There aren’t enough hours in the day. We’re constantly on the go, continuously worrying about the tasks we have to accomplish. A mother rushes to get her kids to school while talking on the phone in her car, changing the radio station, and eating a granola bar — all the while trying to focus on the road. A doctor spends five minutes with a patient, entering data into electronic medical records, taking notes, checking his blackberry and beeper for emergency notices, and hurries on to the next patient.
Technological advances have amplified our opportunities to multi-task. We depend on computers, cell phones, iPods, and GPS systems as a way of life, and tend to utilize these devices simultaneously. Multi-tasking has become automatic. We multi-task to be, or to feel, productive and efficient. But to multi-task, we can’t pay full attention to everything at once. Every task gets a little bit of our awareness – just enough to accomplish what we have to. This process even has its own name: continuous partial attention.
New York Times and Boston Globe writer Linda Stone coined the term in 1998, stating that “to pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention – continuously. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network.” The problem is that our brains are not structured to process this many stimuli at the same time. We’re not merely distracted by competing stimuli; our brains are forced to respond to too much information at once.
Continuous partial attention is a clear example of a modern-day personality. More specifically, as Americans we try to create buffers such as the use of technology in order to help us cope with our ever-changing society. Multi-tasking has become so ingrained in our daily lives that we often see it as a way of life.
When do we admit to ourselves that we just can’t do it all? How do we decide what our priorities really are? When do we say no to the various facets of our lives if they are all equally important? When do we admit that there is no such thing as “balance”?
Written by Jessica Levin, Research Assistant in Health and Epidemiology, Abt Associates, Cambridge, MA.