Letters from Maine

Got a short attention span?


Have you every wondered whether you have an attention deficit disorder? I have and I suspect that there are plenty of folks who share my curiosity. Realistically I’m pretty sure I don’t have ADD because while I enjoy being physically active my folks never described me as “bouncing off the walls.” Although I think I am very aware of my surroundings and observant, I wouldn’t say I am unusually distractible. I can multitask reasonably well and have been reasonably successful academically and professionally. But the one characteristic I do share with most ADD patients is a short attention span.

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Short, of course, is a relative term. Any academic class longer than 45 minutes pushes me past my limit. The same goes for movies and television documentaries. Reading always has been a challenge for me, and 20 minutes is about as long as I can sit with a book or magazine article – even if it’s about a topic that interests me.

Even when I am painting or wood carving, I need to put down my brushes and knives after 20 minutes and do something else. I am a one-set tennis player and about a seven-hole golfer. I have the physical stamina to go much longer, but by the second set or the 10th hole I would prefer to be moving on to some other activity.

In college, I quickly learned that all-nighters were counterproductive. My usual study pattern evolved into one in which I would spend about 20 minutes on one course, take a trip to the refrigerator and return to studying on another course for 20 minutes, then take a break outside to shoot some hoops and return to work for 20 minutes on a third course. This pattern of relatively short bouts of work punctuated by brief snack or exercise breaks seemed to be my most efficient, productive, and mental health–sparing strategy.

Just last week, I learned that there is a name associated with my system. It’s called the Pomodoro technique and was “invented” by a student in an Italian business school in the 1980s (“This Time-Management Trick Changed My Whole Relationship With Time,”By Dean Kissick, The New York Times, June 23, 2020). At its core is a rigid pattern of 25 minutes of work punctuated by 5-minute breaks. The name comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer the inventor used to keep himself on a schedule that kept him at optimal efficiency. Of course I have never needed a timer to prompt me to move to another task. My short attention span always has taken care of that.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

It turns out that by stumbling into a career in outpatient general pediatrics I found a perfect fit for my truncated attention span. Visits seldom lasted more than 15 minutes followed by a quick sprint to the next room and a fresh and stimulating set of faces and complaints. You may think I should have been spending a minimum of 20 or 25 minutes, but visits of that length seldom fit the realities of my usual day.

There is a myth floating around that there is always a direct correlation between the length of an office visit and its quality. The patient’s perception of quality is most important, and it is based on multiple factors – not the least of which is the level of engagement the physician exhibits. For many pediatric visits, the complaint and management are straightforward. The problem comes when – for whatever reason – closure can’t be achieved in even a 35- or 40-minute visit. Here is when the provider must fall back on her/his clinical artistry by first acknowledging that neither patient nor provider is content with the current situation, but that a follow-up call that evening or an office visit in a day or two will continue the process.

Of course, there were always days when I wish had more time to devote to certain office visits. But for the most part, the hectic pace of outpatient pediatrics fit with my need for a rapidly changing stream of fresh challenges to keep my attention.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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