As Americans, we aren’t big on reflection. Mulling over the impacts of our often impetuous and impulsive decisions isn’t our thing. We see ourselves as risk-takers, pioneers, self-made individualists embracing the New, the Now, the Loud, the Louder. We’re an ADHD culture, we are most likely hopeless multi-taskers, and we might be caught in the throes of something else: what Linda Stone of the Attention Project calls Continuous Partial Attention.
I’m writing this finally after several months of continuously giving this topic my partial attention. But what I know as “mulling something over” is not giving it partial attention. Stone defines it as “an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” How often are we checking Facebook, Instagram, email and texts? And how seldom do we have quality conversations with friends, family, co-workers? We are in perpetual FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) that tells us we are out of the social media loop. Meanwhile, we really are missing out on the information we could be gaining from others – you know, by having an actual conversation with the guy in the next cubicle, or those people down the street who may not have voted the way you or I did.
Fractured focus leads to chronic underlying anxiety which impacts our physical health, yeah we know that, but I believe it’s negatively impacting the social health of our culture as well. Try to remember the last time you had a quality conversation. Do we even know what that means?
Sherry Turkle in her book “Reclaiming Conversation” says that conversation helps us “make sense of the web of relationships at home, work and public life”. Conversation can’t happen without a degree of trust – and when our trust is transferred to electronic devices, our trust in each other erodes. We are finding ourselves now in a universe of “Fake news” and “Alternative Facts”. With leaders who will evade honest conversation with their constituents as well as with the press.
One way to dismantle the Continual Partial Attention syndrome and reclaim our ability to converse is to engage in, rather than shy away from, opportunities to talk deeply about our experiences with people who may hold views different from our own. This is not an easy quest, unfortunately, but we need to make the effort to re-connect with each other with curiosity, not animosity. There are growing numbers of opportunities – one source I’ve discovered is an effort called A Seat At The Table. The project is an initiative of the Treehouse Institute and starts with a few small community Meet-Ups and then deepens to no-cost dinners attended by groups of 8-10 people. If nothing like this exists where you are, I would invite you to start an effort yourself.
We live in an ever more complicated culture, so continuous partial attention is one of our coping mechanisms, but if we sacrifice our ability to deeply connect with each other, then the ultimate cost to our mental health is way too high. Slow down, reach out, find the courage to connect and life will become more manageable, less stressful and ultimately more satisfying.
Got a group suffering from Continuous Partial Attention? Here’s an intriguing, interactive tool to help get your group into a mental space conducive to authentic dialogue on important issues: Shift/POV: From Conflict to Collaboration in One Hour.