Antidote for Information Overload
My patient, we will call him Leo to respect his confidentiality, is a high paid salesman. When he has a job. The problem is, having attention deficit disorder and anxiety, he has a great deal of difficulty keeping his jobs. In fact, he is one of 3.5% of people in the workforce with this problem. Like them, his annual income is 10-15% less that his peers with the same educational level. Like the 3.5%, he has changed jobs, on average, every 12-18 months all his life. Either at his own request, getting easily bored with doing one thing over and over again, or being fired because of poor performance, he can’t keep a job for long. He has had “12 jobs in 14 years,” as he often reminds me when he feels particularly upset with himself. This spotty work history has inevitably made him insecure and anxious, also typical for adults with ADD.
But unlike the vast majority of the 3.5% who do not or cannot ask for help, Leo found his way to my office, determined to “finally nip this problem in the bud,” as he put it at our first meeting. His own motivation to overcome this deficit is a very good indication that he will succeed, now that he has asked for help and will have my professional experience and knowledge on his side. Talking to him about his job, it took me very little time to understand that he is a talented salesman, which, along with his motivation to get well, will be the foundation of our intervention strategy to improve his overall prognosis.
We started our intervention by teaching him a great deal about ADD: how it manifests in adults; why he accumulated over time so much hatred of himself; how anxiety is very often a consequence of the frustrations created by the ADD symptoms and not the other way around. With this information, he was able to see the areas in his job and in his life that have been greatly affected by ADD: from strenuous relationships with frustrated friends because of his being “distracted” all the time and forgetting to show up or being very late to social functions…to constantly falling behind at work because of being unable to manage his time and meet deadlines, ADD had a clear negative impact on his life.
During our sessions he began, for the first time, to have an explanation for why he was finding himself in these predicaments, when he had no intention of being irresponsible, lazy or rude. He just appeared that way, but everybody ended up treating him as such.
Then we started Adderall, a type of medication often used for the treatment of ADD. This was another learning experience. As the medication works only for either four or seven hours at a time, he had to figure out how best to use it to take advantage of it during key hours of his daily schedule.
Then we started troubleshooting his problems at work. I taught him how to keep a tight schedule, how to work with the planner and how to manage deadlines. A big problem for him has always been sorting out information so he can use it promptly at work whenever needed.
Recently, a few weeks ago, Leo got a new job. This was his first job since we started our work together. He has made a lot of progress in dealing with ADD so far, but getting and keeping this new job is the ultimate test of his new and improved abilities.
Two days ago, Leo marches into my office with his laptop in hand and an upset but resolute expression on his face. “Doc, you’ve got to help me with this or I’ll lose my job again like the idiot that I am,” he said as soon as he sat down. He then opened his laptop and turned it on, which is unusual for our sessions. “Please,” he said, “come over here so both of us can look at this screen at the same time.”
I turned my armchair so I could see his screen. His new job involves working with a few different groups of complex products. He needs to know them well so that he can present and sell them to buyers in his industry. When on the phone with a client, he needs to rapidly access these information and the technical specifications for each. But when I looked at his work screen, I was horrified. I could not see how in the world he would be able to accomplish that. All the categories and subcategories, along with different files referring to different products, were all chaotically mixed up.
His screen looked like this:
“Is this the screen you need to work with when you talk to a client?” I asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” he answered.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “there is no way I could work with this screen either.”
“Thank you!” he said, relieved that he was not the only one struggling to understand it or use it.
“Are you allowed to move things around on this screen?” I asked, reaching out for a piece of paper and pen.
“Yes, they told me I can organize the material in any way it works for me,” he said, frustrated again. “I did this mess myself, not my manager. I put all the information in, trying to sort it all out. But when I try to find a particular piece, it’s impossible to remember where I put it, under what heading. Or if I sort of know, it still takes me forever to find it and retrieve it. Look, these are all the main categories and subcategories, and all of these, here, are the files that have to go with each category.”
I asked him more questions to better understand what each category and its elements were. We reorganized the whole screen together. We created new files, separated the old ones and put them into the folders to which they belonged. We even designed files for his follow-up discussions with clients without having to use pieces of paper that he would certainly loose or mix up later. We also did a task manager to remember to call back his contacts, for each category of product, at a certain interval of time. I had him practice with some of these files and folders. He took an imaginary buyer and walked him through all the stages from introducing the product to completing the sale. He soon figured out the new structure. He still needed to do some additional work but he had the basics. I knew he could manage from this point on.
A simplified version of the new structure of his work screen looked like this.
He took a long look at it. After a pause he said: “I think I got it! I’ve got to go, Doc, I have work to do!” He obviously wanted to finish sorting out all the categories and polish them a little more at home. On his way to the exit door, he stopped and said as an afterthought, “I think I will actually be able to keep my job this time!” He walked out into the world, more confident and more resolute than I have ever seen him before.
Two weeks later he called to tell me he had just closed a complex sale with many zeros in the price tag. He received recognition in front of the entire department. He was very happy. And he will keep this job.
What was actually Leo’s problem?
He knew his material very well, he was smart and he was very motivated to do the necessary work to succeed on his new job. What was the key ingredient that was missing and undermining all his effort? He got himself into a state of information overload. Being unable to sort out the different categories and subcategories of information he had to work with, his thinking became paralyzed. This happens very often to people with ADD but can happen to anyone who does not take the time to think about organizing the data in a simple, logical and accessible way.
This ability does not automatically come with practice; but once you get it, it becomes like a game, a puzzle waiting to be solved. Once you begin thinking about how to sort your information before you start working with it, you will see how much easier it is for you to access it and use it effectively. This goes for personal life as well. How many times have you faced complex decisions about something and got a headache just trying to sort out randomly all the facts in your head?
If we cultivate the ability to sort out facts, ideas or information, in a clear, logical way, it is easier for us to see the pros and cons of each possible decision. It becomes much more obvious what is a good choice. Sorting out the information strategically gives us a much better chance to achieve a desired result with a great deal more confidence.
Try this out: take a recent example when you had to make a decision, even a simple one like whether or not to buy a new sweater or a new pair of shoes. Remember what your thinking was at that time. Remember how you felt after making that decision. Were you making the purchase impulsively? Were you debated endlessly with yourself, unable to reach a satisfying conclusion? Were you happy with your decision in the end? Or did you think about it so much that you got a headache and were unable to make any decision, exactly what I call information overload block?
Now think about the same event and try to sort out logically the pros and cons of buying and not buying that article of clothing. Look at the two categories, and if it isn’t obvious already, you can attach numbers to emphasize the facts with the highest importance to you. The more important the fact, the higher the number on a scale of one to five. You can tally the scores if you wish. Or feel free to come up with any priority system that works for you and helps you see clearly which decision will make you happier. Then follow that course. How do you feel about your decision now?
Once you have found a structure that works for you, you can apply it in a similar way to more complex decisions. You will have more factors in play, but essentially, sort out the information available in your own mind and possibly on paper. Follow your own priority ranking and then make your decision. It will likely lead you to better results. To avoid getting bogged down in an information overload mental block, take pen to paper and draw your strategic diagram. If you do it right, you will see clearly your decision steps in their best sequence.
Taking the time to construct a plan or a strategy before you act will give you a logical edge and a confidence that will help you make decisions. You will have fewer regrets and less guilt. Making strategic thinking a common practice in your everyday life will help you become happier with your decisions and, ultimately, with your life.
Who says it isn’t in our power to construct strategically our own happiness?