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Attention-Getting Language

Multitasking requires more than a new mindset; it needs new words as well

3 min read
illustration of person's eye.
Illustration: Brian Stauffer
You never expect 100 percent of people's attention. You learn to take 80 percent.

When the cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman were researching personality types in the 1950s, they coined the term hurry sickness to describe the tendency to perform tasks quickly and to get flustered when encountering delays. By 1959 they had refined this to the now-classic term type A personality, a key element of which was a ”harrying sense of time urgency.”

Nowadays, this has a familiar ring to all of us. That’s why some folks say we live in a type A culture, or an accelerated culture. This acceleration has also affected the adjectives we use to describe the world. The rat race is no longer merely fast paced; it’s amphetamine-paced or even meth-paced (meth is short for the stimulant methamphetamine).

How do we keep up? We try to do several things at once. A New York Times Magazine profile of entrepreneur Mark Cuban reported that Cuban writes up to a thousand e-mails a day and didn’t stop composing messages even while being interviewed. ”Go ahead,” he told journalist Randall Patterson, ”I can multitask.”

Many of us think we can multitask, and it really does look like we’re doing several things at the same time when we listen to music and watch out for incoming e-mails and tweets while working on a multipage memo. We think we’re paragons of polyattentiveness, the ability to watch or listen carefully to more than one thing at a time. But we’re actually more like those old microprocessors that just switched from one process to another at lightning speed—we’re getting good at rapidly shifting our attention from one task to another. Of course, this implies that we have some control over what we attend to. Increasingly, however, our lives are interrupt driven, characterized by constant or frequent interruptions, especially at work. (This term comes from computer science to describe a system that operates via interrupt requests, instructions that halt processing temporarily so that another operation can take place.)

Of course these attention shifts and interruptions come with their own problems, one of which is continuous partial attention, or CPA, a term coined by Microsoft researcher Linda Stone. This is a state in which most of your attention is on a primary task, but you’re also monitoring several background tasks in case something more important or more interesting comes along. This leads to the just-in-time lifestyle, where you rush from one thing to another and expend only the minimum effort to complete a task; to provisionalism, where you never commit fully to what you’re doing; and to what the philosopher and critic Raymond Tallis calls the e-ttenuation of work and relationships, as when, for example, you answer an e-mail or two while on the phone. There’s a verb for that—to background, as in ”Ever rung a colleague or client and found that the only response your questions are soliciting is the occasional ’Hmmm’? You’ve just been ’backgrounded’!” (The Guardian).

Similarly, rather than sit down to read a long magazine article or a good book, people infosnack, grabbing information in brief snippets. The goal seems to be to avoid the microboredom of having nothing to do over a very short period of time.

That our attention has become such a precious commodity is no surprise to those who study attention economics, an economic model that posits an attention economy, based on the static amount of attention consumers can devote to an ever-expanding pool of available information. In fact, the competition for our eyeballs and earballs (people listening to music, podcasts, radio, and so on), is so intense that some companies are now engaged in full-blown attention warfare.

Is there anything we can do to stave off these attentional assaults? One recent suggestion is the digital cleanse: the minimal use of digital technologies for a set period of time. Unthinkable, you say? Then how about practicing disattention? This is the deliberate refusal to pay attention to certain things. (For me it’s celebrity gossip and Balloon Boy–like stunts.) While it may not help us win the war of attention, it just might help us reset our attention rheostats to a more comfortable level.

This article originally appeared in print as “Your Attention, Please!”

About the Author

Paul McFedries is a technical and language writer with more than 50 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases.

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