Continuous Partial Attention

June 23, 2007 at 1:14 pm 3 comments

Finding it hard to concentrate on your work, too many things going on at the same time? You’re not alone! Switch off everything else you’re doing right now and read this!

We deal with more information than ever, and this trend is only accelerating. On top of that, the amount of interruptions we suffer constantly is increasing. It’s not just devices like telephone and email, because these can be switched of or ignored; it’s services like Twitter, Instant Messaging, MySpace, Facebook… that are so dynamic something calls out for our attention approximately every minute. The effect this has on our way of working has been coined Continuous Partial Attention .


An evolution of our way of living and ideals that explains how we got here (thanks to O’Reilly Radar and Linda Stone.

1945-1965: Era of Service to Institutions: Belief that by serving the insitution of marriage/employer/community we’d lead happy and well-ordered lives. When those things failed us, we embraced what we’d suppressed: ourselves.

1965-1985: Era of Self-Expression and Multi-tasking: we paid attention to that which created personal opportunities, willing to fragment our attention (=multitask) if it enhanced our opportunity. Our sense of commitment dropped: rising divorce rate, 3 companies/career, etc. We became narcissistic and lonely, reached out for a network.

1985-2005: Era of Connection and the Age of Continuous Partial Attention: the network became the center of gravity. Being connected makes us feel alive.

Multitasking vs. Continuous Partial Attention

When we multitask, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. It implies tasks that require little cognitive processing, like filing and copying papers, talking on the phone (hm hm), eating lunch… we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves.

Continuous partial attention is a post-multitasking adaptive behaviour. It isn’t motivated by productivity, it’s motivated by being connected. It is wanting to connect and be connected. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis, much more than with multitasking. We keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.

Iteration – the New Way We Work

Because we cannot fully dive into problems, we are learning to not dive at all. Instead, we solve problems iteratively. We do not map out a strategy all the way, we choose a good path, explore it and look for feedback. Based on the feedback, we adjust the path and then repeat.

Continuous partial attention iteration read write
And this is not necessarily a bad thing! Iteration is a very powerful algorithm for reaching the best solution. In math and computer science, iterative algorithms are known to solve problems that can’t be fitted into an exact formula. In nature, iteration is the key to adaptation – it has worked for billions of years. (thanks to Read/Write web)

What’s the effect?

It is said that the constant context-switching and rapid pace are much harder than the slower-paced planning and pondering mode. When done constantly, this operating in a constant state of vigilance, high alert, always on, is too stressful to the body and is a contributing factor to insomnia, obesity, and stress-related diseases.

Another thing is that on MySpace, Facebook, etc. the quantity of connections may make us feel connected and alive for a while. But does it really mean anything? We may be connected, but are we still communicating with each other? Dan Gould said: “I quit every social network I was on so I could have dinner with people.” Marc Orchant suggests people sometimes ‘just need to unplug from the grid to regain control and sanity’.

Stowe Boyd retorted to this that CPA is just a normal evolution with which people who grow up in it have no trouble dealing and uses the term ‘flow’, even though his vision seems to have its shortcomings.

Where is it going?

The school of thought around Linda Stone hope we are evolving beyond an always-on lifestyle. According to them, the next aphrodisiac is committed full-attention focus. We’ll turn the technology off to block out interruptions and give full attention to others in interactions. They call it the Age of Uni-Focus, or the Era of Protection and Belonging. Meaning that we will all of a sudden learn to effectively get our priorities straight and stick to it?

Right. A more likely path seems to be that the need for connectivity will only increase, and that we will find ways to adapt to it. For example, by the creation of a Semantic Web.

What do we do about it?

Those who think Linda Stone is right and can’t wait to get to the Age of Unifocus can cure their ADD symptoms on ZenHabits.

But perhaps these are al measures for nothing; maybe man himself needs to evolve in order to deal with this adequately (partially weaving onto Stowe Boyd’s comment that people born into an age of CPA can deal with it more easily). Genetically advantaged people could, by their success to cope with multiple tasks at the same time, become successful in this new society and create a new breed of split attention people. It could be some of the people currently getting diagnosed as ADHDs, people with an uncontainable amount of energy and, so they say, the ability to look at a bigger and split vision of the world and still get the whole picture. Or are they already amongst us – don’t they say that women are better at doing several things at the same time?

People who haven’t ascended to the next level in human development yet, can try software like Basecamp or Todoist to clear up their cluttered attention spans. You can also track your internet time expenditure with TimeSnapper.


Entry filed under: Internet, Life, multitasking.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Yihong Ding  |  June 23, 2007 at 3:17 pm


    Great post! I like what you have organized. Thank you for letting me know.

    — Yihong

  • 2. Chris Saad  |  July 20, 2007 at 1:48 am

    Man can certainly evolve to deal with the new flow of information better

    As Stowe would suggest it’s not about overload but rather about flow.

    However at the same time we can build tools to help manage the stream.

    Manual Trackback:
    You are right that this is a natural byproduct of the evolution of the web – just like sunlight is the result of the sun’s thermonuclear reactions.

    That’s why we invent sunglasses 🙂

    At Particls we are building the same sort of filter for CPA

    Manual Trackback:

  • 3. links for 2007-08-04 @ BVLog  |  August 4, 2007 at 4:23 am

    […] Continuous Partial Attention « Your eTime (tags: checkitout) no comments yet. « links for 2007-08-03 Leave a Comment […]


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