Continuous Partial Attention

I have an article stuck on the wall behind my computer monitor. It is from the Times , asking “Have we forgotten how to concentrate?”, and I have glanced up at it a number of times this week. This is a common problem in our society, with easy distractions available at every turn – texts, emails, everything that the internet in all its glory has to throw at us, and we just soak it all up. In fact, this article may well have been called “Have you, Sylvia McCarthy, forgotten how to concentrate?”

A couple of lines spring out of the text: If I ate food, say, like I checked my digital portals, I’d think I had a serious problem and we are always on high alert, scanning the periphery for other opportunities. This last line comes from Linda Stone, a former Apple employee, who draws a clear distinction between “multitasking” and what she termed (back in 1998) “continuous partial attention” (CPA). Those who multitask do so out of a desire to be more productive and more efficient, giving the same attention and priority to what they do, getting as many things done at one time as possible. CPA is to pay partial attention continuously, so that we don’t miss anything and stay connected. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognised, and to matter…an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behaviour that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.

This is fascinating stuff. And remember, Stone thought up this term in 1998. Years before the social networking world became bigger than the real world. Before Twitter, Facebook, Google and blog became verbs that we use on a daily basis.

It has always been at the back of my mind that I suffer from attention-deficit disorder. I remember studying for the Junior Cert, Leaving Cert and university exams, and being unable to concentrate for more than 10-15 minutes at a time, always finding something to take me away from my studies. Nothing worried me more than being in an empty house, because I knew that without the threat of my mother walking past the window or knocking on my door to check on me, I would get no work done. Our conversations all seemed to start with me saying I’m just…, as in I’m just checking something online, or I’m just reading a chapter of this book, or I’m just going to take the dog for a walk to get some fresh air. As though I had been hard at work up until that point, and was taking a well-deserved break. Ha! She knew. She always knew. Strangely enough, I never failed any exams (not even 1st year Economics), but that was probably because my writing was so indecipherable that the correctors gave me the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe it was attention-deficit disorder. I’ll never know, because I don’t intend to do any more exams. Nowadays, with the internet at my fingers day and night, CPA is the culprit. Email (work and personal) pops up; I drop everything to read it. The blogs I follow on Google Reader are constantly being refreshed. What’s happening on Facebook/in the news? I can’t say it is stressful, but everything is a welcome distraction from everything else.

What is the solution? I have stopped taking my laptop into my bedroom at night, reverting to reading a book before sleep. How about not computing after a certain time in the evening, say, 8pm? As I have training 3 times a week, this might mean not going online for 12 hours at a time…can I do it? At work, how about only checking my personal email once an hour, rather than having it turned on all day? At lunchtime, how about going for a walk in the park instead of getting my fix of daily online newspapers? ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….that that gap was me checking my Reader, something I have done 3-4 times since I started typing this piece.

It is time.

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