Continuous Partial Attention: One Man’s Struggle

continuous partial attention digital distractionWhat a superb article by David Roberts in Outside Magazine!

If you read only one work-related thing over your summer break, can I suggest it be this?

Here below are a few of my favorite sections of David’s detox article, but the mere extracts don’t do justice to his elegant narrative flow. Read the full article.

“…I tweeted to them around 30 times a day, I belonged to that exclusive Twitter club, not users who have been “verified” (curse their privileged names) but users who have hit the daily tweet limit, the social-media equivalent of getting cut off by the bartender. The few, the proud, the badly in need of help. I was peering at one screen or another for something like 12 hours a day.”

“…It wasn’t always this way. There was a time — it seems prehistoric now — when I started the workday by “getting caught up.” I’d go through my e-mail, check a few websites, and start on the day’s new tasks.

By mid-2013, there was no such thing as caught up; there was, at best, keeping up. To step away from e-mail, news feeds, texts, chats, and social media for even a moment was to allow their deposited information to accumulate like snow in the driveway, a burden that grew every second it was neglected.”

“…I spent most of my daytime hours shovelling digital snow. The core of my job — researching, thinking, writing at greater-than-140-character length — I could accomplish only in the middle of the night, when things calmed down.

I spent more and more hours working, or at least work adjacent, but got less and less done.”

“…Meanwhile, my mind and body adapted to the pace of digital life, with its ceaseless ping ping ping of notifications and alerts. I got twitchy if I was away from my phone for more than a few seconds. I felt it vibrating in my pocket when it wasn’t there, took it with me to bed, even to the bathroom. (I got pretty good at tweeting while I peed, to my enduring discredit.)”

“…My mind was perpetually in the state that researcher and technology writer Linda Stone termed continuous partial attention. I was never completely where I was, never entirely doing what I was doing. I always had one eye on the virtual world. Every bit of conversation was a potential tweet, every sunset a potential Instagram.”

“…I was 40 years old, due for a midlife crisis, and I didn’t want to have an affair or buy an impractical sports car, so instead I decided that I would take a break. A big one. For a year, I would leave behind online life to attend more closely to what we Internet people call ‘meatspace.'”

“A survey by the Center for Creative Leadership found that smartphone-carrying professionals report interacting with work a whopping 13.5 hours every workday.”

“For more and more Americans, social circles have moved at least partially online. According to Pew Research, as of 2013, 73 percent of adult Internet users are on social media. Among those 18 to 29, it’s now 89 percent.”

“…It has long since become many people’s primary means of keeping tabs on friends and family. Being offline can feel like being invisible. I didn’t go full Luddite or “quit the Internet.” I used Google Maps to get around and bought flip-flops on Zappos. But I did have some hard-and-fast rules: no work, work-related e-mail, or work-related reading. No daily news cycles or social media. Most of all, I would not blog, tweet, share, pin, like, star, favorite, or forward anything.”

“…We online denizens come to need these regular low-level jolts (of social affirmation) and get antsy without them. That¹s why I was tweeting in the bathroom. That’s why your friends around the table at the bar are all staring at their phones. Ordinary life has come to seem torpid and drab relative to the cascade of affirmations we find in contingent online communication.”

“…As my mind began to spin down, I discovered that calm was like a drug. It felt so good, so decadent, just to sit in the early afternoon with my feet propped on the windowsill, watching wind brush the trees in the front yard. I was hooked.”

“Among Americans under the age of 50 who own a smartphone: 58 percent check them at least once an hour, 54 percent check them in bed, and 39 percent check them on the toilet.”

“…Just a few weeks later, at the end of February, I wound up in a distressingly familiar position: standing at my computer, surrounded by empty chip bags and Trader Joe’s chocolate-covered-whatever boxes. It was almost two in the morning, and I’d just emerged, blinking and dazed, from an hour lost to some online ratholes, I felt that old sour stew of anxiety, guilt, and exhaustion.”

“…Because America’s culture of professional overwork and exhaustion is unrestrained by workplace regulations or conventions governing e-mail, unceasing connectivity has become an unspoken job requirement. Because social groups coalesce and plan online, even brief screen-less periods breed FOMO, the fear of missing out.”

“Seventy-two percent of Americans check e-mail from home or while on vacation.”

“…Come hell or high water, I will take regular, scheduled breaks from screens: 15 minutes of non-screen activity for every two hours at the computer. I’ll take a short walk, play with my dog, get coffee with a
friend, or just sit and look out the window. (I’m telling you, it’s underrated.) That’s about an hour of mental recharging per eight-hour workday — not perfect, but a big improvement.”

“I don’t plan to swear off social media. Unlike some ‘disconnectionists,’ I don’t view online relationships as toxic or inauthentic. I benefit from them enormously. But I do want to keep that ping time corralled, so it doesn’t smear into everything else. That means turning off all push notifications and checking e-mail and social media only when I’ve decided to, not when they buzz at me. The ideal cycle, in my hopeful imagination, is a period of singular concentration, followed by a limited period of pinging, followed by a period of rest, exercise, or social interaction, away from screens. Four or five of those cycles add up to a productive day, with rhythm and variety.”

“…When I’m writing, I want to write with full focus. When I’m pinging, I want to ping without angst or guilt. When I’m with my family, I want to be with my family, not half in my phone. It is the challenge of our age, in work and in life: to do one thing at a time, what one has consciously chosen to do and only that, and to do it with care and attention.”