Levy: (Some) Attention Must Be Paid!

Continuous partial attention is a term to describe a specific phenomenon, which was coined by Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive. The phenomenon is familiar to anyone who has a Blackberry or finds themselves continuing to type (an email, an IM, whatever) in their computer while talking to someone in their office, listening to the radio, or watching television. Many people have learned, for better or worse, to give continuous partial attention to the tasks before us.

The downside to this is that while we may seem more productive (“Look at me, I’m doing 10 things at once!”), the reality is probably not as positive. If you only work on a project 10% of the time in partial mode, instead of the 25% of the time in full-focus mode, then it’s going to take you longer to get the project done. And as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would argue, you interrupt the important process “flow,” a field of behavioral science examining connections between satisfaction and daily activities. A flow state ensues when one is engaged in self-controlled, goal-related, meaningful actions.

Feels good now, seems productive, but at the end of the day, you probably didn’t get as much done as you think.

There’s nothing wrong with being in continuous contact and communication with others you work (or socialize with). But in order to be productive, at some point you need to actually stop the conversation and focus on the task at hand.