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Continuous Partial Attention CPA

2006-03-23 18:06:25.556147+00 by ziffle 10 comments

I saw something recently which had been bugging me but I had not yet been able to identify - This article is about 'Continous Partial Attention' or CPA


We all think we can multitask and we do, but I wonder if we have not lost something... I remember a story about a programmer who had to answer the phone for the whole floor during lunch time - and I wondered at the bugs inserted into the code as a result. I remember not allowing programmers to have phones because I'knew' it would result in loss of focus and therefor slower and more buggy development.

My partner at the time felt sorry for the programmers and got them phones and I was sure that every bug after that was the result of interruptions and distraction.

All Men will stop thinking of their programming when their main sexual partner calls - every time! And that meant bugs inserted in my opinion.

Recently a law professor banned lap tops for the same reason. A good idea if you ask me. http://www.usatoday.com/tech/n...sor-laptop-ban_x.htm?POE=TECISVA

I think the term Continous Partial Attention or CPA is appropriate!

What do you think?


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comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-23 19:06:51.152307+00 by: Dan Lyke [edit history]

I know I'm bad at multitasking, and I've met precious few who actually are good at it (although, as you note, many who say they are). IM is the work of the devil and I don't answer the phone unless I'm prepared to be interrupted. Heck, I even had a discussion yesterday about interruption of work at the half-day level; I work on a diverse enough set of problems that it takes me an hour or two to get into dealing with the specifics of a bug or task, and if that focus gets blown off onto something else...

At the more granular level, faster turnaround between task and result is also good for productivity. When I think "that task is going to take a minute, I'll go check my email", I lose extra time.

I think laptops are fine for note taking, but I'm less and less a fan of any classroom experience which involves much note taking. The whole point of having a real live teacher up there in front is interaction with the class. If you're doing too much note taking, you may as well be listening to a recording, watching a video, or reading the text book.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-23 19:25:46.299623+00 by: Dan Lyke

Oh, and I should note that my main sexual partner has, in fact, noted that I don't necessarily stop thinking about code when she calls...

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-23 19:40:54.219406+00 by: Mars Saxman

I'm reading Flutterby while my code compiles. Most of my brain is still thinking about the project I'm working on.

It's actually good that it takes so long to build this project; it gives me time to sort out my ideas in between bursts of typing.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-23 22:51:29.944194+00 by: meuon

"..stop thinking about code..." - Guilty of this, but i have also learned to "turn it off" and when I am "with" Nancy, I am "with" her as much as possible. But sometimes, while I am coding late in the evening, this warm snuggly creature (sometimes in a Bathrobe, sometimes -not-) makes me completely forget about what I was thinking...

I'm now working a lot in an office. Average time between interuption: 5-7 minutes. Tomorrow, a large sign is going on my headphones: "Pretend I'm not here". I can get a lot done in 4 solid hours of concentration. It's not happening.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-24 00:10:04.924435+00 by: topspin

Multi-tasking and doing it well requires compartmentalizing operations into short, specific mini-tasks which can be safely interrupted.... finish THIS PART (if possible).... then answer the phone. If you can't finish that part or do both things simultaneously safely, go back to the last portion you finished cleanly and restart the mini-task. Jobs which CAN'T be treated in that manner will suffer greatly, I think.

IMO, multi-tasking CAN be done well, but often isn't because folks don't REALIZE they are multi-tasking and adjust the tasks as above and also REMAIN AWARE when the distraction was too great and the "other task" may have suffered.

I work in the high-pressure, high-output, must multi-task world of retail pharmacy where the distractions of phone questions and in-store questions aren't optional nor are the 300 or so Rx's in any given day nor are a number of other tasks which require my attention. 99% of our "distractions" occur on a schedule which is completely out of our control and completely unavoidable, so phones ring with questions, patients walk in with questions, doctors call with issues, insurance issues arise WHILE we do our job of entering, printing, counting, and verifying about 2 Rx's per minute during most of the day.

Multi-tasking is a fact of life for health care workers. That programmers can have the option of avoiding distractions like the phone and interruptions is a luxury from my point of view.

#Comment Re: Rule of Seven, plus or minus two made: 2006-03-24 14:38:13.230925+00 by: m

The ability to multitask depends on the tasks at hand. The average individual can maintain 7 distinct items of detail at one time. The spread is two items. In order to deal with more items of detail, individuals create abstractions to contain details.

Having worked in both medicine and programming, I can safely say that they are not the same type of intellectual process. Medical decision trees are well structured and defined. The solution of programming processes for nontrivial problems is investigatory, and requires the temporary creation of abstractions that exist only for the duration of the thought process. Deep concentration is required. When interrupted, these constructs are lost and must be recreated.

It was my experience that it could easily take twenty minutes or more to recover from an interruption when I was involved in complex programming abstractions. Obviously this was not true for straight forward coding tasks, but most "super" programmers are always looking for that unique hack which will provide them with a strong alogorasm.

A medical process that would be equivalent to the programming process would be the investigatory analysis that leads to the creation of the decision tree. This does not demean the effort or intelectual prowess required for the applied clinical practice of medicine, it is merely a statement that the thought processes are different.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-25 00:10:22.686054+00 by: dexev

...provide them with a strong alogorasm.

Not sure if this was a typo, but I think 'algorgasm' might have to make it into my lexicon.

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-25 19:49:46.117159+00 by: ziffle

M: I concur. dexev: for i := 0 to Orgasm; // warning infinite loop {warning Pascal in Use here} Dan: If she says: 'I'm pregnant' - I wonder about your concentration... :)

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-26 01:25:42.80715+00 by: concept14

Cue the stereotypes, but what's the problem for all those programmers who don't have a sexual partner? :-)

#Comment Re: made: 2006-03-26 02:21:59.719757+00 by: Dan Lyke

Ziffle: "No problem, honey, figure out the process ID and send it a SIGHUP..."