CPA?

I heard someone speaking about CPA the other day: continuous partial attention. I was half-listening well enough to tune into what he was saying, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  In this age of immediate communication, instant gratification, insatiable curiosity and incurable impatience, we are constantly doing several things at once.  Articles in the New York Times a few months ago and vignettes in advertising currently on television remind us of the dangers of distracted use of our smart phones.  It’s not good for our safety, our productivity, or our peace of mind.  Yet it is hard for us to discipline ourselves to just do one thing at a time.

I confess that I got an early start in multitasking. I was constantly in trouble in grade school for rocking in my chair, twiddling my hair, and drawing in the back of my loose leaf while Mrs. Leightner was teaching our science lesson. And all of us who are veterans of childrearing found multitasking to be an essential coping skill as we bounced one baby on a hip while preparing a peanut butter sandwich for her brother and cradling the phone beneath our chins.

Still the speaker’s point rang true. I know that too many of us begin our workdays looking at email and taking down phone messages all at the same time. At lunchtime, we eat, read blogs, sort through the snail mail and play Scrabble  (or Angry Birds, I gather) on the iPhone.  In committee meetings I still find myself drawing the folks sitting in front of me. It’s hard just to sit still and attack one task at a time.

But I began the week trying it. I resisted peaking at email during dinner.  Suinday afternoon, with the house so empty and quiet that I could practically hear the blood coursing through my veins, I sat down and painted. No background music, no CNN, no Sunday football (since the Saints weren’t playing).  Just my art and the quiet. When I finished the painting, alternating between working on it and looking at it from afar to ascertain areas of weakness, I felt as if I had been meditating.

I’ve tried, with mixed success, to take that work approach into the office with me this week. When I’ve succeeded, it has been with far greater productivity and intellectual efficiency than I have when I’m trying to do three things at once. And it is with a far greater sense of satisfaction.

I have thought for some time that the compression of time caused by the age of instant accessibility may be asking our brains to evolve more quickly than they are capable of doing.  I think I’m going to try to wrestle my brain back into an attitude of more quietude and see what peace and productivity it brings.