Continuous Partial Attention: How Do YOU Like It?

May 4, 2007 at 8:01 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 1 Comment

So I’m talking to someone the other day and they seem a bit disengaged. Responses tend to start with a quick awkwardness and in large spurts with lots of silence between them instead of ongoing interaction. Soon it becomes clear what’s going on. I finish a thought and during a few seconds of silence I hear the keys clicking away from the other end. Ah, someone’s not quite fully engaged in this conversation. Here I am on the receiving end of some continuous partial attention (CPA).

Linda Stone has written frequently about the idea that it is becoming normal for people to not concentrate on one person or task at a time, but rather to always be devoting some portion of one’s attention to multiple tasks. Much has been written about whether it’s good for people to juggle multiple tasks all the time, is it efficient, is it inevitable, etc. But I haven’t seen as much written about what it feels like to be on the receiving end of someone’s continuous partial attention.

Sometimes the tasks being juggled may not involve human interaction, such as writing an email while listening to the news and playing online chess in a separate window. But often one of the tasks involves synchronous human interaction – a phone call for example. What if I’m giving my full attention to a phone call but I’m getting CPA back? Is it my fault for being boring or the other party’s fault for not recognizing the importance of what I’m saying? To a certain extend this is an etiquette issue, not an efficiency issue. I can say that I generally don’t like it if I can tell CPA is affecting the conversation. When someone is typing while I’m talking (not because they are taking notes on what I’m saying) the conversations generally tend to get nowhere. When someone is doing housework while I’m talking (messing with laundry or dishes) the conversations seem to work out fine. I guess that is because it is taking less of their brain cycles.

The moral of the story is that instead of taking a self-centered approach to whether partial attention is an issue, think of how it affects the other party too.

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  1. The difference between cpa and multi-tasking (as I define it) is that when multi-tasking, only ONE of the activities requires much cognitively. The others are more automatic. Thus, having a phone conversation (cognitive load involved) and doing housecleaning (automatic, you’ve probably done it many times before) is multi-tasking — NOT at all as stressful as cpa. With cpa, we’re trying to do multiple activities that require brain power. We’re emailing AND having a phone conversation. We’re driving AND talking on the phone (granted, some types of driving one might consider automatic… for the most part, driving can almost always toss in some unpredictable events, though). My guess is that, in most cases, when you’re on the phone with someone who is having a cpa moment, it’s not personal — more likely, they want to talk with you AND they feel overwhelmed by email or other things in their life and this is the way they’ve chosen to cope. Another way to cope is to do less — whether it’s a shorter email response, less email, fewer calls, and so forth. We may be deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re doing MORE when we use cpa as an attention strategy. Since we’re less engaged, the quality of our engagement can really suffer. That said, there are situations when cpa is a great match for the task at hand.


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