Constant Partial Attention as Multitasking

I was multitasking the other day across two computers, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with another student one summer ago. We were talking about the rise of communication devices, such as cellphones, BlackBerrys and the like, and how they are potentially disruptive to productivity, because they interact concurrently with the daily tasks we must perform. He gave me an example of a meeting he had attended when working for a big company, where everyone was “plugged in”, either using their laptop or PDA, for the entire duration. No one was really listening to each other, and the only time they stopped using their communication devices was when it was their turn to speak.

Of course, this is an extreme example, and is not indicative of most situations. But certainly all of these devices are affecting the way we interact with each other and get work done. In fact, I think that overuse of these devices and their “always on, always connected” nature can lead to something I like to call Constant Partial Attention. This is a state where you are alert, but because you are multitasking between so many different jobs, you aren’t as productive as you could be.

Not a technology hater

Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not hatin’ on technology. Far from it, I am a geek at heart, and have spent considerable time learning about all things related to technology. I will admit that there are definite benefits to having a cellphone or other communication device. (Even though I still don’t have one) The danger comes from overuse of these devices to the point where they’re being used for no reason. This creates the constant partial attention situation.

For example, at university I have two computers, my desktop PC and my laptop. The laptop’s used for work and portability, and the PC for gaming, since it’s far cheaper to build a desktop gaming rig than buy a gaming laptop. However, when I’m at home, I have both of them in front of me, so that I can use either at will. You might think that this could improve productivity (at least I thought that it would), but in reality it often made me less productive. The times that I had to use both at the same time were more than offset by the times that I found myself uselessly switching between two computers. Overall, work is much better accomplished on one computer, rather than two, and that is why I will be switching back to a single desktop now that I’m done school.


Now, that was somewhat of an extreme example as well, but it does illustrate my point. Carrying around a BlackBerry or cellphone can be like having that second system always at your side. Sure, you could say that you’re just multitasking, but there are studies that claim that multitasking can actually be less time-effective. This has the opposite effect of the expected increase in productivity from multitasking. I interpret this as the effect of constant partial attention, and I believe that as devices allow us to be more connected, more of the time, this has the potential to increase.

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