Continuous partial attention – its a thing

This thing that I do, where I pay half-attention to a bunch of things at the same time, moving on from one thing to another – I thought it was just me being lazy and inattentive. Apparently, its not. Its called “continuous partial attention” and its a thing. Even more weird – its supposed to be a good thing. Last week I attended a guest lecture at work given by this amazingly creative person – Krish Ashok. He introduced this concept to us and as he expounded on it, it sounded increasingly familiar to me. Its what I do so much of the time. Mr. Ashok talked about it in a very positive context. He alluded to it being a strategy to success in today’s fast moving world. I was just kind of shocked that it had a name, that too one coined way back in 1998. One thing to note is that continuous partial attention (CPA) is not the same as multitasking.

Multitasking is driven by a need to be more productive and efficient, basically to get more things done. CPA on the other hand, tends to be driven by a need to make sure we are not missing anything. I multitask a lot, even though I am completely aware that it doesn’t really confer the advantage that we think it does. Studies show that our brain is not really capable of doing several things with the same success as it would if it were to concentrate on one thing. I remember when people referred to multitasking as a special amazing skill (some still do) and then studies started trickling in about the ineffectiveness of multitasking. Today, there are articles about how multitasking might even have a detrimental effect on our brains. I find it amusing that many people continue to list multitasking as a strength in their resumes! Why do I still multitask? because it gives me a feeling that I am on top of everything, that I am making more progress in my to-do list. Its amazing how good we are at fooling ourselves.

Coming back to CPA, I have found myself thinking about it all the time since that guest lecture (well at least partially but almost continuously, while I paid partial attention to other stuff). It made me more mindful of when I am doing it and I realized that it has negative consequences as well, even though Mr.Ashok did not go into that (his lecture was on creativity, not cognitive science). I realized that CPA might be big contributor to my stress levels and might have an even greater impact on my chronic insomnia. Its probably why my mind refuses to settle down at night and keeps jumping from one thing to another like a monkey. Now that I am aware of it, I think I will take a moment every once in a while, to slow down and breathe. To tell myself its okay if I missed something.  Train myself to take more control over the habit. I do know that it is a relatively recent habit. I might have started doing it several years ago and I wonder if it is a side effect of parenting. I am forced to pay partial attention when my daughter is telling me something, while my son is asking me something else, and I have to watch the stove at the same time while my mother is calling me! Even though I allot special “kids time” every week to give them each my undivided attention, I have to admit that I survive on CPA the rest of the week!

So what are your thoughts on CPA? do you realize that you are doing it? -AB