Tiffany B. Brown

“Continuous partial attention” and “email apnea” from the CBC’s “Spark” podcast

The CBC’s Spark podcast is one of my regular listens. One recent episode featured an interview with Linda Stone, a longtime tech thought leader. She coined the term continuous partial attention, to describe our new way of multi-tasking and always-on communications.

Now Stone has coined a new phrase: e-mail apnea. Stone first described e-mail apnea in a 2008 Huffington Post piece Just Breathe: Building the case for Email Apnea. Stone says e-mail apnea is a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email. From the piece:

I wanted to know – how widespread is “email apnea?” I observed others on computers and Blackberries: in their offices, their homes, at cafes — the vast majority of people held their breath, or breathed very shallowly, especially when responding to email. I watched people on cell phones, talking and walking, and noticed that most were mouth-breathing and hyperventilating. Consider also, that for many, posture while seated at a computer can contribute to restricted breathing.

According to Stone, our tendency to get emotionally anxious and hunch our shoulders and chest while in front of a screen has long-term physical consequences. Such a posture means we are engaging in shallow breathing, thereby triggering our fight or flight mechanisms. We’re in a constant state of low grade stress. As she asks in the HuffPo piece: Now I want to know: Is it only the Big Mac that makes us fat? Or, are we more obese and diabetic because of a combination of holding our breath off and on all day and then failing to move when our bodies have prepared us to do so?

In the Spark interview, Stone also talks about current and future technology-centric solutions that could change our behavior. How, for example, might office spaces be constructed to encourage stretching and movement. Might we have standing computer stations? Stone also cites the Wii Fit and the Toyota Prius dash display as gentle electronic nudges that encourage people to do things differently.

The entire episode is worth a listen. The first half of the show is an interview with Alain de Botton about the joys and sorrows of work. But skip to about 26:54 to hear the start of the interview with Linda Stone.

6 Responses to ““Continuous partial attention” and “email apnea” from the CBC’s “Spark” podcast”

  1. Great post! As the owner of an internet company, I can relate to this. My chiropractor gave me this advice which works remarkably well: It's the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes back away from your computer. Look 20 feet away for 20 seconds and take slow deep breaths in and out. It really helps!

    I also find that limiting my email checks to 2-3 times a day maintains my focus and improves productivity. And the standing computer station? Great idea. They do exist and definitely better on the back.

    Thanks again for the great info!

    Valerie Reddemann
    President
    Greenfeet.com

  2. Great post! As the owner of an internet company, I can relate to this. My chiropractor gave me this advice which works remarkably well: It's the 20/20/20 rule. Every 20 minutes back away from your computer. Look 20 feet away for 20 seconds and take slow deep breaths in and out. It really helps!

    I also find that limiting my email checks to 2-3 times a day maintains my focus and improves productivity. And the standing computer station? Great idea. They do exist and definitely better on the back.

    Thanks again for the great info!

    Valerie Reddemann
    President
    Greenfeet.com

  3. Justin Low says:

    Interesting article. As an avid gamer, I’ve noticed the tension build during certain games as I lean into the action, however, I also use a blackberry as my primary email device, so I would say it’s more of a computer-users apnea than a specific activity apnea. I would however agree that more care needs to be taken with the users health, don’t ignore your bodies urges to stretch and look around. Our bodies do send us messages, we just have to learn to pay better attention to them.

  4. Justin Low says:

    Interesting article. As an avid gamer, I’ve noticed the tension build during certain games as I lean into the action, however, I also use a blackberry as my primary email device, so I would say it’s more of a computer-users apnea than a specific activity apnea. I would however agree that more care needs to be taken with the users health, don’t ignore your bodies urges to stretch and look around. Our bodies do send us messages, we just have to learn to pay better attention to them.

    • I agree Justin, and Stone mentions in her HuffPo piece that this is common to computer users generally, but is especially apparent when checking e-mail.

  5. I agree Justin, and Stone mentions in her HuffPo piece that this is common to computer users generally, but is especially apparent when checking e-mail.