Continuous Partial Attention: Is it Time to Audit your “CPA”?

Terri D. Egan, Ph.D.
Terri D. Egan, PhD

Attention is a precious resource. Have you considered how you use, diffuse, confuse and potentially abuse your attention? Do you understand the link between where you are spending your attention and the quality of your energy, productivity, and relationships?

We live in a world with tremendous potential for distraction. Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive, coined the term continuous partial attention (CPA) to describe our behavior when we constantly diffuse our attention across different sources of stimuli in the name of staying connected.

The Twitter Curve [source: http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/12/httpwww37signal.html] offers a humorous look at the exponential decrease in time between interruptions that has occurred over the past 30 years. Note that most of these are self-imposed distractions.

Twitter Curve

I think this calls for a new kind of audit. How much uninterrupted time do you have at work and at home? What are the biggest contributors to your distraction quotient?

There is good evidence to suggest that managing your awareness, attention, and focus is a skill worth cultivating. The way that we direct our attention and focus—how we use our mind—has the power to change our brain and increase our well-being and effectiveness.

Mindful awareness—the ability to be open and receptive to what is happening in the present moment, without judgment, is associated with positive outcomes like increased immune system functioning, resilience in the face of stress, clarity of thinking, comfort with complexity, creativity and emotional regulation.

Performance on complex cognitive tasks decays with defused attention. Switching has a cost. We may believe that we are able to stay connected to everybody and everything all of the time—but in reality we are more like a dog trying to chase too many balls.

My colleague Ian Mitroff calls this the Henry Principle. He describes what happened when he would throw a ball for his dog. One ball, no problem, two balls—hesitation and then a chase, three balls and Henry would sit down and give him a confused look. Do you ever feel like Henry? Can you recognize the point where competing demands on your attention begin to negatively impact your personal and professional effectiveness?

Our beliefs about the importance of staying connected and available contribute to having a high distraction quotient. We probably all know people who wear their availability and responsiveness like a badge of corporate honor. Yet by investing our attention in external connections we may be bankrupting our internal connection. What would happen if you spent as much time focusing attention on cultivating your spiritual, physical, intellectual, intuitive, and emotional capacity—your connection to your whole self—as you did attending to the various forms of electronic distraction that tempt you throughout the day? Learn more about the importance of whole self in leadership at www.lahlandegan.com.

There is one way to find out. Take the continuous partial attention audit challenge. Become more intentional about how and where you invest your attention. Cultivate time for yourself that is free from distractions. Notice what happens to your energy, performance, and relationships. With awareness and discipline, you can use the power of your attention and focus to leverage your mind-brain connection.

Dr. Terri Egan, along with Pepperdine MSOD alumnus Suzanne Lahl, will host a two-part webinar entitled Bringing the Whole Person into Leadership Development: Lessons from the Neurosciences and Beyond on Monday, Aug. 23, and Monday, Sept. 20 from 1 – 2:30 p.m. Register here.
Author of the article
Terri D. Egan, PhD
Terri D. Egan, PhD
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