it into an asset. He’s interviewed a wide array of people; I think you’ll find his podcast tremendously exciting. You’ll learn tips and tricks and hacks and various strategies to turn the force of distraction into a force of creativity and energy and success.

The website where you can check this out is fasterthannormal.com and his Twitter handle is @petershankman. You’ll find on the website a blog and videos that are designed to help people with ADD/ADHD as well as people who work or live with someone who has it. The time we spent together flew by. I think you’ll find him entertaining, informative and worth your time.

Ways To Deal With Distractions

DR. HALLOWELL: What can you do about this problem with distraction? To help us, we turn to our team, that you already heard from, who were telling you about what distracts them. Now they’ll tell us what they do to fix it.

Male 2: If I want to spend time with my kids, I might take my phone out of my pocket and put it on my dresser.

Female 8: Sometimes I’ll leave my phone on a charger upstairs.

Female 3: If I’m expecting my son to not be on a device, a tablet or something, then I think I need to model that behavior; not be on mine.

Male 3: I start worrying about what my boss is thinking and say, “I’d better get back to work.”

Female 1: I try to limit myself on how much I’m on there, how much stuff I’m intaking.

Female 6: Music seems to soothe the beast for me.

Male 4: I have a number of lists that I try to work off of.

Female 4: Sometimes I just won’t even turn the TV on because I know that I’ll sit there and just be distracted by stuff.

Male 3: I make a lot of coffee.

Female 5: I don’t really know what an answer would be necessarily.

DR. HALLOWELL: Let’s go back to Dr. Levitin, our guest neuroscientist expert, and get his take on what the best way is to combat this force field of distraction that permeates modern life in the age of distraction.

Dr. Levitin: I think we can take a tip here from some people that are doing a really good job managing their lives, their time and their communication. I had the opportunity in preparing “The Organized Mind,” to spend time with and shadow a number of very successful people from a lot of different domains. They were writers and artists, Noble Prize winners, scientists, CEO’s of some of the biggest companies in the world, government leaders, senators, congressmen, members of the Obama White House, generals and admirals in the military.

Turn Off Your Email

One common thread was that they dealt with their communications differently than most of us do. First, they would enforce a kind of black-out period where they wouldn’t be checking their email and their other feeds. They would turn it off for an hour or two at a time so they could be productive and focused and not distracted. Now important people like that need to be reachable right away and so the system they put in place to affect that is they would just tell people who dealt with them, “Look, if you need to reach me during these times of day or I don’t get right back to you on email, just pick up the phone and call me.” There’s a little bit of training going on there.

What a lot of them do is they open up another email account; a second email account with a new address and they only give it to those people that they want to be able to reach them immediately and urgently.

DR. HALLOWELL: Like it could be [email protected] versus [email protected]

Dr. Levitin: Exactly, that’s right and that stays on all the time. Maybe only six or seven people have it and then you further instruct them, “Don’t use it for sending me videos of the cat playing the piano or for an invitation to a party that’s three months from now.”

DR. HALLOWELL: Or I’ll take you off my list.

Dr. Levitin: That’s right, I’ll block you. All of these social media and networking mechanisms have come to control us and I think most of us leave them on all the time. What ends up happening is that other people are controlling your schedule and what you pay attention to, not you. I think it’s better if each of us grabs back some of that control.

Goal: To Be In Charge

DR. HALLOWELL: I so agree with you. I say the goal is for you to be in charge of it, not it be in charge of you.

Dr. Levitin: That’s exactly right, yes.

DR. HALLOWELL: The good news is this is an achievable goal, unlike global warming where we have to wait for policies to change. We can change policies in our own lives and organizations.

Dr. Levitin: Right, and I’ve never encountered somebody who objected to any of this.

DR. HALLOWELL: Yes, in fact often don’t you find them saying, “Oh, that’s very clever. I think I’ll go do the same.”

Dr. Levitin: Yeah, I’ve never had anybody you know, sort of say, “Oh no, what am I going to do? Woe is me now.”

DR. HALLOWELL: We’ll put a link to Dr. Levitin’s wonderful book, “The Organized Mind” on our Facebook page, as well as our website.

Distracted Driving

DR. HALLOWELL: You know, I don’t know if I told you but to tape this show I drive from my home just outside of Boston down here to New Haven, Connecticut. Along the way—it’s about a two-and-a-half-hour drive—I pass lots of people, and I can see many of them texting. Again, it kind of gives me chills. I enjoy the drive, but I also notice, since I’m here to do the Podcast on the subject, how many people just don’t get it. That’s why I found this advice from Trooper Grant particularly important.

Kelly Grant: Pay attention to the vehicles that are around you, ahead of you, behind you. What are they doing? You can only do so much to control a situation and could be doing everything right. You could be maintaining the speed limit, driving to the right, keeping a reasonable distance from you and the vehicle in front of you. You could have your phone down, it could be in the glove box whatever, but it’s the people that are around you – you need to pay attention to them also. Is the person behind you distracted? Can you see in your rearview mirror that that person is busy with their phone or turned around yelling at a child in the backseat? You need to be prepared that this vehicle behind you may not stop.

We do ask people that if you do need to get on your phone to make a call, an emergency call, any type of call, pull over preferably off the highway, find a parking lot, find a gas station and make your phone call from there.

Closing Statements

DR HALLOWELL: How do you deal with the age of distraction? Tweet us at distraction_pod, call us at 844-55connect or email us at [email protected]. Please rate us on iTunes and leave a review; that helps a lot. Jump in! This is a discussion that is aching to be had. This is a discussion that really has worldwide global importance. How do we solve the problem of distraction and you all collectively have the answers, much more than the experts. Please join us and give us your solutions.

Distraction is produced by Collisions, the Podcast Division of CRN International. Collisions, Podcast for curious people.

DR. HALLOWELL: Well that’s our show but before we go, we want to leave you with the sound from a great website called [email protected]. The man who founded it, Will Henshall, who was at one point a rock musician and then turned into a scientist of sound, has constructed this amazing website. You put on headphones and you listen to scientifically engineered music to engage that part of your mind that would otherwise be distracting. Your mind engages with this music to allow the other part of your mind to focus.

This is a transcript of the podcast Distraction, “An Exploration of Distraction.” Distraction is available on iTunes.


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