Most of us live in a constant state of Continuous Partial Attention. Rather than focusing on one thing at a time, our attention is constantly scattered among a variety of sources, each of which only has part of our focus.
We’re at work, but we’re also keeping tabs on a text chain.
We’re reading a book, but we’re also checking Twitter or Instagram every two paragraphs.
We’re in a conversation, but our eyes keep flicking up to the TV on in the background.
Maintaining a state of Continuous Partial Attention is rarely a choice, but our current media environment seems specially designed to keep us in that state. We keep our phones in our pockets like a totem, our hands and minds constantly reaching for them as soon as we feel the mildest itch of boredom.
We can no longer bear to be doing nothing. We can’t just stand in line, waiting, without checking some other source of information. We’ve sacrificed solitude — not even true solitude, but just being alone with our thoughts — at the altar of being Always On.
Checking our feeds makes us feel like we’re in control. Really, they’re just making us scattered and docile.
Ironically, it’s this same media environment that’s connected to the massive upswing in jobs that are considered “knowledge work.” And knowledge work requires more dedicated attention than other jobs. It’s hard to write, or code, or design without reaching a state of flow. And yet the things we’re writing, coding, or designing seem best suited to preventing others from reaching the same.
A professor of mine used to say:
You can’t use a hammer without getting a callous.
What’s the callous our current tools are giving us?
All this is to say:
I’m tired of never being fully present. This week, I’m issuing myself a challenge: only do one thing at a time.
If I’m eating, I want to be eating — not reading or watching Parks and Rec or doing something else at the same time.
If I’m working, I don’t want Twitter on in the background. Or Slack. Or email.
If I’m watching TV, I don’t want to be on my phone as well.
That’s my plan. Feel free to join me.