Continuous Partial Attention, Multitasking and Data Overload

Just recently the issue of managing our attention within what I call the ‘Stimulus Tsunami’ has been a hot topic within the training workshops, Key Note talks and team meeting engagements that I have been involved in since the start of the year. So I thought it important to include here something I wrote back in 2007 which struck a chord with many people and resulted in some very useful exchanges of ideas.

Continuous partial attention describes how many of us use our attention today. It is different from multi-tasking. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them.

Of course, our training and support helps massively with managing where we choose to put our focus and energy moment to moment. My purpose here is to point you to other resources that may help contextualize this for you and provide the opportunity to reflect on and – if you feel motivated – to discuss here.

You know how it is; you are doing ‘stuff’ and some other internal ‘stuff’ keeps popping into your consciousness. This is made even more difficult by other external ‘stuff’ clamouring for your attention. No wonder people sometimes feel a certain affinity to Dr. Pavlov’s dogs in his famous “conditioned reflex” experiments in the early 1900s. It almost seems like, since the start of the year, Twitter, Wikis, IM, Skype and other technologies are conspiring with ‘Establishment’ practices around email, smartphones, back-to-back meetings to divert and divide our attention.

CPA is one of those issues that have been bubbling under for a while now. I first came across it in 2005 when I came across Linda Stone, who worked for both Apple and Microsoft. Here’s an essential link for anyone who recognises the reality of this issue. Well worth grabbing a cup of coffee for!

To get an overview of CPA from Linda herself read this:
Then, of course, decide how you are going to deal with this reality. A good starting point might be to Contact me to see how we might help deliver Results Worth Talking About.

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By |2013-10-28T07:57:18+00:00February 17th, 2009|Time Management and Prioritisation tips|3 Comments


  1. […] See this post for the big difference between Multitasking and Continuous Partial Attention (CPA) […]

  2. Richard Maybury February 17, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Hey JJ, you are right, expectations can be outrageous. However, it is the responsibility of each of us to challenge and manage them – especially expectations around availability and immediacy of response. Logically how can we deliver quality critical results right first time – on time – every time if we allow ourselves to be interrupted by all the stimuli that surrounds us.

    CPA is not – in itself – a bad thing; arguably we use it successfully when we drive to work and without it there would probably be more accidents. The problem arises when we let it drive us at work and it causes accidents, misunderstanding and reworking – to say nothing of ‘just in time (or just too late) delivery’ of the really important stuff.

    You will have heard me say before that all we can truly manage is where we choose to put our focus and energy moment to moment. Filtering out is possible but turning off technology occasionally and creating quality time in our calendar (and holding ourselves accountable to using that time well) is probably easier.

    Call me if you want further suggestions on how to manage this.

  3. JJBones February 17, 2009 at 5:57 pm

    This is the reality we are faced with now, Richard. Always-on means that people expect immediate responses and we then have to operate within that expectation. I’m busier now than I have ever been but I’nm not any more productive.
    BTW emails and IM have given way to Skype here. We skype each other in the office now! And its growing!!!

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