Continuous Partial Attention

I’m sorry, what were we talking about? Wait a sec’ while I close down a few IMs. Oops, you still there? Did you email me on that? Hold on, my kid just walked into my office. Hey, what did the speaker just say? I was checking my Blackberry.

From the 2005 O’Reilly Supernova, Linda Stone talks about how multi-tasking has become continuous partial attention. The notes are a little rough, but you’ll get the idea.

Pop quiz. It’s okay to answer “yes” to a question even if you’re contradicting an earlier answer:

  • Technology has improved my life
  • Technology has harmed my quality of life
  • I pay full attention to people when they talk to me, when I am in meetings, when I work
  • I pay partial attention to what I’m doing and I’m scanning my devices or software for other inputs
  • Technology sets me free
  • Technology enslaves me

In 1997 I coined the phrase “continuous partial attention”. For almost two decades, continuous partial attention has been a way of life to cope and keep up with responsibilities and relationships. We’ve stretched our attention bandwidth to upper limits. We think that if tech has a lot of bandwidth then we do, too.

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Great, now we’ll all need Ritalin

Author Ed Hallowell says if you’re feeling “frazzeled and overwhelmed” you might have “environmentally induced attention deficit disorder.” The good news is that he’s not prescribing Ritalin for anyone getting stressed out by the modern world, but just some time to relax and think. At least there’s no “co-payment” involved for those.

Among his Ideas

  • Don’t allow the world to have access to you 24/7
  • Set aside time to work before you check e-mail, voice mail…turn off your blackberry, cell phone
  • Stretch or have a conversation (with a person no less!)
  • Prioritize
  • Give yourself permission to end relationships and projects that drain you
  • Do what you’re good at and delegate the reset
  • Some of our best thoughts come when we’re doing nothing

Cnet News goes much more in depth in their interview of Dr. Hallowell where he describes the problem as “attention deficit trait.”

Are certain professions more susceptible to ADT?
Hallowell: I think anything in the corporate world is, particularly these days, with the forces you just mentioned of global competition. Doctors are, in their own way, because we live in a sea of data and a sea of patients and sea of paperwork. Lawyers are, in their own way, for the same reasons.
Even moms are susceptible, but it comes in a different way. They’re taking their kids from one activity to another, making all these play dates, supervising homework and supervising soccer, and doing laundry and shopping.

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Too Wired at TIME

Of all places to talk about multitasking and technology, TIME Magazines March 27 issue goes in depth on generation M (multitasking), their use of technology, and the impact on their skills, lives, and families. While I’ll assume they’re playing the kid-card, as in “think about the children!”, primarily to get the attention of already nervous parents, much of what they’ve pulled together is as applicable to the generation before as it is to today’s teens.

On Multitasking in General

“Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one’s output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks.”

On How Our Brains Multitask

“ALTHOUGH MANY ASPECTS OF THE networked life remain scientifically uncharted, there’s substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically, it doesn’t.”

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