Do You Suffer From Continuous Partial Attention Syndrome?

In today’s environment of continuous connectivity, we are literally bombarded with interruptions from the time we wake up until we go to bed. There are some of us who are even interrupted in our sleep as we cannot seem to disconnect from the online world. We get email alerts, news alerts, banking alerts, weather alerts, traffic alerts, investment alerts, text messages, instant messages, Facebook messages, RSS feed updates, LinkedIn updates, GroupOn alerts, meeting notices, phone calls, cellphone calls and on and on. It is actually quite amazing that we are able to function at all with this many distractions!

Linda Stone has coined a term for this state of perpetual interruption. She calls it “Continuous Partial Attention”. Essentially, all the interruptions throughout our days are resulting in very few moments where we are able to concentrate fully and deeply on the tasks at hand. This results in us living in a state of Continuous Partial Attention. We are rarely in an environment without something interrupting us every few minutes…even on an airplane (which is where I wrote this post) we have been interrupted approximately 5 times in the last 20 minutes with rather meaningless announcements by our well meaning flight attendants.

You know Continuous Partial Attention has been elevated to the level of a “Syndrome” when governments have to pass laws that make distracted driving an illegal activity! It’s really stunning when you think that we are willing to risk our lives and the lives of others around us by texting and driving. Not to mention the various documented cases of pilots completely missing their destination airports or subway train operators failing to stop on time or slow down for corners because they were distracted by text messages or other electronic devices.

So, what does all of this have to do with business?

Well, how many of us have ever texted, emailed or surfed the web in the middle of a meeting?

I think pretty much everyone of us is guilty of this! What impact does this have on our personal productivity and our business in general? Let me start with an example.

This might seem like a ridiculous comparison, but stick with me for a minute. Imagine that you spent a few hundred dollars for tickets to watch Payton Manning and the Denver Broncos play Tom Brady and the Patriots. Now, imagine that you are at the game and the Broncos have the ball. Payton is running through his snap count when you notice a few of the Patriots defense pull out their iPhones and answer a few texts (and maybe take a selfie or two)! How would this make you feel? The ball hasn’t been snapped yet so the defense doesn’t really need to be 100% engaged, right? Wrong! You have paid good money for those tickets and you expect all the team members, coaches and trainers to be 100% engaged in the game 100% of the time! The team that has disengaged players will lose!

And this is exactly what your customers, company, coworkers and boss expect of you. They are paying you good money for the service that you are providing and to continually interrupt your thought process and engagement in meetings and other work activities is a complete waste of your intellect and their time and money. They expect 100% engagement. Companies with disengaged employees cannot be competitive in today’s marketplace!

So besides not texting and surfing the web in meetings, what else can we do to avoid Continuous Partial Attention Syndrome?

How many of us were able to take a single block of 90 uninterrupted minutes to focus deeply on an activity in the past week or even the past month?

There has been a a lot of research done on productivity over the years (some of the research is referenced in the New York Times article “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive“) and it has become clear that we are at our best if we can devote 90 minute blocks of uninterrupted time where we can focus deeply on an activity. Any interrupts during this period of time can cause significant inefficiency to our thoughts and work process. It is estimated that it takes at least 3 minutes to recover from each interrupt and get back to our original train of thought. If this is the case, in a 90 minute window if we are interrupted by 15 things (for example; 5 text messages, 5 instant messages and 5 emails which is probably a conservative number of interruptions), we would literally waste 45 minutes out of the 90 minute block (and this does not count the time that you might take to actually respond to the interrupts). This means that at best we would be working at about a 50% productivity rate!

There are a lot of good books and online information available that step you through processes, systems and tools to help you stay focused and productive. I have listed some of my favorites below.

So, start today and do some research and reflection into your productivity, make some changes and stay 100% engaged in meetings. Purposefully structure uninterrupted time into your calendar, turn off your devices and apps, and break free from the dreaded and pervasive Continuous Partial Attention Syndrome!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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