Attention Overload


Triggered by communication & information overload thoughts, I returned to an interesting article on attention. This document was written by Linda Stone, and it’s available here –

Linda Stone differentiates multitasking from what she calls “continuous partial attention”


“When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. We’re often doing things that are automatic, that require very little cognitive processing. We give the same priority to much of what we do when we multi-task — we file and copy papers, talk on the phone, eat lunch — we get as many things done at one time as we possibly can in order to make more time for ourselves and in order to be more efficient and more productive”.

[continuous partial attention]

“To pay continuous partial attention is to pay partial attention — CONTINUOUSLY. It is motivated by a desire to be a LIVE node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.

We pay continuous partial attention in an effort NOT TO MISS ANYTHING. It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that involves an artificial sense of constant crisis. We are always in high alert when we pay continuous partial attention. This artificial sense of constant crisis is more typical of continuous partial attention than it is of multi-tasking.”

My point is – while multitasking and continuous partial attention seem to have a different background (productivity vs. sense of constant crisis), both of them result from information overload. Take a look at this quote from Roseline Barchietto in “Friendship Among Equals”, a book on the history of ISO (International Organization for Standardization):

“We have always improved. We were always at the very top. When new tools became available, they were very soon placed at our disposal. The telex was introduced very quickly, and things became more urgent. When you have a letter which takes 15 days to arrive, you think: “Well, it can wait. I will do it in a few days! “But when you have a telex, you feel obliged to answer immediately. You get to know the meaning of stress..”


Multitasking is a way to deal with constant crisis resulting from information overload – an attempt to reach more efficiency in doing things. Continuous partial attention, on the other hand, is more a state of mind, a state of continuous scanning of the information at hand. The reason is information overload.