// Give me your continuous partial attention

by Andrew May

Have you ever been asked, ‘How was your day?’ Of course you have, and your immediate reply was probably, ‘Busy, yeah – really busy!’ These days, that’s our standard response to any question about how our work is going. But think about it: what did you actually achieve? 

If you find that you jump from one unfinished task to the next, that your attention is constantly divided, and that every day feels busy but not really productive, then you’re probably suffering Continuous Partial Attention (CPA), a term coined by Linda Stone, a former executive at both Microsoft and Apple(1). 

24/7 CPA = DECREASED PRODUCTIVITY 

Operating with CPA on a 24/7 basis impacts significantly on productivity. Consider the following: 

• The average worker is interrupted every seven minutes (60 to 70 interruptions a day). 
• A University of California study found that 11 minutes is the maximum amount of continuous, uninterrupted time during the average working day. 
• After an interruption, it takes about 25 minutes to get back into the original task. 
• The average office worker spends 2.5 hours a day dealing with distractions. 
• E-mail and interruptions pile up, consuming almost 50 per cent of the average workday. 

Continuous Partial Attention describes how many of us operate today, but it should not be confused with multi-tasking. When we multi-task, we do things that are automatic and require very little thought in an effort to be more effi  cient – filing, copying, taking phone calls and eating lunch. 

Conversely, Continuous Partial Attention is driven by a desire to be connected and to not miss anything. In this mode we create an artificial sense of constant crisis. 

IS CPA GOOD OR BAD? 

In small doses, CPA can be useful. However in large doses, it contributes to stress and compromises our ability to reflect, make decisions and think creatively. Continuous Partial Attention contributes to a feeling of being overwhelmed, over-stimulated and unfulfilled. 

BREAKING THOSE CPA HABITS 

Now for some solutions – there are ways out of the 24/7 CPA mode. 

1. CHUNKING 
Focus on completing one task at a time and chunk similar tasks together. 

2. WORK WITH YOUR ENERGY PLATFORMS 

If you are a morning person, block out uninterrupted time before lunch for thinking work and high-end or detailed tasks. For those who blossom later in the day, use the morning to sort out your e-mail and other low-end thinking tasks. 

3. FORCED ISOLATION 

Work without any distraction for at least half the day. Switch your mobile to silent, get rid of the e-mail alert and be disciplined – avoid continually checking for messages. If possible, work in a closed, quiet space to avoid interruptions, and tell colleagues not to contact you unless it’s urgent. 

4. FLEETING MEETINGS 
In meetings, turn off all electronic communication devices. This will make meetings shorter and more to the point. 

5. PRIORITISING 
Spend 10 to 15 minutes at the start of the working day getting clarity on the most important tasks. Then control your time as much as possible and focus on that action list. 

6. E-MAIL SCHOOL 

• Get rid of the e-mail alert – only check e-mails two or three times a day 
• Avoid e-mail tennis – if the task is still unclear after two e-mails, resort to that old fashioned mode of communication, the telephone! 
• Keep e-mails brief and to the point 
• Only send e-mails to relevant people – avoid the e-mail butt-covering trail 
• Delete – get rid of the junk 
• Only respond to what’s important – you don’t need to reply to everything. 

FINAL COMMENT 


Some people will have to re-engineer the way they work to follow the above guidelines. This can be a challenge, but I guarantee that if you apply most of them, you’ll be amazed at how much control you can gain of your working day. 

References: (1) Main source: Staying Sharp, Time Magazine, January 2006

 

Andrew May
Andrew is a performance and productivity expert and the bestselling author of Flip the Switch. A leading corporate speaker, he is the co-founder of Good Health Solutions, Australia’s largest corporate health company. Andrew is the former physical performance manager for the Australian Cricket Team and has also worked with AFL teams and Olympic athletes in numerous sporting disciplines. Andrew is a regular voice on 2UE radio and is the resident lifestyle expert on Channel Nine’s TODAY show. For more information visit www.andrewmay.com

NETWORK • AUTUMN 2009 • PP55