Continuous Partial Attention, Attention Deficit Trait and Multitasking in the Modern Workplace
> 1/9/2006 1:51:35 PM

With a cover story in the January 16th issue of Time magazine, the debate around multitasking in the work place (not to mention the rest of life) has officially grabbed its share of the media spotlight. (A spot on this morning’s Today show with the article’s co-author didn’t hurt.) Entitled, “Help! I’ve Lost My Focus,” the article, co-written by Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe, borrows heavily from a similar article published in the New York Time Magazine this past October (republished here by the author) while at the same time adding some new elements to the dialogue.

The star this time around is Dr. Edward Hallowell , a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Worry/Anxiety, and Child Learning Disabilities. Dr. Hallowell has written extensively about what some folks call continuous partial attention (CPA), which often times results in what he has dubbed attention-deficit trait (ADT).

Wallis and Steptoe write:
[Hallowell] explains that ADT takes hold when we get so overloaded with incoming messages and competing tasks that we are unable to prioritize. The result is not only distractibility, impulsiveness and haste but also feelings of guilt and inadequacy. "People think it's their fault that they're falling behind," he says. "They think they have to sleep less and work harder and stay later at the office, which only makes it worse because they're not taking care of their brain by getting enough sleep." How common is this phenomenon? "It's rampant," says Hallowell, who believes that corporate downsizing and job insecurity contribute to the problem.

Hallowell created the term ADT to describe the influx of patients he was seeing who complained of ADD-like symptoms but only in certain situations. Drawing the connection back to the multitasking that rests at the center of modern work and life. The central question (and the issue at the heart of the NYT’s October feature) is interruption. Like it or loathe it interruptions are a part of everyday life. Every CPA article or commentary mentions the “dinging” of email in-boxes and IM conversations, but even non-technological interruptions like co-worker drop-bys can be a major source of distraction.

As Time states, one study conducted in New York City found that an average of 2.1 hours of the workday are now consumed by interruptions. Using an estimated salary of $21/hour for “knowledge workers,” the study calculated the economic costs of interruptions U.S. wide at $588 billion a year.

With these types of figures being thrown around, it’s not hard to see how stress and anxiety can become a major negative factor in the forced move toward CPA in the workplace. To cut our misery and increase productivity, we are going to need to start getting smart. Back in October, upon the release of the NYT’s article, InfoWorld blogger Jon Udell offered the following toward the goal of finding a solution:
Regulating the demand on our attention is what we crave, and technology has so far supplied few of the options that science fiction and classic concept videos have conditioned us to expect. Devices are on or off. Channels are open or closed. The vast middle ground between those two states remains largely unexplored.

As we all know, or should know, technology alone can't solve the problem. We'll need smart computer systems to help us occupy that middle ground. But they'll have to work hand-in-hand with smart social systems.

While corporations across the globe are working to develop these new technologies, they are currently more wishful thinking than hard and fast solutions. But as Wallis and Steptoe point out, there are answers that are, quite literally, less technology based:
To truly take control of our productivity, we also have to stop fooling ourselves about our capacities to juggle. We have to resist the "it will only take a second" impulse to read an e-mail, check a stock price or chat with a colleague in the middle of a demanding assignment. At the same time, we have to stop pretending that we are machines that can endlessly process tasks without a break. There's a reason that research shows the No. 1 work interruption is not an electronic signal but rather a human being stopping by. It's the same reason a personal call feels welcome even when you are superbusy. We are social creatures, and to do our best work, we need to set aside time in the workday to connect with others--and also to break free from our checklist and just think.

There is one aspect of this whole debate, commented on by each writer, which will simply have to wait to be resolved. This whole question obviously focuses on the intersection of technology and human experience and many have postulated that the Net-Geners, as some have called the generation that has grown up in the age of the internet, will be relatively unaffected by the interrupting and distracting nature of today’s work environment. The argument goes, the stresses of multitasking are such a large part of Net-Geners daily life that the group will not fall victim to the same problems. Imagine a living room with two TVs, one showing CNN, the other a video game, while a laptop lays open on the coffee table, and a young man is seated on the couch with a game controller in one hand and his cell phone in the other. I promise it’s not that uncommon, and its scenes like this that might be better preparing young people for jobs in the future.

For further information, check out the following links:

The dialogue continues at Get Real.

Merlin Mann’s site about personal productivity, 43 Folders.

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