Or Is It Just A Case Of Modern Life?

I was in Barbados conducting a leadership seminar. Nice work if you can get it, right? Especially since there was snow on the ground in Philly. I was having dinner at the open air restaurant on the second floor of the Hilton Resort looking out over a magnificent courtyard with pools, waterfalls and palm trees. It was beautiful! I watched a family of four – a Mom and Dad and two teenage kids – maneuver into the courtyard and select a centrally located table, pretty close to the pool and the trees. As they sat down, each one of them opened a device – laptops for the parents and tablets for the kids – and then they spent the next 45 minutes with their heads buried in their devices! Here they were in paradise, and they couldn’t even take advantage of it because of the virtual leash tying them to someone, somewhere else.

I’m sure you’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve done it. I know I have. Postponed the actual here and now, for the virtual world. And that’s a shame, because life is now. It’s in the moment. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be planful or think of the future. They are both important to your long-term health and security. But you have to take advantage of the moments in your life – be they big or small. Because your life is made up of those moments.

My experience in Barbados tells me that has become increasingly challenging to do. You and I live in a world where we can be connected 24 / 7. It’s noisy and demanding and full of distractions. It’s incredibly easy to get caught up in those distractions, regardless of where you are – work or home, or even what you are doing – vacation in the Caribbean or in a gynecologists exam (yes really!) You may not even recognize that it’s happening to you until some later point in your life when you are able to get perspective. It can be difficult to see the whole picture if you are inside the frame.

I see its dangers, but I’m not immune to them either. I was in a restaurant with my extended family not long ago and found myself feeling compelled to glance at my phone, seemingly every five minutes. I had nothing pressing but there was still this urge to peek. I flashed back to that pool in Barbados – Was I too connected?

Are You Trying To Be More Productive? Or Not Miss Anything?

I know some of my personal connectivity issues have to do with trying to be productive. I have a lot going on. I run my own business and I have obligations that I have to meet and for some reason there are only 24 hours in the day. So I try to kill two birds with one stone. I try to multitask. I return emails while I am on a conference call or I work on an invoice as I have dinner with my wife. But I think I’m fooling myself.

The idea of being able to multitask well – perform two or more activities simultaneously at a high level – is kind of crazy. We only have so much attention. When we dilute it between multiple activities, none of them get our full attention, so our performance on each one is diminished. Psychiatrist Ed Hallowell uses a great analogy in his book Crazy Busy. Think about trying to play tennis with two balls simultaneously. Do you think it might affect your concentration? Put you off your game a bit?  That’s what happens when we multitask.

Multitasking may be motivated by positive intentions – the desire to be more productive, but what I saw in Barbados and experienced in my family dinner wasn’t really multitasking. It was what Linda Stone calls Continuous Partial Attention. CPA seems to draw its motivation from a different source than multitasking. While multitasking is about trying to be productive, CPA is about trying to be connected. It is about where we focus our attention.

“We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING.” Linda Stone 

Our Smartphones, computers and tablets give us a connection so that we don’t have to miss anything. But trying not to miss anything means that we probably miss a lot. Our hyperconectivity can come with a cost:

  • We can end up sending the wrong message to the people we interact with and care about
  • It may dilute our attention and focus on tasks that have much higher levels of importance and as a consequence we may underperform on those tasks.
  • It can have both physiological and psychological impacts, including: Anxiety, Stress, and Sleeplessness
  • It can rob us of the joy of experiencing the moment – (Check out Matt Killingworth’s TED Talk)

 The Neurophysiology of CPA

I probably didn’t start out with the conscious goal of staying connected and not missing anything. It’s a habit – some would say an addiction – that develops beneath the surface of conscious thought. According to Neuroscience research, accomplishing a task or achieving a goal can excite the portion of the brain that secretes the neurotransmitter dopamine into the pleasure centers of the brain. We then experience the activity as being pleasurable and like a mouse in a Skinner Box we become conditioned to do it over and over again.

Studies show that many of us experience that reaction when we interact with our Smartphone. It can become a powerful compulsion. That same Dopamine reaction that I experience checking my phone every five minutes is the basis for smoking, gambling and even drug addiction. In the U.S. the public locations where you can smoke, gamble or take drugs can be pretty limited. But that Smartphone is probably with you everywhere you go. Ready to provide that little jolt of dopamine.

How Do You Feel When You Are Not Connected?

I carry a constant connection to the world around with me. If I forget my phone I feel cut off and disconnected. Researchers at Iowa State University have developed a questionnaire designed to gauge how much anxiety we experience about not being connected. Here are a sampling of the questions. Go ahead, give yourself a rating. The researchers used a 7 point scale from (1) Strongly Disagree to (7) Strongly Agree

  • I would feel uncomfortable without constant access to information through my smartphone.
  • I would be annoyed if I could not look information up on my smartphone when I wanted to do so.
  • I would be annoyed if I could not use my smartphone and/or its capabilities when I wanted to do so.
  • Running out of battery in my smartphone would scare me.
  • If I could not check my smartphone for a while, I would feel a desire to check it.

If I did not have my smartphone with me …

  • I would feel nervous because I would not be able to receive text messages and calls.
  • I would be anxious because I could not keep in touch with my family and/or friends.
  • I would be nervous because I would be disconnected from my online identity.
  • I would be uncomfortable because I could not stay up-to-date with social media and online networks.
  • I would feel weird because I would not know what to do.


Question: How did you do? Did you like your answers or do you think that they are a little too high for comfort? Is CPA just a fact of modern-day life or is it something that can be changed without going cold turkey from all your devices? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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