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Continous Partial Attention, or ADD?

I’ve been tracking the noise in the blogosphere on Linda Stone’s Continuous Partial Attention concept ever since her presentation at SuprNova in June.  In Linda’s view

With continuous partial attention we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges. Continuous partial attention is motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities. We want to ensure our place as a live node on the network, we feel alive when we’re connected. To be busy and to be connected is to be alive.

We’ve been working to maximize opportunities and contacts in our life. So much social networking, so little time. Speed, agility, and connectivity at top of mind.

We’ve become ultraconnected.  We carry blackberries and cell phones, have multiple landlines, multiple emails addresses, multiple IM personas and so on and so forth.  How connected?  Well, Kathleen Pierz of the Pierz Group publishes a table of the range of ways we can be reached, which I’ve stolen, and added a few more to.  How many of these apply to you?  Four, six, eight?  Usually when I ask that question, most people nod their heads all the way to 12, 14, 16.  It’s quite amazing!

Range of Contact Points for an Individual

At Home

At Work

  1. Home address
  2. Home phone
  3. Personal mobile phone
  4. VoIP Phone
  5. Personal email addresses
  6. Personal IM address(es)
  7. Pager
  8. Push-to-talk ID
  9. Personal web site
  10. Personal SMS
  11. Home FAX
  12. Home office phone line
  13. Skype / P2P
  14. Blog
  1. Office address
  2. Office desk phone
  3. Office mobile phone
  4. Corporate email address
  5. Work IM address
  6. Work pager
  7. Push-to-talk ID for work
  8. Company web site
  9. Personal web site in corporate network
  10. Work SMS
  11. Blackberry
  12. Work fax
  13. Skype / P2P

Here’s the paradox.  Although we live in this ultra-connected world, it’s harder to reach us — most people give up after two or three attempts.  Three out of every four phone calls end in voice mail.  The calls we do receive?  Many are simply inappropriate, or unwanted.

Some people thrive in this environment.  Rick Segal talks about his days at Microsoft where he would handle as many as 800 emails in a day.  Scoble apparently manages 500 a day today.  How does one get any work done in that environment?  When does Continuous Partial Attention simply become Attention Deficit Disorder?

People are developing coping mechanisms.

  • Change the polling frequency of email so that it polls just once an hour instead of every 15 minutes.
  • Turn the "toast" feature of IM off. No more pop-ups to let you know that your friend has just appeared online.
  • Set your phone on Do Not Disturb to get some work done.
  • My own personal favorite: I filter everyone who sends mail to me that ISN’T already in my contact list into a "follow-up later" folder. 

Stowe Boyd, on Corante, advocates a social filter.  Spread the load across your friends, and network with your buddies.  You run the risk of creating a self-referencing system, though.  Never mind alienating your friends.

The key to solving this problem is not Continuous Partial Attention.  What we really need is to have continuously relevant interactions with those around us.  We need to be able to instantly assess the importance of a particular communication, and deal with the most important interactions first using whatever value system appropriate to define importance.  Ed Batista gets to the idea very nicely in his piece What’s Important Isn’t Necessarily Urgent. We all get lots of communications requests in a day — lots of demands for our attention — but very few must be attended to immediately.

My contention is that technology created this problem, and technology will play a key role in solving it.  Relevance filtering technology — software that can discriminate and make choices on your behalf — will become common over time.  You’ll train it as your assistant, and then rely on it utterly and completely.  But that’s a topic for a future post.

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • James August 21, 2005, 2:55 pm

    I was prompted by this to imagine a cool feature for PDAs that would send a user’s message to all of his contact’s contact points automatically, with “one click”. I developed the idea into a small paragraph on my website at http://www.geocities.com/jameswi.geo/Computer/BusinessIdeas.htm

  • Alec August 21, 2005, 6:12 pm

    Hey James. Wouldn’t it be better to converge all the mailboxes on one, instead? I would find getting bombarded with 10 of the same messages an annoyance, personally.

  • James August 23, 2005, 3:28 pm

    Yeah, come to think of it, it would be better to do this on the recipient end.
    Even though I wrote that the sender could select a subset of the contact
    points, it would probably be such a small subset that this feature might
    not be worth implementing. Voice-to-print and vice-versa would probably
    be a neat feature on its own, however, for whichever way people prefer
    to put down their thoughts. It could be useful for those who make voice
    notes on their tape recorders while driving.

  • James September 4, 2005, 12:07 pm

    Well, then again, again, I find myself having to call a couple of numbers
    and send a couple of emails in order to reach someone, so it seems that
    a flexible implementation of this kind of thing would have some limited

    …On a clear disk, you can seek forever…

  • Vijay October 20, 2005, 2:28 pm


    It sounds like a "hammering" system to try to get hold of someone. I really hope that that someone has lots of patience. Imagine coming back to the office after the weekend and having your voicemail, email and fax machine loaded with the same message. If I am not on a good mood, I might actually set out to hunt down that person :)


  • Nick Trendov November 16, 2005, 4:01 am

    I’d like a personal view of your engine and using your steal and add approach, would create a version to run on a mobile phone.
    When can we talk?
    Henry at http://www.model.ca knows me.

    I was at my Sufi session las month when someone told me that spam harvesters were gathering images in bulk and placing them at the front door of porn sites to get the monkeys to do free data entry.
    When was the last time you changd the ‘7’? Just a thought about innovation…Cheers, Nick

  • Deepak November 23, 2005, 7:00 pm

    I am sure at some point there will be convergence. The phone as we know it will probably completely be replaced by VoIP some day. Its the integration of VoIP and wireless that I am very curious about. Can VoIP replace cellular? What about email convergence? Chat clients (meebo is a step in the right direction, but I like the user experience of individual clients).

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