What I call continuous partial attention is referred to as complex multi-tasking in cognitive science. Most of us don’t walk around distinguishing between simple and complex multi-tasking when we talk about our day: “I multi-tasked all afternoon and I’m exhausted.” “Yes, I multi-task when I drive.” “A good chef has to multi-task.”
Were those examples of simple or complex multi-tasking? There’s no way to know. The differences between simple and complex multi-tasking are profound. So, when I noticed that complex multi-tasking was increasingly pervasive in our culture, I took the liberty of giving it a new name: continuous partial attention. WordSpy, a fun site that tracks new words and phrases, recognizes cpa, and so does Wikipedia.
Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. Each activity has the same priority – we eat lunch AND file papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With simple multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic or routine, like eating lunch or stirring soup. That activity is then paired with another activity that is automatic, or with an activity that requires cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of simple multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves –time to DO more and time to RELAX more.
An image, that comes to mind for me here, is the contrast between the organization man (Whyte, 1956): a dutiful employee who ate lunch in a cafeteria or restaurant and certainly not at his desk; and the entrepreneur of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, who ate lunch at his/her desk or while filing papers, in order to get more done in a day.
Simple multi-tasking made it possible to cram more into our workday, and often, helped create a little more free time for drinks with friends, or time with family, or a favorite television show.
In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition. We’re talking on the phone and driving. We’re writing an email and participating in a conference call. We’re carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.
Continuous partial attention also describes a state in which attention is on a priority or primary task, while, at the same time, scanning for other people, activities, or opportunities, and replacing the primary task with something that seems, in this next moment, more important. When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.
Continuous partial attention involves a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in, and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”
Why care about the difference between multi-tasking and cpa?
Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves. We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Bangalore?
In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.
Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention. There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well. There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.
The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.
And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it, can set off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrin and its companion, cortisol. As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor. It can attach to any receptor site. As a result, dopamine and seratonin –the hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces. The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep. Read about email apnea to understand how our relationship with screen-based activities plays a role in this fight or flight response.