THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Quit Adderall: Drop the drug, and find focus

Each time we're interrupted at work, whether answering a phone call or replying to a juicy email, refocusing takes 25 minutes. So we spend nearly a third of our work day recovering from interruptions, trying to recover our focus.

The time management gurus are all over this problem.

Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, argues that the ability to positively direct attention is the key to quality of life. Gallagher says, "You can't be happy all the time, but you can pretty much focus all the time. That's about as good as it gets."

That sounds true to me. We each have a certain amount of attention, and our quality of life depends on how wisely we invest it. Now I'm wondering if attentiveness is the way to achieve self-discipline. You find your goal— the stuff that's really super important— and focus on it. That focus creates enough self-discipline to do what you need to achieve the goal.

But that isn't just my idea. Others are thinking the same thing.

Consultant Merlin Mann says that the key to productivity is attention, not life hacks.

In an interview with New York magazine, she says: "On the web there's a certain kind of encouragement to never ask yourself how much information you really need. But when I get to the point where I'm seeking advice 12 hours a day on how to take a nap or what kind of notebook to buy, I'm so far off the idea of life hacks that it's indistinguishable from where we started. There's very little advice right now to tell people that the only thing to do is action, and everything else is horsesh*t."

Okay. Now notice this about focus: You're not actually able to be productive without focus. So we can stop looking for the ultimate moleskin notebook or the perfect Firefox extension– those are actually productivity distractions. The hardest thing about productivity is figuring out the number-one thing on our to-do list. 

Mann says, "There's no shell script, there's no fancy pen, there's no notebook or nap or Firefox extension or hack that's gonna help you figure out why you're here." Maybe what you need instead is Adderall.

Officially, Adderall is prescribed to treat ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It's Gen Y's favorite drug. Adderall, or other ADHD drugs, gives a typical brain the intense ability to focus for long periods of time.

I got most of my Adderall information from a great article in the New Yorker, "Brain Gain: The Underground World of Neuroenhancing Drugs," by Margaret Talbot. In it, Sean Esteban McCabe, from the University of Michigan's Substance Abuse Research Center, says that at some universities, up to 20 percent of the population is using these drugs.

Penn neurologist Anjan Chatterjee coined the term "cosmetic neurology" for the trend of taking drugs to enhance ordinary cognition. He says, "Many sectors of society have winner-take-all conditions in which small advantages produce disproportionate rewards."

That resonates with me. I decided I should give Adderall a whirl.

But then I started worrying. I read research that shows Adderall is addictive. Not addictive like crystal meth, but people with a proclivity to addictive behaviors are sitting ducks. 

But what really scared me is that the cost of gaining extreme focus is often losing extreme creativity. A good example is Paul Philips, a professional poker player who won more than $1 million after taking Adderall. The scary thing about Philips is that Adderall also helped him resist the impulse to keep playing losing hands out of boredom.

"Cognitive psychologists have found a trade-off between attentional focus and creativity," says Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. "Evidence suggests that individuals who are better able to focus on one thing and filter out distractions tend to be less creative."

Maybe it's better just to do lots of things at once without great focus but with natural creativity.

Focusing on focus seems to distract from the real issue, knowing what you value most. Do we know that? And if we did know that, maybe our focus would come naturally. And our lack of time management comes from a lack of self-discipline, which comes from a lack of focus which comes from a lack of knowing the meaning of life.


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.