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Continuous Partial Attention

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 Continuous Partial Attention2004-04-04 11:29
picture by Flemming Funch

Via Get Real, mention of Linda Stone's distinction between multitasking and what she calls "continuous partial attention". Here, from Inc. magazine:
Despite her bureaucratic title [Microsoft vice-president of corporate and industry initiatives], Stone is a creative thinker who has coined the term continuous partial attention to describe the way we cope with the barrage of communication coming at us. It's not the same as multitasking, Stone says; that's about trying to accomplish several things at once. With continuous partial attention, we're scanning incoming alerts for the one best thing to seize upon: "How can I tune in in a way that helps me sync up with the most interesting, or important, opportunity?" She says: "It's crucial for CEOs to be intentional about breaking free from continuous partial attention in order to get their bearings. Some of today's business books suggest that speed is the answer to today's business challenges. Pausing to reflect, focus, think a problem through; and then taking steady steps forward in an intentional direction is really the key.
OK, so the ideal is not that we work on everything at the same time. We've got to give significant focus to the major thing we're working on at the moment. But at the same time we need to have ways of always being well-informed about anything that is going on that might change our priorities. If you're engaging in a business activity with other people, some of which aren't in the same physical location as you, it simply doesn't work if you hide away, fully engrossed in a project, paying no attention the outside world. Lots of time and effort can be wasted, just because you weren't there to answer a quick question, or because you didn't hear before days later that circumstances had changed. Stowe Boyd of Get Real puts it very well:
"The trick may be to filter events so that only those that are material intrude on our reflections and heads-down work. We shouldn't jump up and run in circles every time the wind shakes the leaves, but we cannot afford to become so engrossed in what we are doing that we miss the leopard about to pounce.

There is no absolute here. Those that simply refuse to carry cell phones, or never log in to IM are dangerous to their organizations. If you are a solitary journalist, or a very senior executive, such behavior may be workable: in the former case, no one is harmed by your opting out, and in the latter case you are likely to have staffers who filter the outside world for you. But for the average person, linked in a dense, cascading social network of collaborators who depend on your timely response to critical events, it will prove increasingly difficult -- if not impossible -- to veer away from continuous partial attention. We will have to learn a new balancing act, and it will be strongly canted toward spending more cycles scanning the horizon and fewer looking down at the piecework in our laps."
It is a balancing act indeed. We don't get much done if we spend all our time browsing around in "what's going on". You have to focus to get real work done. But you also have to stay plugged in to the channels of information that are relevant to your work.

I mostly work that way. And I notice the disconnect with people I work with in one or another who don't themselves work that way. Some people I can't get hold of for days, to ask a quick, but critical question. And I get it the other way. Sometimes somebody will come and tell me they've been trying to get hold of me for a week, and it is a big crisis. That's invariably people who don't use IM and cellphones, and who don't really get the IM thing, and all they did was maybe to send me an e-mail a week ago, saying IMPORTANT in the subject line, which got munched up by my spam filter, and they're waiting for my answer. And they never realized that they can reach me quickly and easily with IM, and if somehow it has to be this second, my cellphone is always with me. Send it an SMS if you're worried I might be asleep. But don't even think of using those channels to strike up a live smalltalk conversation with me about what I might have been doing the last few months. You can have my PARTIAL attention at any time as long as we're exchanging relevant information, and you realize that I'm probably doing something else right now.

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