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Continuous Partial Attention


Back in the day (and I'm talking about 12 or 13 years ago) there was quite a bit of discussion around Linda Stone's concept of Continuous Partial Attention. Put simply, this is the idea that a modern behaviour of complex multitasking means that we are continuously dividing our attention between multiple, often quite demanding tasks.

Linda Stone first coined the phrase way back in 1998 but she delineates between 'simple multitasking' which is motivated by a desire to be more productive or efficient and where one task may be more automatic but we pair it with something that needs cognition (like stirring a cup of tea whilst speaking on the phone). Continuous Partial Attention however, involves a more complex form of multi-tasking in which more than one task that is being undertaken requires cognition, and where the motivation may be to not only be more productive but also to not miss anything (like doing email whilst in a meeting). 

I mention this because I ended up talking about it in a conversation with a client about creating space. It feels as though, with remote working at scale still with us, continuous partial attention is more of a thing than ever. The reality of many people's experience of remote working seems to have been that everything has ended up defaulting to video calls (it's very rare now for me to have a phone conversation with a client) which means that many people have days filled with endless calls and meetings. This piles on the temptation to try to answer a few emails or reply to a few messages whilst a meeting is dragging on. The pressure to get stuff done has not abated and yet many people seem to have less time than they've ever had for what Cal Newport would call 'deep work' – those blocks of non-interrupted time that enable us to really move forwards and progress towards outcomes. So the danger is that we end up trying to multitask in complex ways and dividing our attention and cognition between multiple concurrent things.

Paul Graham once wrote about manager's and maker's schedules, and the frustration that a manager's schedule can create for people who produce stuff. But we all need a bit of space to move forwards with anything and the reality is that constant context switching can be a real drain on energy and focus. Simple multi-tasking can be helpful but complex multi-tasking can be stressful, leaving us with the feeling that we're juggling too many things and potentially not doing any of them to the best of our ability. When I encounter these challenges with teams that I work with I usually talk about time-blocking, valuing your time and being disciplined with it, and starting with small but frequent and protected periods which enable you to take a step back. But there are no easy answers. 

Remote working seems to have amplified continuous partial attention but my hope is that as we move into the next phase of work (whatever hybrid we end up with) we get back to allowing a more focused approach to work.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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