I just got off the phone with a successful entrepreneur. He currently operates three businesses and just celebrated his 25th anniversary as a business owner. But this column isn’t about him; rather it’s about something he said, something I’ve heard uttered (usually off-handedly) by so many other successful business people — he mentioned his “ADD.”
Before I go on, I must say that I mean no disrespect to those who suffer from ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), which is what the medical disorder is now formally called. It’s a real disorder that negatively impacts millions of people and my intention is not to make light of it.
There’s been a lot of tsk-tsking lately about how multitasking is bad behavior. A few years ago Earl Miller, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told NPR that people who say they can multitask well are “deluding themselves,” adding that, in fact, “the brain is very good at deluding itself.” Miller said people really can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. Instead, he explained, we have the ability to shift focus from one thing to another at lightning speed: “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”
Whatever the explanation, the fact is that many folks attribute their success to “their ADD.” I think this translates to being grateful for their ability to jump from one task to another to another and handle them all (at least somewhat) successfully. A good friend of mine, a stellar salesperson, attributes his career success, the endless reserves of energy he possesses, and the ability to tackle several projects simultaneously to his ADD.
In our small business universe, having these traits can be helpful. We are the proverbial wearers of many hats. Most of us are constantly juggling, striving to keep all those balls in the air at once. We have to go from one thing to another, because if we don’t, who will? We need the energy reserves just to keep up with our to-do lists and make up for the fact that we’re all really sleep deprived.
As proud as we multitaskers are of our ability to accomplish many things simultaneously, the truth is there is a downside to having ADD. A few weeks ago Chuck Todd, the Chief White House correspondent for NBC News, observed that the United States is “an ADD society now. We’re entering an age in which there’s no more context.”
I agree with Todd. Sometimes we’re so intent on “getting it done” and moving on to the next item that we don’t really pay attention to the details of what we’re doing at that moment, or what we’re agreeing to do. But context is not all that’s missing. Many business owners, particularly those in the startup phase or those who are struggling, are simply afraid to say “no” because they’re afraid to turn down work. So they take on more than they can handle, crowding an already full agenda.