Illustration by Fanny Luor

Distributed work

How to focus when the world is on fire


Published on May 01, 2020

In 1998, Linda Stone, a seasoned tech executive from Apple and Microsoft, had an insight about a mental phenomenon that was growing common in the era of e-mail—a vision of where a hyper-connected world would pull us, too. She called this discovery Continuous Partial Attention.

CPA refers to a strategy of focus where we sort of do one thing while scanning for something else. Unlike multi-tasking, which involves juggling mostly mindless duties in the interest of saving time, CPA splinters our attention across cognitively demanding tasks in order to track ascendant priorities. Like a casual dater constantly attuned to prospects, we’re motivated by not wanting to miss something important.

While CPA existed before we began collecting devices, it’s best illustrated by us monitoring chats during a meeting or shooting off texts at a social dinner. And in this trance, we end up not really giving anything the attention it deserves. We’ve become more and more skilled at this way of operating, too.

It isn’t in itself bad. Sometimes we need to be on alert. But with CPA, we’re constantly on the edge of crisis, which activates our fight-or-flight mode. Fight or flight is fantastically useful when we’re evading a tiger. But, as Stone puts it, “How many of those 500 emails a day are a tiger? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency?” No, but those frantic beeps—crying face reactions and alerts that your pizza is still being prepared—sound and feel like morse for SOS. Staying on top of everything going on can give a false impression we’re in a state of danger, when we’re not.

Ever since the coronavirus lockdown scramble, those lucky enough to work from home have been stuck in the middle of both realities, some liminal region between danger and security. One eye may be struggling to zero in on work from the safety of your home, while the other scans inboxes that keep us connected to our teams, along with riled up kids, delayed deliveries, and continually refreshed headlines broadcasting catastrophe. While most of those are perceived threats, the news broadcasts real-deal danger. The effect this mayhem has on our attention is something like CPA overdrive, which doesn’t only make it challenging to get things done. It’s pretty mentally and physically exhausting, too.

Extreme states of CPA, what Linda sometimes refers to as “continuous continuous partial attention”, release stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol. Those attach to our receptors, and the good stuff—like dopamine and serotonin, which calm us down and cheer us up—has nowhere to land. We’re left anxious, scatterbrained, and stuck in our head.

To help us out of that, we called up Linda Stone. From the confines of her Boston condo, she offered some remedies for reclaiming attention in the midst of chaos.

Those frantic beeps—crying face reactions and alerts that your pizza is still being prepared—sound and feel like morse for SOS.

Use this tool to tune out the noise

“Our home environments are all really different. Maybe you have two young children who are trying to home school or a roommate who is on calls all day in the next room. This week, we have more sirens than usual where I am. There’s just all this external stimulation. So, to manage CPA, it’s really important to transition from that chaos and put yourself in a space where you can be productive and interact in this different way—and to do that before you start dealing with support tickets, bug fixes, meetings, or whatever else. 

I think probably the single most effective thing you can do, individually or as a team, is to make that transition using the 3 Center Check-in. It’s a tool developed by Pamela Weiss, a meditation teacher who founded a company called Appropriate Response. It has you ask some important questions: What’s happening in my head? What am I thinking? What's happening in my heart? What am I feeling? What's happening in my gut? How is my body feeling? It's a simple way to meet yourself and take a pause before doing work.”

Master the chaos you can

“There’s this particular type of CPA that I commit under stress. So here I am, leaning over my computer, and I can see the emails fly in. There are at least 50 of them! And some of them look urgent. So right then, I stopped breathing and started to go into my head. How am I ever going to get this done? I have a meeting it 10 minutes! Blah, blah blah. 

Part of the problem may be that it's too much to have something ambient in the corner of the screen, so you make adjustments. But for others, that actually might be helpful—it might feel like people walking down the hallway, and if you have a question, you don’t necessarily need to go through the steps of initiating a meeting. So then as long as it doesn’t feel like something you have to attend to and respond to right away, it’s fine. 

It’s really about understanding that there are some elements of CPA in your control, and listening to what you need. Even really little things can end up making a big difference in how we feel overall.

For instance, I keep two lists: one is what I hope to accomplish, another is what I need to do but I will not accomplish—the calls, the emails, the projects that I will not even begin but that I need to write down because they’re occupying space in my mind. I like to do this on a piece of paper, because I can see that paper anytime. I also get such great pleasure out of using a pen to cross something out. That is a pleasure that I do not ever want anyone to deny me!”

Commit to new routines

“I don’t think employees are shorting anyone on hours right now. I think most people are just happy to be working, and they want to get their work done. But everybody's boundaries are different now in some ways—or at least they're not bound by the agreement of entering the same office and sharing a set of rules. People need to manage their time and know when they can walk away from work to take care of their children or anything else they need to do. Without that, tempers are going to start getting short, and it's going to be a mess, because people will be on high alert all the time.

These boundaries might include being more consistent about when team meetings are and when a manager is available to chat—in a 1:1 or even regular office hours. This could also include agreed upon times, say Wednesdays, when no meetings are allowed. And that boundary could be set at a company or team level. Especially right now, meetings should be kept shorter and have clear agendas, too. The point of a meeting can also just be for those who have the time to be able to catch up. But you really want to set clear expectations and routines when it comes to communication. 

Routines are critical on a personal level, too. We’ve lost our commute and ritual coffees or whatever else. To me, I want to know exactly when I’m going to be in meetings and also exactly when I’m doing my workouts and meditation. And if you want to meet during that time—it’s not happening! 

Taking care of ourselves is more important than ever. If we don’t do that, we start to become less compassionate toward each other. And when that happens, we stop thinking clearly.”