Continuous Partial Attention

Today is Friday, so this post is on interpersonal competence.

Recently, I saw a magazine article entitled Distraction Nation.  It began, “The messages, the music, the mayhem.  The chaos of our mobile, connected world is changing the way we live, work and relate to one another – and not necessarily for the better.”

Where did I find this article – Psychology Today?  A Yoga Magazine?  No.  I found it in Laptop Magazine, a publication that bills itself as providing information on “mobile solutions for business and life.”  When multitasking gets dissed in a magazine devoted to the latest and greatest gadgets designed to facilitate multitasking, you know something must be up. 

In part, the article said:

“Splitting our attention is nothing new, but the proliferation of mobile technology has pushed that fragmentation to extremes.  ‘The number of claims on people’s attention has grown explosively in the past generation,’ said Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project.  ‘There are more devices delivering more stuff in more ways then ever before.  It’s an information overabundant world.’”

Linda Stone, a former Microsoft Executive, calls constant scanning of multiple attention points “continuous partial attention,” or CPA.  Ms. Stone goes on to say “Applied here and there, CPA can be very helpful.  Applied all the time, it puts us into a state of constant stress that interferes with sleep, with digestion and ultimately with relationships with both ourselves and others.” 

Peter Ferenczi, the author of the article makes a great point that I would like to emphasize.  “As mobile technology fills our in-between moments with music, information and conversation, it might also be sealing us off from the serendipitous everyday interactions that help define a community.”

Think about it, when you listen to your iPod on a plane, — or bus or train – you are tuning out and closing off the opportunity for conversation with the person next to you.  I for one have met some great people and have closed some business as a result of conversations with strangers on airplanes.

However, “serendipitous everyday interactions” don’t just define a community, they help facilitate teamwork at work.  Mobile technology can hamper teamwork.  People send e mails to the person in the next office.  They work their blackberries at meetings – you know who they are by their under-the-table gaze.  They answer their cell phone in the middle of important conversations.  All of this connectivity actually leads to a lack of true connectivity at a human level.

Interpersonally competent people connect with others at a deep, human level.  You can’t do this if you send e mails to people next door, pay more attention to your blackberry than the discussion when you are in a meeting and interrupt face to face conversations to make and take phone calls.

The common sense point here is simple.  Use mobile technology to help you stay in touch and informed.  But don’t be so caught up in CPA that you damage the relationships you have with your coworkers, customers, friends and family. 

My best advice: attend to and pay attention to the people who are present and right in front of you.  Let a few cell phone calls go to voice mail.  Look at your blackberry once an hour, instead of constantly.  Build relationships the old fashioned way – up close and personal.

That’s it for today.  Thanks for reading.  Log on to my website for more common sense.  Check out my other blog: for common sense advice on leading people and running a small business.

I’ll see you around the web, and at Alex’s Lemonade Stand.


PS: Speaking of Alex’s Lemonade Stand – my fundraising page is still open.  Please go to to read Alex’s inspiring story and to donate if you can.

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