You’re Losing Precious Time From Continuous Partial Attention

Quick, when’s the last time you went 15 minutes without getting distracted by a device or screen? Stumped? You’re not alone.

Continuous partial attention is dividing your time and hurting your focus. And you might not even know it’s happening to you.

Continuous Partial Attention: Taking the Scenic Route

Galumphing is the seemingly useless elaboration and ornamentation of activity. It is profligate, excessive, exaggerated, uneconomical. We galumph when we hop instead of walk, when we take the scenic route instead of the efficient one, when we play a game whose rules demand a limitation of our powers, when we are interested in means rather than in ends.

Stephen Nachmanovitch, improvisational musician, as quoted in The Icarus Deception

A 2012 study by McKinsey Global Institute found that the average knowledge worker spends 28% of her time dealing with email. This translates to more than eleven hours a week stuck in an inbox.

What’s especially frustrating is the fact that email-checking is a spread out activity. If you could get your eleven hours a week done up front, email would be a lot less intrusive in our lives.

But you can’t.

Instead, the ding of an email coming can happen any time, any where. And that nagging feeling at the back of your mind that you should be responding to an email exacts a cost on your brainpower and your motivation.

Continuous Partial Attention: Definition and Multitasking Distinguished

Speaker and consultant Linda Stone calls this phenomenon continuous partial attention—the low-level but constant cognitive demand that thinking about email and other distractions creates.

The problem with continuous partial attention is that it’s superficial. There’s no mental focus and concentration when your attention is flitting from thing to thing in the vain attempt to pay attention to everything.

Continuous partial attention is not multitasking. Multitasking, despite all its faults, is driven by a desire to be more productive. To get more things done.

The problem of continuous partial attention is driven by the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). It’s the desire to feel connected, to matter, to be recognized.

It’s checking your Facebook alerts while you’re on the toilet. It’s Instagramming all your nights out instead of enjoying the company of friends. It’s the danger of living in an always-on, digitally native world.

Stone also coined the term “email apnea” to describe the unconscious practice of holding your breath or taking shallow breaths while reading or responding to email. Check your own breathing the next time you’re knee-deep in your inbox—like me, you might find that you’re depriving yourself of oxygen with irregular breathing habits.

Continuous partial attention and email apnea induce a constant, chronic stress that’s always simmering in the background.

In her 2014 book Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post fame discusses Stone’s ideas about continuous partial attention, email apnea, and the damage it does to your well-being.

At times, it feels like we live in a sped-up world. Like trying to watch a movie on fast forward, it’s difficult to comprehend the shape and importance of events in our daily lives. It’s too exhausting.

The struggle to turn off the rest of the world’s demands long enough to enjoy some peace and quiet has led some to unplug from the Internet for weeks at a time.

I don’t advise a drastic response. Especially when you plug back in and get immediately overwhelmed with all the stuff you missed. No, it’s better to create routines that actually confront the problem head-on instead of trying to run away from it.

Instead, we need to build spaces of rest in our lives. Moments to catch a breather. To turn off the cell phone, look away from the inbox, and be alone with a moment.

We need to reconnect with the value of routines and waiting.

Haruki Murakami’s Mesmerizing Daily Routine

Continuous Partial Attention: Haruki Murakami and the Power of Routines

Photo Credit: karla_blanco via Compfight cc

One way to corral all this stray attention is to create a routine for each day.

Building and stick to a routine is one of the most productive work habits you can have.

The renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami has been very open with his process over the years.

As Mason Currey details in his eye-opening book on the routines of famous artists, writers, and composers, Daily Rituals, Murakami works five or six hours straight upon waking at 4:00 AM. In the afternoon, he runs or swims, does errands, reads, and listens to music. He sleeps promptly at 9:00 PM.

Murakami claims the repetition creates a kind of mesmerism. “I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

Repetition is a kind of meditation. It can prompt you to reach the flow state, where time ceases to gnaw at your subconscious processes. It opens the space for you to be your most creative and contemplative self.

Increased creativity is one of the major benefits of slowing down.

Murakami’s schedule while he’s working on a novel isn’t much conducive to a social life. But he understands that it ultimately serves his readers. “My readers would welcome whatever life style I chose, as long as I made sure each new work was an improvement over the last. And shouldn’t that be my duty—and my top priority—as a novelist?”

Murakami knows what is important to him. By ruthlessly prioritizing, he creates the necessary space and time for creativity to emerge.

Do you know what’s important to you?

Waitzkin on Waiting

I’ve argued before that you should use downtime, like waiting in line at the post office, to read a book.

But there’s merit to the idea of simply learning how to wait.

In The Art of Learning, author and national chess champion Josh Waitzkin describes the pleasure (and value) of learning how to wait:

Not only do we have to be good at waiting, we have to love it. Because waiting is not waiting, it is life. Too many of us live without fully engaging our minds, waiting for that moment when our real lives begin. Years pass in boredom, but that is okay because when our true love comes around, or we discover our real calling, we will begin. Of course the sad truth is that if we are not present to the moment, our true love could come and go and wouldn’t even notice. And we will have become someone other than the you or I who would be able to embrace it. I believe an appreciation for simplicity, the everyday—the ability to dive deeply into the banal and discover life’s hidden richness—is where success, let alone happiness, emerges.

This is about being present in your own life.

I recently watched the 2013 romantic comedy/time travel movie About Time with my fiancee. It’s not a very good movie. But there’s an interesting coda at the end about the value of being present.


If you can’t see the clip above, the premise of the movie is that the main character, Tim, can travel back in time through his own life and relive any moment.

Instead of doing something useful or virtuous with this ability, like preventing terrorist attacks or industrial accidents or the like, he instead uses his time travel powers to woo Rachel McAdams repeatedly (okay, maybe that’s not such an objectionable use of his superpowers).

Near the end of the movie, his father, who also has this power, explains his secret to happiness (spoiler-ish):

  • Step 1: Live each day normally, with all the highs, lows, setbacks, and surprises.
  • Step 2: At the end of the day, go back in time to the start of the day.
  • Step 3: Re-live the day, except taking the time to really notice everything (since none of it will be a surprise this go-around).

The main character eventually improves on this formula by cutting out steps 1 and 2. He lives every day like he was going through it the second time around.

(Ta da. There’s the lesson for us non-super-time-traveling folk.)

Despite the schmaltz, I do think there is something to this way of thinking. How many of us actually enjoy the simple pleasures that every day brings?

The smile of your friendly neighborhood barista. The sun on your face. A small person walking a big dog.

These things are tough to appreciate if our heads are always buried in our smartphones, swiping away notifications and checking inboxes.

4 Steps to Combat Continuous Partial Attention Syndrome

  • Turn off notifications. Whether its the desktop computer at your workplace or the smartphone you always carry with you, for the love of god, turn off your notifications. That constant dinging, buzzing, and vibrating whenever something happens on Facebook or you get an email is contributing to your continuous partial attention disorder. Nothing’s so important that you should be continuously distracted all day long—have people call you if its an emergency.
  • Build a routine. Consistency breeds creativity. Having a set time and place for each task (and timeboxing your activities) let’s you off the hook when it comes to “always checking in.” When you know that you check and respond to emails between 4 P.M. and 5 P.M., you are stressing about them all through the afternoon.
  • Practice galumphing. Stephen Nachmanovitch says galumphing is doing something ordinary (taking a walk) in a frivolous, playful way (skipping, whistling a tune, doing cartwheels). A little bit of whimsy in your day-to-day life can refocus your attention and promote awareness. After all, it’s hard to check your smartphone while you’re doing a cartwheel.
  • Appreciate the moment. The mundane, everyday moments of life are integral parts of your life too. Don’t fall into the trap of treasuring only the special, exalted times in your life—you will always be disappointed. Learning to be at peace with waiting is a special skill. And yes, I get antsy too waiting for a train or a meal. But waiting offers an increasingly rare experience in our always-on world—a moment to pause and reflect.

How are you addressing the problem of continuous partial attention? When’s the last time you took the scenic route?

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