Category Archives: continuous partial attention

When Distraction is Good

Distraction and procrastination come in a variety of flavors.  I’ve noticed that when I’m “distracted,” and I walk over and stare out the window, it’s a very different experience than when I feed the distraction by cramming in a few emails or make a phone call.

How often do you let your mind wander?  Are you able to give up the list in your head when you’re cooking or in the shower or taking a walk?  It’s no accident that new ideas pop into our heads when we least expect it.  In our enthusiasm to be productive, we forget to give our mind/body moments to be “receptive” — that is, open to daydreaming, open to letting our minds wander.

I call these different approaches receptive and deceptive distraction.  A longer post can be found here or here.

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ZG Maps and ZG Mapping

People often say we’re multi-tasking ourselves to death.  What is it we’re doing and why has this become a passionate conversation?

I call what we’re doing today continuous partial attention, or cpa, for short.  In 1997, I created this meme to differentiate between simple and complex multi-tasking.   The motivations and the effects of simple vs. complex multi-tasking appeared to be very different to me.  I wanted a new name to describe what I was seeing in order to be very clear that when my mom was multi-tasking, she was doing something very different from what I found myself doing.

The meme, continuous partial attention, not only resonated with my colleagues in high tech and others outside of that field, it also ultimately led me into years of research – on individual and mass consciousness patterns of attention, trends, and related health and technology topics.

By now, I’ve developed what I’m calling  ZG Maps* and a process for using it called ZG Mapping. ZG Maps spans from 1945 and projects out toward 2025.   Some of the presentations I give at conferences and to corporations pull information from ZG Maps.  For corporate presentations, I often map the company’s history to the ZG Maps, illustrating when and how the company was in and out of sync with what I’ve come to call, the dominant mass consciousness attention paradigm.

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen outlines how successful companies can miss out on important disruptive technologies by focusing solely on iterating on sustaining technologies.  I admire Christensen’s work.

ZG Mapping comes at these issues from another point of view.  My favorite Alan Kay quote is:  “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points.”  Thus, coming at innovation from a variety of points of view can add IQ points!

With regard to innovation, in addition to keeping Christensen’s points in mind, I think it’s crucial for companies to also consider:

  1. How their products, services, marketing, recruiting and management efforts can resonate with cultural shifts. Attention, expressed collectively, can define a community, a society, a business, a corporate culture or a set of products and services.  Mass consciousness attention patterns are at the heart of the ZG Maps.  A set of values, orientations, and trends emerge from understanding how past patterns flow into the present patterns, and then, into likely future patterns.
  2. How the youngest generation entering the work force can play a significant role in a company’s future success. In many companies, the newest and youngest hires become trapped at the bottom of a steep management chain, engaged in menial work, with little opportunity to effectively offer one of their greatest gifts:  their knowing and sensibility of the incoming dominant mass consciousness attention paradigm.

 

 

These and other topics will be covered in future posts.

*ZG Maps:  ZG for Zeitgeist and Maps or Mapping for orientation or orienting

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Filed under attention, continuous partial attention, dominant mass consciousness attention paradigm, innovation, trends, ZG Mapping, ZG Maps

Diagnosis: Email Apnea

In early 2007, at the suggestion of my M.D., I took a course in Buteyko breathing and incorporated it into my morning routine.  I would get up, take a walk, do twenty minutes of Buteyko, then, sit down at my computer to work.

Day one:  Within the first few minutes of sitting down at my computer, I noticed I was holding my breath – a huge contrast to the breathing exercises I was doing only moments before.

Day two:  Within the first few minutes of sitting down at my computer, I noticed I was holding my breath.

Day three:  This isn’t an anomaly, it’s a habit!  Does everyone do this?!

I spent the next 6-7 months observing and interviewing over 200 people.  I watched and spoke with people in their offices, in cafes, in their homes, and, roughly 80% of this sample appeared to have what I called, email apnea.   I interviewed a variety of healthcare practitioners and researchers on the physiological impacts of breath holding.  I’m grateful to these professionals for answering my questions, referring me to other professionals, and referring me to relevant research.

I posted on this on HuffPo and Radar.  The comments posted on Radar are worth reading.

Since posting the original pieces on email apnea, the Steelcase Walkstation has come on the market.   There is some evidence that we’re likely to have better posture at a standing or walking workstation.

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Filed under attention, Blackberry, breathing, continuous partial attention, email apnea, health, Huffington Post, information overload, iPhone, O'Reilly Radar, screen apnea, Steelcase Walkstation, technology

Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention

What I call continuous partial attention is referred to as complex multi-tasking in cognitive science.  Most of us don’t walk around distinguishing between simple and complex multi-tasking when we talk about our day:  “I multi-tasked all afternoon and I’m exhausted.”  “Yes, I multi-task when I drive.”  “A good chef has to multi-task.”

Were those examples of simple or complex multi-tasking?  There’s no way to know.  The differences between simple and complex multi-tasking are profound.  So, when I noticed that complex multi-tasking was increasingly pervasive in our culture, I took the liberty of giving it a new name:  continuous partial attention.   WordSpy, a fun site that tracks new words and phrases, recognizes cpa, and so does Wikipedia.

Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses.  When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient.  Each activity has the same priority  – we eat lunch AND file papers.   We stir the soup AND talk on the phone.  With simple multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic or routine, like eating lunch or stirring soup.  That activity is then paired with another activity that is automatic, or with an activity that requires cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone.    At the core of simple multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive.  We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves –time to DO more and time to RELAX more.

An image, that comes to mind for me here, is the contrast between the organization man (Whyte, 1956): a dutiful employee who ate lunch in a cafeteria or restaurant and certainly not at his desk; and the entrepreneur of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, who ate lunch at his/her desk or while filing papers, in order to get more done in a day.

Simple multi-tasking made it possible to cram more into our workday, and often, helped create a little more free time for drinks with friends, or time with family, or a favorite television show.

In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything.  We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition.  We’re talking on the phone and driving.  We’re writing an email and participating in a conference call.  We’re carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.

Continuous partial attention also describes a state in which attention is on a priority or primary task, while, at the same time, scanning for other people, activities, or opportunities, and replacing the primary task with something that seems, in this next moment, more important.  When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel.  Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.

Continuous partial attention involves a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking.  With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in, and in the know.  We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment.  With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”

Why care about the difference between multi-tasking and cpa?

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert.  We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities.  If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus.  What’s ringing? Who is it?  How many emails? What’s on my list?  What time is it in Bangalore?

In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in.  This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER?  How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.

Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention.  There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well.  There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.

The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.

And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it, can set off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrin and its companion, cortisol.  As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor.  It can attach to any receptor site.  As a result, dopamine and seratonin –the hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces.  The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep.  Read about email apnea to understand how our relationship with screen-based activities plays a role in this fight or flight response.

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Filed under continuous continuous partial attention, continuous partial attention, multi-tasking, stress

On http://www.lindastone.net

Posts on this site cover attention (yours, mine, ours), technology, health and trends (ZG Mapping – ZG for Zeitgeist  and Mapping for Orienting).

Readers of my work on Radar and on The Huffington Post may be familiar with some of the themes that I’ll tackle in the first few posts on this site.  Your comments, questions, quotes, and references are always appreciated — here, on Radar.Oreilly.com and huffingtonpost.com.

Thank you in advance for your interest in my work.

To those who have followed my work for a while, my apologies that it’s taken so long to update this site.  Matt Mullenweg, thank you for your encouragement to go with WordPress.    Lisa Gold, thank you for supporting my research efforts over the last decade, and for helping me get this off the ground.

Thank you for exploring the site.  There’s an area called “Talk to Me About…” and I’d love for it to be populated with relevant stories and good questions related to the topics indicated.

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Filed under attention, continuous partial attention, Huffington Post, O'Reilly Radar, www.lindastone.net