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Linda Samuels, CPO-CD®

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« Do You Nurture or Sabotage Your Motivation? | Make Time to Get Benefits of the "Pause" »

Are You Suffering From Continuous Partial Attention?

How we use our time each day and the behaviors we choose to adopt can produce positive or negative outcomes. In Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier, I came across a few ideas that highlighted being more intentional with how we spend our time and where we focus our attention.

Almost two decades ago, Linda Stone, a former Apple and Microsoft executive, identified a specific phenomenon and coined the term, continuous partial attention. She describes this as paying partial attention, continuously. Stone says we’re motivated to do this because we don’t want to miss anything.  When we’re always on, constantly scanning, and on high alert, it produces an “artificial sense of constant crisis.” This phenomenon has escalated because of our increased use and availability of technology.

According to Stone, some of the outcomes that can result from regularly engaging in continuous partial attention include:

  • Having a stressful lifestyle
  • Operating in crisis management mode
  • Compromising ability to reflect, make decisions or think creatively
  • Being overwhelmed or over-stimulated
  • Feeling unfulfilled
  • Feeling a sense of powerlessness

Stone makes a distinction between continuous partial attention and multi-tasking because of the different impulse that motivates them. She believes that multi-tasking is productivity and efficiency driven, while continuous partial attention is motivated by the desire to be connected and alert to the best opportunities.


“We have focused on managing our time. Our opportunity is to focus how we manage our attention.”

 - Linda Stone


If you find that your time is being spent in the always-on mode or that your attention is continually pulled between digital devices, tasks and interactions with people, here are some strategies suggested by Linda Stone and Janice Marturano, who is founder of Institute for Mindful Leadership:

  • Establish some tech free time
  • Give your full attention to others during interactions (as in put away your phones, no typing on the computer keyboard while having conversations)
  • Designate part of your day as “interruption-free” time
  • Take a breathing break
  • Do one thing at a time
  • Take mindfulness breaks or “purposeful pauses

Have you experienced continuous partial attention? Have you felt any of the symptoms associated with it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and your strategies. I invite you to join the conversation!





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Reader Comments (15)

This term resonated with me the moment I read it. I think we are all living this way now, and I feel empathy for children growing up with this mindset. As adults, many of us can remember a time when we didn't live with technology and 24/7 availability, but many young people know no other way. Sometimes I even feel refreshed coming back from a client, since I don't check my phone while working. It is possible to have "tech free" time, especially if you communicate to your friends, family and coworkers that you will be taking this time. Most people respect someone who says, "8:00-9:00 am is my focus time. I will be checking emails and messages at 9:00."

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSeana Turner

@Seana- You bring up such an interesting point that there are generations of kids growing up that ONLY know about constantly being connected and available 24/7. It seems that for those of us that know of the other way of living, we have to set intentional boundaries around our tech usage. It will be fascinating to seen how the younger generation adapts or changes their behavior, or if they grow to be totally accepting that this is how life is.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

Wow, I never knew there was a word for this!

It's mostly an issue for me when something isn't holding my attention, e.g. reading email during a boring phone conversation (I think I've stopped doing that, at least I hope so!), or going on social media while waiting for a large file to upload or download, etc.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Barclay

This is good new expression - continuous partial attention. I agree with Seana and will be watching to see how these young people adapt or modify their behavior vis-à-vis technology. I don't think you can fully appreciate anything if you only give it partial attention. I give my complete attention to things I want to do well and admit to giving partial attention to things I don't really care about - like a tv show (particularly the commercials)!

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Quintana

@Janet- It was new to me too. It's great that you're aware of the ways that you find your attention being shared. Awareness comes first.

@Diane- I like the distinctions you make about the intent with which you do things. For the important things, you give your undivided attention. For things that matter less, you're fine with partial attention. I gather that the term, "continuous partial attention," is mostly used in regards to attention that gets shared with our digital devices.

June 19, 2017 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Great post, Linda. I find that I get quite frustrated when I am talking to someone and their hands are still on their phone. I read some time ago to establish mindful communication with others, we must put down the phone and turn our bodies away from any electronic device like a laptop or tv and turn to the person talking. This forces us to focus our attention on the person. It really does work.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina Quairoli

@Sabrina- I know what you mean. It's the way I feel sometimes about eye contact. You're talking with someone, but instead of them looking at you, they are scanning the room or watching a TV screen in a restaurant. They are "other" focused. I've read that for best communication and establishing trust and true listening, it's not enough to put your phone down or even put it face down on a surface, they suggest you put it away all together...completely out of sight.

June 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

This is so true and has become even more extreme. One of my favorite ways to combat it is to use no technology while in bed. Making my bed a tech free zone has really made a huge difference in my sleep. I also give myself 30 minutes before and after bed of no work. I can do other things but nothing work related (emails, text messages, etc.)
Great article!

June 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanna Kaye

@Suzanna- You've got great boundaries! Making your bed a tech-free zone in addition to being intentional about your work hours sounds smart. Like you, I don't bring my digital devices into bed. The one exception is when I'm traveling. Then my phone is usually next to my bed. I notice the difference.

June 20, 2017 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Thanks Linda for sharing this concept and some of the remedies. It does start with creating boundaries as we see so many who have no boundaries and the impact it has on lives. It's creating tension in relationships too! Bedtime, charging devices in a common space and specific times you are not with tech make a big difference.

In Texas, as of September 1, there will be tickets for texting while driving. Many states are adopting this.

June 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Delap

@Ellen- It's all about those boundaries, isn't it? In New York, we've had the texting while driving tickets for a long while, however, I still see people texting. But hopefully the penalty, as in "moving violation" will eventually deter more people from engaging in that behavior. Glad to know that Texas is joining the ranks.

June 20, 2017 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

It's so sweet that you say "attention being shared" rather than "distraction" :-)

June 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Barclay

@Janet- Just offering up another perspective :)

June 22, 2017 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

I am currently reading The Joy of Missing Out--Finding Balance in a Wired World by Christina Crook. I definitely lean to the JOMO side rather than the FOMO side. Turning off notifications and putting my phone in another room helps me to focus on the task at hand.

March 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOlive Wagar

@Olive- That sounds like a great book! I'm adding it to my reading list. As far as the leaning goes, these days I tend to gravitate more towards JOMO. I seem to need more quiet time than I used to and am honoring that need. Turning off dings and beeps, as you've done, is an excellent way of improving focus and minimizing distractions. Way to go, Olive!

March 29, 2019 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

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