The Skill of Continuous Partial Attention

Posted on October 23, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

To be instantly responsive, I’ve been told I have to engage in “continuous partial attention”.   With tools like Twitter and Yammer updating me on what my friends and colleagues are microblogging, with email notices popping up in the corner of my screen, and with fast-breaking news appearing on my Netvibes page, I have a lot of things going on.  Continuous partial attention is the skill I need to keep up. 

Credit for the term continuous partial attention is given to a former Apple employee Linda Stone, who used this term for the first time in 1998.  Stone  describes it this way: 

“Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today.  It is different from multi-tasking…when we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and efficient.  We’re often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. …to pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention continuously. It is motivated by the desire to be a LIVE node on a network.  Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected….We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING.” (note: the caps for emphasis are directly from Stone’s website,

Recently I was on a conference call trying to pay continuous partial attention.  I wanted to participate in the conversation, but at the same time, I was monitoring Twitter, Yammer and my email for urgent messages.  What I found is that I’m not equipped to do all of this at the same time.  If I don’t pay continuous FULL attention to the call in progress, I can’t effectively participate.  I don’t ‘hear’ everything that is said, and then I worry that I may make an inappropriate comment or worse, ask a question that was just answered.  I’ve noticed my friends who pay continuous partial attention have similar habits.

Now, perhaps this is a skill that my younger friends are able to master.  They have a lot of experience here, especially with all the time they spend on the web.  Did they learn this from all those video games they played?  Or it is a skill you learn by practice.  Maybe it just takes time to learn to pay continuous partial attention and have the impact of continuous attention.   

But I don’t think so.  I ask you … think about the last time you were on the phone with someone who was also typing or doing his/her email?  Did you feel you had their attention?  Did you ask them for something only to have them say “what? So sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”  Have you been in a meeting lately where someone was checking email during the conversation only to have them miss a point and ask about it later?

It’s possible to pay continuous partial attention.  The problem is that I can’t really be engaged in anything until I devote my full attention to it, even if I just need a few minutes of full attention.

Bottom line: while there is a lot of talk about continuous partial attention, in reality its partial full attention.  Some of the time I’m there fully; I’m engaged, I’m contributing, I’m focused and I’m collaborating.  But the rest of the time I’m just there in spirit while I’m doing the other activities that require continuous partial attention.  I’m trying to stay engaged, and if you call out my name, I’ll respond. But I may ask a question that was just answered. Forgive me.  

How do you do it?



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One Response to “The Skill of Continuous Partial Attention”

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Continuous partial attention is another name for a type of complex multi-tasking where we are attempting to do multiple activities that are NOT automatic and that require cognitive skill. Examples: Driving AND texting on a cell phone. Emailing and talking on the phone. We may experience some feeling of success doing this, but, for the most part, doing this means we cannot fully engage our attention with any activity and our capability (whether we feel it or not) is likely compromised to a degree. To follow Twitter — even just reading a stream, and to participate in a conference call at the same time, is to do neither very well. CPA is a useful attention strategy in some cases, particularly cases where we want to scan multiple activities. Fully engaged attention is far more effective in most cases.

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