There is a phenomenon that Linda Stone, former executive of Microsoft and Apple, calls continuous partial attention. Unlike multitasking, which involves doing a bunch of small, similar tasks, CPA means that you’re constantly on alert for fear of missing out on anything. That means you’re receptive to every single notification, trilling alert, and text message that comes your way. This can jar your long term concentration, leaving you unable to truly get long-term, focused work done. Half-paying attention to everything means you’re not able to fully pay attention to anything.
From the New York Times article on the subject.
This kind of task switching comes with a cost. It’s called attention residue, a term established by Sophie Leroy, a professor at the Michael G. Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. In a 2009 study, Dr. Leroy found that if people transition their attention away from an unfinished task, their subsequent task performance will suffer. For example, if you interrupt writing an email to reply to a text message, it will take time to refocus when you turn your attention back to finishing your email. That little bit of time of adjusting your focus — the residue — compounds throughout the day. As we fragment our attention, fatigue and stress increases, which negatively affects performance.
So, as you can imagine, being constantly on alert means you can never entirely come down from the stress of always being “on.” That means your attention will wander and your work will suffer. If you do a dangerous job, that can be deadly. If you don’t, that still means you’re mostly half-assing your way through life.
So what can you do?
The simple answer is the most effective: dedicate time where you are simply unavailable. Pick a specific hour of the day or even day of the week and keep the phone off. Better yet, put it away somewhere. Most of us develop a habit where even a momentary flash of boredom has us reaching for our phone. Unfortunately, the first few times are going to be rough. You’re gonna be twitchy and easily bored.
“Those are withdrawal symptoms,” said Catherine Price, author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone” and the founder of Screen/Life Balance, a movement dedicated to helping people create a healthier balance between their online and offline lives. “Stick with it, and within a surprisingly short amount of time, the anxiety is likely to shift to a pleasant sense of calm.”
The other benefit is that you’re going to be more creative. Boredom inspires creativity, which is why you get your best ideas in the shower. With nothing to distract you, your mind starts to wander, and that’s when new and exciting ideas can pop into your skull.
“But I can’t be unreachable by work!”
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world that prioritizes downtime. Many of us work in environments where we have to be reachable 24/7. There’s no easy solution to this beyond a massive workplace cultural shift. But the rewards outweigh the costs. Employees who are more focused and relaxed do better, so a little enforced downtime might go a long way.