Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the massive explosion in communication technology over the last 20 years—e-mail, smartphones, etc. I’ve been wondering if they’ve been making us more productive, but also if they’re making us happier.
For example, I recently took my e-mail off of my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling of worry that it caused me—is there an e-mail that I’m missing???—and I found that when I tried to ignore it, I wasn’t able to do so. I guess I just don’t have the mental strength to ignore them. I still get my e-mail through the web browser on my phone, but I don’t have a little, blinking number there to say, “Oh my god…you have messages!!!”
In other words, being more connected was making me unhappy.
Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from simple multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. One or both of the activities we’re doing is automatic or routine, and requires very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task — we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch — we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive.
To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire not to miss anything.
That makes sense, so what does it mean:
Today, we know that the brain processes serially — so quickly, that it may feel like we are doing two things at once, but we are actually just shifting very quickly.
Continuous partial attention is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of simple multi-tasking.
A-ha! The “always in high alert” and “artificial sense of constant crisis” were the exact ways I was feeling. As Linda writes:
When people ask me: ”Is this good? Is this bad?” I always ask them: ”How does it feel to you?” Does it feel good? Exhausting? How do your relationships feel? This is something you can only answer for yourself.