Richard G. Petty, MD

Partial Attention

“To do two things at once – is to do neither.” — Publilius Syrus (Syrian-born Latin Writer, 1st Century B.C.E.)

Just yesterday I was counseling a successful young businesswoman who was telling me that she was planning to buy a Blackberry to add to her cell phone, laptop, PDA and pager. I strongly advised her not to buy one. Not because I have anything against Blackberries: they are wonderful pieces of equipment, and some people cannot do their jobs without them. My suggestion was based on something else entirely: Overload. Apart from being in business, she is also a mother of a young teething child and the last thing that she needs is yet another device to occupy her attention.

So I was delighted by the remarkable coincidence that this week’s Newsweek magazine is carrying an important article by Steven Levy, reporting on the recent emerging Technology Conference in San Diego that took "The Attention Economy" as its theme. He described an issue that has been worrying me for several years and which I shall be addressing when I am interviewed for in a couple of weeks time. A former Apple and Microsoft executive named Linda Stone described the epidemic of continuous partial attention.

We have all been multitasking since before our ancestors came down from the trees, but she discussed the way in which people’s attention is now constantly being distracted by a host of new inputs: email, text messaging, instant messaging and a hundred other things. And think of those news broadcasts that since 2001 have regularly had more than one item at a time on the screen. Many people have learned to give only partial attention to the task before them. The downside of this is that the appearance of competent multitasking (“Look mom, I can do ten things at once!”) is an illusion. If you are only working on a project with 10% of your attention, it is going to take much longer to get it done, and errors are far more likely to occur. What if needed is intense focus on one thing at a time.

In a speech, Linda Stone said that I prominent cause of continuous partial attention is "a desire to live as a node on the network." Some people can manage several inputs very well indeed. I often have more than one screen of input open at once, and Bill Gates is able to monitor four active screens at once. But when I’m really concentrating on producing high quality material for you, gentle reader, I turn off all the inputs until I am finished. In fact, checking my email is a reward for having finished the job at hand. While there are many advantages to being in perpetual contact, the balance has tipped more toward distraction, and, as Linda Stone put it, “a sense of constant crisis.”

I am also reminded of the phenomenon of “Flow” made popular by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. We feel that we are in a state of flow state when we are engaged in self-determined, goal-related, meaningful actions that are moving in the direction that we desire. Having our attention and energy pulled away from the flow is likely to interfere without ability not just to be productive, but also to enjoy life. There is, of course nothing wrong at all with being in continuous contact and communication with others people. But in order to be productive or to enjoy the moment, at some point you need to actually stop the conversation and focus on what you are doing.

Professor David Meyer from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is a research psychologist who has demonstrated that multitasking, far from increasing our productivity, actually makes us less productive. Some data from Europe has influenced lawmakers, after research indicated that driving and talking on a cell phone is a particularly bad multitasking combination that has been shown to cause even more accidents than drunk drivimg.

Remember the old saying: “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”

Technorati tags: , , , ,

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.


7 Responses to “Partial Attention”
  1. Jim Pfrommer says:

    Are you saying I can’t go read your blog while I’m trying to knock out discharge summaries of folks who went home while I was off at a Speaker Training conference…
    I mean I ought to be able to multitask at least Discharge Summaries, with or without a morning dose of modafinil.
    So, I hear you have mind mapping in your book, and that’s good enough for me, I’m ordering…

  2. Richard Petty says:

    Well you can certainly walk out onto the ice and wrestle with a stimulating blog and your summaries, but won’t you be denying yourself the pleasure of one or other of them????

    I wish that more people knew how to Mindmap: I’ve been teaching it to students and residents since around 1980, and I’ve used maps to construct innumerable papers and some books. Even though the empirical research is not great, it certainly works for me too!

  3. Jim Pfrommer says:

    I guess I just bought into the prevailing American Culture when I assumed to “multitask” was to be efficient. I don’t truely believe humans actually multitask in the sense a computer processor can. I say it’s more like rapid sequential processing.
    Actually, I tend to think of Discharge Summaries as something that simply must be gotten out of the way. If I attempt to do my ‘best’ on each one, I can have perfectionism kick in and get hung up about even getting them done.

    I will be more aware of truely immersing myself in in a given task, and not getting “spread too thin.”

    That’s so great that you have been aware of mind mapping for so long. I just discovered it after getting a Tablet PC. Actually the Tablet makes some of Tony Buzzan’s recommendations difficult, but it is balanced by the ability to keep all electronic documents in one place and endless revision.

    I believe I have gone too far as I experiment with the utility of mind maps, and probably have several that would be just as well served by my previous linear, collapsing computer outline style. Only with real immersion and trying them on everything will I have a chance to find out the role they will play in the organization of my mental life.

    Ever since reading a book by the veterinarian Allen M. Schoen, I have carried a vial of Bach’s Rescue Remedy in my napsack. Imagine my surprise when I learned you had looked at the flower essences too !

  4. Richard Petty says:

    There’s a decent literature on what goes on during multi-tasking. There was a good paper looking at Aplysia feeding behavior, that came from a group at Mount Sinai last year, suggesting that multitasking doesn’t involve lots of modules, but a shift in the entire behavioral network.

    There’s also a German paper form last year with the unsurprising finding that one of the big problems for people suffering from schizophrenia is an inability to multitask.

    There also seem to be genuine gender differences in the ability to multi-task, that have been found across the few species that have been studied.

    And yes, avoid the trap of perfectionism: it used to so paralyze me that my mentor finally took my PhD away from me and submitted it himself!!

  5. Richard Petty says:

    P.S. What software do you use for Mind Mapping?

    I use both Conceptdraw and Inspiration for different projects.

  6. Jim Pfrommer says:

    Oh, even more to add to my reading list…

    Wow, your perfectionism had a high cost. Reminds me of a little deal I went through with Patrick Carnes on an Extended Care Program for sexual addictions I had put together from the ground up…

    My mind mapping is with MindJet’s Mindmanager, v6 Pro. It implements the pen input on the Tablet computer very nicely. I will check out the other programs you mention.

  7. Richard Petty says:

    Maybe I should have said that he submitted my PhD on my behalf….

    I would be interested to hear more about the Carnes project: I’ve not been totally convinced by his books, though I could easily be persuaded. As you will read in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I’ve extended the notion of Reward Deficiency, which should more accurately be termed “Salience Disruption Syndrome,” to include addictions, sexual deviance, attention deficit and impulse control problems. All of which seem to be driven by similar biochemical, psychological and social and environmental factors.

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

logo logo logo logo logo logo