Productivity / Time management tips

Give me your Constant Partial Attention

If your standard response to the question “How was your day?” is “Busy, really busy!” it’s time to ask yourself: what did I actually achieve today?

16 November 2008 by

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 Constant Partial Attention (CPA), a term coined by Linda Stone, a former executive at both Microsoft and Apple.

Operating with Constant Partial Attention on a daily 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.
  • Email and interruptions consume almost 50% of the average workday.

CPA 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 efficient – filing, copying, phone calls and eating lunch.

"The average worker is interrupted every seven minutes (60 to 70 interruptions a day)."

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 Constant Partial Attention 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. Constant Partial Attention contributes to a feeling of being overwhelmed, over-stimulated and unfulfilled.

Want more articles like this? Check out the time management tips section.

Breaking those Constant Partial Attention 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 email 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 email alert and be disciplined – avoid continually checking for messages. If possible, work in a closed, quiet space to avoid interruptions.

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. Email school

  • Get rid of the email alert – only check emails two or three times a day.
  • Avoid email tennis – if the task is still unclear after two emails, resort to that old fashioned mode of communication and talk! 
  • Keep emails brief and to the point.
  • Only send emails to relevant people – avoid the email 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 guidelines in this article. That can be a challenge, but I guarantee that if you apply most of them, you’ll be amazed at how much control you can achieve over your working day.

Main source: Staying Sharp, Time Magazine, January 2006.

Andrew May

is the CEO of The Performance Clinic and is recognised as a leading performance and productivity expert.

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