Here’s 3 more ideas to help overcome continuous partial attention

Office workers distracted by mobile phones. Continuous Partial Attention

Here’s 3 more ideas to help overcome continuous partial attention

Office workers distracted by mobile phones. Continuous Partial Attention

In this post I continue a series on overcoming ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA) to improve your productivity. If you have never heard of this term, you can read the first of the series here.

Your attention span

How long can you focus on one task? I mean remain focussed enough to complete a significant task? It’s probably less time than you imagine.

In a study undertaken by Microsoft, where they explored how long we could really hold our attention, they discovered that our attention span has dropped from about 12 seconds in the 2000’s to now be around 8 seconds…. less than that of a Goldfish!….apparently.

The big factor here being the Smart Phone. Now the study captured everyone’s attention when it was first released, though it has now been quite thoroughly debunked. However I don’t think many would disagree that the trend of our attention spans is heading down.

Without doubt, our ability to focus will vary greatly by person, but will also be dependent upon the type of task we are occupied with. If it is something we are really motivated to complete, we will focus far longer than if it something we are disinterested in.

That said, most of us recognise that it is becoming harder to stay focused and on task with the constant stream of distractions characteristic of today’s modern workplace. Mobile phones, email, instant messaging, etc. Open-plan offices haven’t helped either.

So here are few more things you can do to manage Continuous Partial Attention.

Manage your focus and energy

One thing thing we do know for certain is that if you focus intensely for too long, it tires out your brain and causes energy fatigue. Or put another way, when your brain is tired, you are not as mentally sharp. This is especially true when we are sitting in front of a computer screen for too long.

This is one of the reasons why time management experts have over the years advocated the use of techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique.

Essentially the Pomodoro Technique involves focussing on a task for 25 minutes then taking a short five-minute break before launching into another concentrated 25 minutes, or ‘pomodoro’. There is more to it than that of course, and there are other ways to apply this principle, but the central idea is to break longer tasks up and avoid forcing yourself to stay focused for excessively long periods.

I will expand upon my own version of this in my next post, CPA Part 3 so look out for that.

Just be aware of the need to take breaks. Get up, have a stretch and perhaps a brief wander around. This will not only increase your productivity but it will also improve your health.

Hide the reading pane on your email program

In my first post about CPA I mentioned the ‘reading pane’ on email programs. Those who I’ve worked with for many years will know that I advocate turning this off.

Long before I knew about the term CPA, I recognised there is something about the reading pane that is a little beguiling. With the reading pane open, there is a temptation to glance at the email open in front of you, decide upon some possible action you need to take but then, because that action isn’t something you can do just now, move onto the next email. You end up partially thinking about the action in response to the ‘to do’ email while at the same time partially reading the next email. It’s classic CPA.

The alternative version of this is to leave the ‘to do’ email open whilst you work on something else – again keeping part of your attention distracted by that email.

Aside from closing the reading pane, using the 4Ds approach to handling email can help avoid this problem too.

Remove those notification badges

On your phone and tablet and, indeed, even on your computer’s desktop and browser, you will often see a little notification badge attached to an app’s icon informing you that you have messages or notifications waiting. For instance, there might be one on the email app showing how many unread emails are waiting for you, or on Facebook showing you how much activity there has been on your feed.

In my first CPA article, I suggested turning notifications off – that is turning off any sounds or pop-up reminders – especially for social media. Turning off those badges takes things a step further, though it is a bit more subtle. Notification badges or ‘dots’ are just little numbers so shouldn’t be too distracting. But they do create the temptation to look at an app you hadn’t intended to when you pick up your phone. Turning them off removes this temptation while also making your device’s home screen look a lot less noisy.

In both iOS and Android you can turn off these badges on an app-by-app basis. In both cases you do this by going to the ‘Notifications’ section in ‘Settings’, then selecting the app in question and turning off the switch that says ‘Badges’ (on iOS) or ‘Allow notification dot’ (on Android). You can find more complete instructions in this article.

In my next (and final) article about addressing continuous partial attention, we’ll look at what you can do to improve your ability to focus for longer periods of time.

If you’ve managed to read this article without getting distracted and losing your attention…you’ve done very well!


Geoff Prior – Lingford Consulting, September 2019

Workload & Email Management Training/Coaching. MBTI Consultant


Interested in more ways to improve your productivity. Check out our range of productivity training programs here.

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