Continuous Partial Attention

What is continuous partial attention?

Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from simple multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. One or both of the activities we’re doing is automatic or routine, and requires very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task—we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch—we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive.

To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention—CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire not to miss anything and to be a live node on the network — in touch and seen by others. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

Today, we know that the brain processes serially—so quickly, that it may feel like we are doing two things at once, but we are actually just shifting very quickly.

Continuous partial attention is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of simple multi-tasking.

Read more about continuous partial attention…

Continuous Partial EVERYTHING….

Are social networks—continuous partial friendship?

Dave Weinberger put continuous partial and friendship together as a way to describe what he enjoyed about Twitter. Microblogs like Twitter offer “continuous partial attention to continuous partial friendship.”

People manage friendships and relationships in very different ways. Many who are considered skilled social networkers would prefer not to have network transparency. Others thrive on constant activity streams and open networks.

Generationally, we have very different attitudes and usage patterns with social networks. danah boyd has done very thoughtful in this area as has the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Consider an experiment—intentionally, use engaged attention, also referred to as uni-tasking or mono-tasking for 10 minutes in an activity, then continuous partial attention in an activity.  Note how you feel and what you prefer.  There are times, of course, when continuous partial attention is the best attention strategy for a moment or for an activity.  There are other times when engaged attention is the best strategy.

When people ask me: “Is this good?  Is this bad?” I always ask them: “How does it feel to you?” Does it feel good? Exhausting? How do your relationships feel? This is something you can only answer for yourself.

So Much Talk About Email Overload

We need to look at BOTH technological and behavioral solutions.

Technology has a lot to offer here and companies are doing experiments in this area.  Some of my favorite people thinking about this is Nathan Zeldes, formerly of IntelLifehacker, and 43Folders.  And now, there’s even a cooperative effort among technology companies ( to study email overload.

Some of the technological solutions are interesting and useful.  Some are tyrannical—and who wants to be both addicted to the technology and then have it tyrannically controlling our behavior “for our own good.”

As is the case with habits like smoking, there is also a behavioral component, that can address both the psychological and the physiological aspects of the “addiction.”  In the case of email, the behavioral component needs to take into account what motivates the behavior.   There is the obvious:  “I don’t want to miss anything.  I want to be responsive.”  And the not so obvious:  “I’m holding my breath—just check out my crummy posture at the computer if you doubt me on this—and my body is in a ‘fight or flight’ state and I haven’t figured out how to re-set my autonomic nervous system.”

Breathing determines emotion.  Emotion determines breathing.

Out of the box thinking: Consider ways we might use biofeedback on pulse or breathing (while on a PDA, cell phone or at the computer).  Consider some of the innovations in furniture design, particularly, the Steelcase Walkstation.

Why did I mention smoking?  Did you know that when people smoke (I am NOT endorsing smoking!), they generally do a steady inhale and a steady exhale, down-regulating the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and up-regulating the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system?  This may be why smokers feel that smoking relaxes them.  NOTE:  I’m not medically trained, however, I do consult with many healthcare practioners, researchers and scientists (I had six medical fact-checkers for the email apnea piece).

I’m working on this myself, training myself in new breathing techniques and working to become aware, to get up and move frequently during the work day. One breathing website with quite a bit of information is this one. Here’s another one.

You Have My Complete Attention: Beyond Continuous Partial Attention

We manage our time.  We don’t manage our attention.

Managing time is all about lists, optimization, efficiency, and it’s TACTICAL.  Managing attention is all about INTENTION, making choices as to what DOES and DOES NOT get done, and it’s STRATEGIC.  Managing time is an action journey. Managing attention is an emotional journey. See my post on this.

Email Apnea

Email apnea or screen apnea is a temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while doing anything (working or playing) in front of any screen. See my post on this.

New Vocabulary

Ages of Attention
When I talk about my research, I talk about twenty-year socio-cultural eras, their accompanying attention strategies, and shifts enabled by new technologies.  I’ve given names to each Era.  I’ve also given names to each Age of Attention:  starting in 1945, the Age of Servant Attention; starting in 1965, the Age of Simple Multi-tasking; starting in 1985, the Age of Continuous Partial Attention; and starting in 2005, the Age of Uni-Focus.

Warning:  This is an OPTIMISTIC view!  In the same way that our bodies move toward homeostasis when we’re “off-balance” in some way, our use of attention, which is central to who and what we are, both individually and as a society, “self-corrects.”  Trend –>  Counter-Trend.   Thesis –> Anti-thesis.  Sometimes within a generation, more typically, with the new generation entering the work force.

Attention density
How much attention a certain type of communication requires (for example, a telephone call has high attention density; a text message is relatively low attention density).

Attention foreplay
This is best described this with a story:  As told to me by a wife and mother in New York City in November 2006.  “Our husbands come home from work, glued to their Blackberries.  They don’t talk with us or with the children.  They don’t connect with us.   And then, when we go to bed, they want sex.  I don’t think so.”

Email apnea or screen apnea
A temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working or playing in front of any screen. See my post on this.

Eras (related to attention/technology)
Each era is characterized by the ideal that emerges as most commonly held by society at the time.   Ages of Attention are in service to the pursuit of the ideals.   Starting in 1945, Era of Service to Institutions (I serve); starting in 1965, Era of Self-Expression (I create); starting in 1985, Era of Connection (I connect); starting in 2005, Era of Protection and Belonging (I protect).

Communication that is not fully synchronous (like phone calls) and not fully asynchronous (like email). I.M. and text messaging are often used semi-synchronously.  Another term used to describe this is Fuzzy Sync.

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