May 22, 2008

Continuous Parallel Attention: My New Reality

When you really want to concentrate, do you need a quiet room with no distractions, or does playing loud music help you focus? Can you hold a conversation while typing? Can you read blogs and write e-mail while watching TV? I do. And I must. For with all the information available these days, and my personal unwillingness to miss out on conversations or media consumption, I've done more than embrace what many call "continuous partial attention". Instead, I believe I have a goal of achieving "continuous parallel attention", whereby no single task is given primary focus, but instead, multiple tasks gain the same focus.

The common definition of continuous partial attention can be simplified to a person being focused on a single primary task but monitoring background tasks. This can be driving with the radio on, reading a book with a baby sleeping in the next room, or writing a proposal with Twitter on in the background.

Some do this well. Others don't.

Nearly 100% of the time I'm watching TV, I've got my laptop in my lap, with the TV screen's lower half ending just above the top of MacBook Pro screen. In contrast, if I try and talk to my wife when she's writing an e-mail, she probably won't hear me, and once I interrupt, she stops typing.

Last month, I talked about my social media consumption workflow, explaining how I started off my day, working essentially left to right to be sure I processed the information flow in the right way. This issue came up again this morning, when Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester revealed his own morning habits. In the ensuing FriendFeed discussion, I said I too try to knock out much of the activity at the beginning and end of the day, but also keep up what I call "continuous parallel attention" in between.

With continuous parallel attention, essentially multi-tasking, no single activity is getting priority over the other. I am writing e-mails at the same time I am listening to music, at the same time I am getting RSS feeds and seeing Twitter updates or seeing the FriendFeed page reload. Ask me the lyrics of the song, and I can tell you. Ask me what was said on Twitter, and I can probably tell you. Through continuous parallel attention, you're not giving one activity the short shrift due to time or priority, but instead, making sure every activity gets the right focus.

If you drive into the office, but you are thinking about the next blog post, or the next meeting, or even where to go for lunch, that's not mind wandering or being distracted. That's parallel attention. Your radio might be on and you're singing along. If a squirrel darts out in front of your car, you'll still hit the brakes. If a commercial comes on the radio, you still change the station. All in parallel. Your driving doesn't get worse. I'd argue I even drive better with loud music I know, where I'm pounding the steering wheel with every bass drum beat. I work better when I've got multiple things at once, in parallel.

The same is true for engaging with social media. Have you seen Robert Scoble's video from Media Bistro earlier this week? (See: Center Networks: Video: Robert Scoble on the "Worldwide Talk Show")

Robert doesn't linearly go one by one to consume his social media. He is running his RSS feeds, his Twitter feeds, and his video, all in parallel. The human brain is an amazing sponge, ready to take in new information, and if you practice, practice, practice, you can train it, like a muscle, to be ready for exercise. Achieving continuous parallel attention in social media means you don't have to stop one task to pick up the next. You just keep going. Yes, I saw that RSS feed. Yes, I read that e-mail. Yes, I saw your tweet and your FriendFeed post. But I also got all my work done, caught up on our TiVo shows, and picked up the groceries. It's not because I go without sleep (though I need less than most)... it's because of this parallel focus. You should try it.